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Surviving an ultra with lower volume training

Once upon a time, I was 9 months postpartum with my second baby. I was talked into (happily!) running my first ever ultramarathon, and my training was less than ideal.

I had come back to running too quickly after birth for a second time-- and without proper rehab as well. I experienced pelvic organ prolapse, tendinitis, and my sleep was relatively broken for most of the buildup to the race.

My longest training run was going to be a marathon, and then the race got postponed two weeks... which I learned after we had loaded up the car for a roadtrip with the kids and tons of stuff. Then I got sick. And my longest training run ended up only being 14 miles!

I ran my second 50k last month, and my longest training run yet again was only 14.5 miles. I'd been consistently running double digits for several months, and most of my focus leading up to that race was PRing my 10k and half marathon. My volume was building to a decent spot, but I still didn't quite get up to where I'd imagined before taper time. And guess what? I still improved my time by nearly an hour.

14 miles to a race of 31 miles is quite a leap, but I did it and survived. Is it a good idea? Heck no! Do I recommend it? HECK NO. Can it be done? Sure.

So I'm here to say if you're in the position of making the best of a not-so-perfect-situation, here's some ways you can salvage it without wrecking yourself playing catch-up in a single training cycle.

  1. Do the tempo stuff-- learning to hold a "comfortably hard" pace a little longer than you're used to goes a long way mentally and physically. Not only are you training your body to manage lactic acid buildup, you're callusing your mind as well. This can really come in handy when you're getting deep in the miles, especially if your pacing was smart from the beginning.

  2. Do back to back medium-long runs-- instead of leaping in your plan from 13 miles to 20 and risking injury, trying doing back to back longish runs, like 10 Saturday and 10 Sunday. This strategy allows you to go long enough to see physiological benefits and feel that fatigue by the second long run, with some recovery time mixed in. I also like splitting runs in a single day, especially if time constraints are a limiting factor in your training.

  3. Be smart about your pacing from the beginning-- if you're coming into a longer race undertrained, it's 10x more important to start slow. If you take off, whether to try to "bank time" or just from nervous energy, it's going to catch up to you QUICK. If we're talking ultra-distance, I'm a huge fan of starting the race with intervals and adjusting them as you go. Start those walk breaks early on, and you'll be rewarded with more endurance than you thought you had.

  4. Do not sacrifice the taper for the sake of the buildup-- I cannot stress this enough. I've seen so many people cut into their taper period to snag a few more workouts or a few extra long runs, and for most people, that's a recipe for disaster. The taper is typically 2-3 weeks because in that timeframe, you won't see any more physiological adaptations/benefits from a given workout or volume. That's why you'll see most training plans utilizing that time for rest, recovery, and replenishment. The best gains you can make in the taper is recuperation. The time to build is over.

  5. Focus on your mental game-- this was probably the biggest thing I got from my broken training cycle. I read David Goggins' book, and I utilized a lot of his techniques for mental toughness. I sought out monotony and tough situations because there was no limit really to how often I could train my mind. In the absence of long runs, I found other ways to add to my "cookie jar" of achievements that I could focus on in the race. It helped to be a stay at home mom to a 2 year old and breastfeeding barnacle baby.. they gave me plenty of opportunities to call in my "woosah" breathing.

Alright, so like I said, we aren't talking perfect world scenarios here, but life happens. Sometimes it feels like a training cycle is ruined, and the race cannot happen, but I say it doesn't have to be that way. Adjust your expectations if you still want to participate, and do what you can to tweak the cycle. If you're not sure how to do that, ask a coach for help :) hi, I'm available!

Happy running!

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