Training for Ultramarathons

It’s something that both Julie and I get asked quite a lot, so I thought it would be worth taking the time to write a proper blog post explaining what sort of training I do, but also why as well as some thoughts on how to construct a training plan. A few caveats before we dive right in. First, I’ve been running for more than ten years now and completed more than 30 ultras but I have never been formally coached or been trained as a coach so everything in this post is based on my own experience, what I’ve learned from others, and what I’ve read and researched. Second, what works for me might not work for you – so don’t try to copy my approach exactly, but feel free to pick, choose and adapt it for your own needs. Finally, I have several years of conditioning myself to moderate to high volume (40-50 miles per week) training. If you’re trying to put together a training plan for your first half-marathon, or even your first ultra this is probably not the way to start! With that in mind, grab a cup of something and read on… this could be a long one!

Building Blocks

Easy Runs – Also known as recovery runs, these should make up the majority of your weekly mileage, they give the body time to recover and adapt after harder training sessions. There are various definitions such as being in heartrate “Zone 2” (60-70% of your max heart rate), being under the “first ventilatory threshold (VT1)“, or simply being at a pace where you can hold a conversation comfortably. For me, this usually translates into around 8:30-9:00 minutes per mile pace, and a heart rate of 120-130 bpm. Mostly I run ‘to feel’, with my watch turned to show time of day only. If it’s a flat run I might be slightly faster and in the low 120s, if it’s a hillier or tougher underfoot route then I’ll likely be slower, and maybe around or above 130. The main point is to avoid drifting into the “moderate pace” zone where you are working hard enough to tire and inhibit recovery, but not hard enough to promote positive adaptations! Typically, I’ll go for 45-90 minutes and clock up 6-10 miles at a time.

Intervals – A hard session containing multiple shorter sections at a high or very high intensity. A typical interval session for me would be a mile warm-up at easy pace, either quarter, half or whole mile intervals, with an easy pace recovery in between, and a mile or more’s cool-down at the end. Usually I’ll aim for 4 or 5 miles in total of intervals e.g. 16 x 1/4 mile intervals, 8x 1/2 mile intervals, 4 or 5 1 mile intervals. The target pace is adjusted depending on the length of the interval, aiming for a pace which I can sustain for the whole workout. For example 5:30 min/mile for 1/4 miles, 5:45 for 1/2 miles and 6:00 for 1 mile intervals. The first few reps it should be easy to hit the target pace, then percieved effort will increase throughout the workout, and usually I’ll go ‘flat out’ for the final rep (or I might just be hanging on to stick the pace)! Usual sessions last about 60-75 minutes. At the moment I use a 1.5 mile tarmac loop around a local park, but in the past I have done there-and-back repetitions along a straight road – anything where you can avoid road crossings or anything else where you might have to slow down.

Here’s a screenshot (and Strava link) of a recent session – 2 sets of 5 reps of 1/2 mile at 5:45 min/mile pace, with 1/4 mile recovery between reps and a whole mile recovery between sets:

Tempo Runs – a run done at a faster pace than “easy” but easier than a race or interval level of effort. For me this means aiming for a pace that I can maintain for the distance while maintaining good form, consistent breathing and without feeling like I am “blowing up”. Typically this might be around 7 min / mile pace or a little bit faster for a 6-10 mile effort. Tempo runs are a lot of fun!

Long Runs – As the name suggests, just go for a long run! Conventional wisdom seems to be that your long run should be about 20-25% of your total weekly mileage. For me, the long run is usually around the 15 mile mark, sometimes up to 20. Usually I try to mix in a good amount of trail and hills into this run, and run it at easy pace.

Hill Intervals – This workout specifically adapts the body for running faster up hills. I like to find a hill of roughly half a mile long, as steep as I can reasonably run up (maybe 300-400 ft of climb). Run to the base of the hill at easy pace as a warm-up, do several climbs at a hard but sustainable pace, and easy jog back down to recover, then run back again at easy pace as a cool-down. The main point is to focus on climbing form with a high cadence and good knee drive/lift, so the pace should be maintainable. Of course, not all hills are the same gradient all the way up but avoid sprinting off and then shuffling up the rest!

