Build running distance fast before your next ultra

It’s around this time of year that we see a steady stream of ultra runners turning up at the practice with the Icarus dilemma. For those not familiar with Icarus, he’s the dude who built his own wings but flew too close to the sun, only to plummet back down with a crash.

Some of the runners we see were training consistently and on track, although they wanted just a bit more out of the last few weeks of training before race day. Unfortunately that’s where the trouble begins…

In trying to get the most out of the last weeks of training, we need to push our limits to build as much endurance as possible, only realising that we’ve overcooked it when the niggles begin.

It’s not just runner’s aspirations that can bring on the temptation of fast distance building. It can be lost training time due to injury or illness, or simply just not putting in the hours over the last few months and the looming race has you panicked.

If that sounds like you, here’s the good news – you can have your cake and eat it too! Building distance fast is not an impossible task, you just need to be smart about it to reduce the risk of injury.

Here are three of the most common strategies we use for runners that need to rack up the miles without having time on their side.

1. High intensity + low intensity sessions

This session is designed to get you maxed out, then going a little further, in the shortest possible distance.

In its simplest form, part 1 of the session is short and sharp. It’s whatever you want – 20min lactate threshold, hill sprints, 1km intervals – provided it gets your ticker and legs close to exhaustion.

Part 2 is slow and steady, usually around 6-10km. Because your legs are already trashed, this bit feels like the last 10km of a 40km run. It’s great practice to perfect the efficiency required late in the race.

With this format, the session is all over in 90min but it mimics the fatigued technique of longer runs. So you can practice your long run technique in less than 15km.

2. Weights as distance

Strength training is an awesome adjunct to your running program, with benefits for both performance and injury prevention. Strength training can also be used to build endurance quickly, it’s all in the timing.

Most classic strength programs are performed on non-running days, to give you the best strength gains without tired legs getting in the way.

For building distance fast, you can use strength training in conjunction with a run to add leg fatigue without adding miles. The strength training is lighter than usual strength work, performed to a slow running cadence, and mimicking a running action. For examples of suitable exercises, check out Split Squats, Bulgarian squats and Step Ups.

Depending on your level of training, you can do your strength work before or after a training run. For newer or less trained runners, go for a medium-long training run then get straight into your strength work after the run. Aim for very short rests between sets and perform your favourite three exercises as a circuit. Stop each exercise set as your technique starts to fail or the speed slows down.

For more trained runners, perform your strength work before the run. Use slightly heavier loads (6-10kg kettlebell should do it) and take longer breaks between sets. After performing enough sets to feel fatigue in the legs at rest, head out for your medium-long run. With tired legs, it’ll feel like the 2nd half of a longer run and extra recovery time needs to be taken into account.

As a quick word of warning, heavier strength training is great but needs to be factored in to your training load. So if you haven’t been doing any strength work, DO NOT add a new heavy strength program as well as increasing your weekly running time.

3. Hiking poles

This last option is a different approach for those feeling like it’s Mission Impossible. If you’ve had too much time off and you’re faced with the unpleasant decision of pulling out, hiking poles are your best friend.

Hiking poles reduce the load on the legs and mean you can go further with less. You’ll need to practice though, and getting some instructions on how to use them is vital so they don’t become a hindrance.

During training, don’t use them for your shorter or faster runs so you can load the legs up as much as possible. Pull them out for your long runs and one technique session per week to practice using them on downhills and narrow trails.

If you’re worried about the social impact of using poles, rest easy. They’re quite commonplace in ultras these days so you’ll have no trouble fitting in. Using poles in Parkrun though, still not cool.