Races – Personally, I like to mix in some (short) races in with my training. Typically these would be ~10k or less, usually trail or hill races. They give me a little bit of extra motivation to push to the absolute maximum level of effort that I can’t replicate in training, but are short enough that I can recover from them in a day or so and they can be slotted in alongside regular training runs.

Of course, it’s OK just to “go for a run” too, not every single run has to fit into one of these categories. Sometimes I’ll mix things up like running an easy pace up a hill, and tempo pace on the way back again. Or I might pick a Strava segment or two to aim at, throwing a couple of race pace efforts into an easy run. If I’m doing a big day out in the hills, I might well walk parts (especially uphills), and run the flats and the downhills. Occasionally I’ll do a Tempo Long Run, which is a proper hard workout to improve my pace endurance!

Strength Training – building in some simple strength exercises is a good way to “injury-proof” your body. Since I started including a twice-weekly 30 minute strength session into my training in mid 2023 I’ve definitely had less niggles or injuries that would cause me to take a break from regular training. I have a set of dumbbells and a step and do a variety of exercises that mainly target the legs and core, including single-leg squats, bridges, heel raises, deadlifts and the like. Usually I’ll stick with the same programme for 2 or 3 months, then swap out some of the exercises for some variety and to work on different muscles. I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to a Physical Trainer through my work’s staff benefits scheme who helped me design the programme, but you can find plenty of example workouts on YouTube or coaching websites.

I don’t do any other regular cross-training, but I do aim to do a 10-15 minute stretch / flexibility / mobilisation routine every day – again there are lots of routines that you can easily find on YouTube like this one from Trail Running Scotland.


Macro planning – The first step for me in building a training plan is to set decide on my weekly mileage. Using the principle of periodisation (essentially, giving the body a rest every so often to allow for recovery and avoid overtraining), I tend to gradually increase my mileage over a period of 2-3 weeks, then have an easy week with a reduced mileage. Over the whole year I try to aim for about 50 miles per week, so a 4 week block of training might be 50, 60, then 70 miles, followed by a week of approx 30-35 miles. Between my last big race of the year (usually November), and first big race of the year (usually March or April), I try to fit in 3 or 4 of these blocks. Planning recovery, training and tapering between races is a topic for another post, maybe!

Micro planning – Adaptations (a.k.a. getting stronger or faster) never happen from a single training session, but after repeated workouts (with recovery in between) which over time the body responds to. So when building a weekly training schedule, I try to include the following key elements each week. Usually one or two hard workouts (one interval session, plus a tempo, hill run, or short race), one long run, and the rest of the weekly mileage target made up of easy runs. For lower mileage weeks I’ll include one or even two rest days with no running, but even on high mileage weeks have a day with only a short run (maybe 30 mins / 4 miles). For a typical 50 mile week this might look like:

  • Monday: Strength session + 9 miles easy
  • Tuesday: 10 miles intervals
  • Wednesday: 4 miles easy
  • Thursday: Strength session + 9 miles hillier route at easy pace
  • Friday: 6 mile tempo run
  • Saturday: rest day
  • Sunday: 12 mile easy (long run)

Generally, I don’t plan to this level of detail (although many people do). I know roughly what sessions I plan to do in a given week and the mileage target I’m aiming for but for me it’s helpful to have the flexibility to adapt the week’s training plan on-the-fly (more on that later) while still hitting an overall mileage goal.

Specificity – So far, I’ve described training which is pretty generic – it will generally improve my overall speed and conditioning but is not targetted at a specific performance goal such as improving my time in a 10k or marathon, or a 100 mile ultra. I do include typically around 50% of my running off road (mainly trail, some pathless hills too), with roughly 3000-5000 feet of climbing, as represents the terrain I will mainly race on! However, another important element that I build in to my training is adapting to the upcoming demands of a specific race.

For example, when preparing for a particularly hilly race, I will deliberately include more hills into my weekly running, and usually set an elevation goal of maybe 8000 feet per week, and put in a long day in the mountains instead of a normal long run. In the run-up to a Backyard Ultra, I’ll do some sessions where I do a significant amount of walking at “race pace” (<15 min/mile) to make sure my legs are well conditioned. In preparation for a race like Cape Wrath Ultra (less than 2 months away now!), I’ve started taking a weighed backpack on most of my medium and long runs to get used to carrying it and getting use to the extra effort for a given pace.

Executing the Plan

It’s said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy… so how do I go about executing the plan week by week, in and around family responsibilities, holidays, and the random curve-balls that inevitably crop up! Firstly, it’s worth saying that I have an incredibly supportive and accommodating spouse 😍 and obviously it helps that she understands why I want to run for ~10 hours per week (and she does too). I work from home, so usually I will do my strength training sessions during my lunch break, and occasionally a short run. Julie typically runs early in the morning most weekdays, so I get most of my running in the evenings. At least 3 days per week one or other of the kids has an activity or sports club, so typically I’ll take them there and fit in a 60-90 minute run before bringing them home again. I often find that easier than heading out of the door for a run as it doesn’t require any real motivation – I just do it!

I really like to have a lot of variation in where I run and I don’t enjoy taking the same route again and again. Usually during the day I’ll have a think about the session I have planned for the evening and come up with a route which is approximately the right length. Usually I will try to fit in a good mixture of road, trail and hill (sometimes all in the same run!) and I often use Strava’s Route planner to find paths I haven’t been down before. That’s getting harder and harder as I have covered almost everywhere reachable within 90 minutes from all my common start points! On the plus side, I do know pretty much all the local routes, so I can adapt my route on-the-fly, adding a little extra loop if I know I have the time left in a session.

More rarely, I have a few “no-brainer” routes that I can just do without any planning if I have had a busy day, or just don’t want to spend the effort of planning a route. The main exception to the above is for interval sessions, where I have one or two go-to locations which are flat tarmac loops and I don’t have to think about navigation at all – just run!

Most weeks, unless I am doing a particularly high mileage, I will take one complete rest day. I’m flexible about which day depending on how I am feeling and what I have been doing beforehand. Commonly, if I have done a hard race, or a very long run on the Sunday, I might take Monday as a rest day. If we have something planned as a family on Saturday, I might plan to have my rest day then. As I said earlier – I just try to keep flexible while making sure I’m roughly on track for my mileage goal. That said, the length of Sunday’s run often ends up being whatever distance I have left to do 😆

Strength training days are typically Monday and Thursday (alongside either an easy run, or a rest day) with intervals typically done on a Tuesday, but I’ll move any of these depending on what is in the diary for the week – especially if I have lunchtime meetings I’ll often move the strength session to a Tuesday or Friday.

Sometimes if I’m aiming for a high mileage week e.g. 70 miles, I will double-up with two runs in the day. At least one of them will be short and easy, to allow me a bit of recovery time. Often that would be a morning run with Julie at the weekend, or a lunchtime run during the week, then another session in the afternoon or evening.

It might seem a bit haphazard, but it works for me!

In Practice

That all sounds good in theory, but how does it work in practice? I’ve extracted the last 8 weeks from my Strava Training Log and added some comments. All in all, I think I stuck pretty well to the plan!

So there you have it – that’s how I train to run ultras! Hope you found it interesting and it gave you some ideas you can incorporate into your own training. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and ways to keep my training fresh, so if you do something completely different I’d love to hear about it. As I said at the start I’m not a trained coach, but if you have any questions or want some help creating your own training plan, just get in touch and I’ll be happy to help out!

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