How to Know What Ultramarathon Training Plan is Right For You
How to select the best ultra running training plan for your goals, your race, and your abilities.
The online world of running training plans is seemingly endless. Aside from selecting a plan that matches your race distance, how do you even begin to decide?
Your trail running buddy may have recommended a plan they used for their last race. Or that elite runner you follow on Instagram may be promoting one. And most likely, these plans are amazing… for someone. But is that someone you?
Then, there are those other plans… The ones that just don’t seem all that well planned out. I’ve seen plans where I’ve questioned if the end goal is even to run a race. I’ve seen plans that make me nervous the runner would end up injured from overtraining. And I’ve seen plans that have me questioning whether the runner will show up to race day properly prepared to complete the distance.
But how do you know which plans to avoid? Better yet, how do you know what training plan to commit 3 or more months of your life to?
12 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Committing to an Ultrarunning Training Plan
1. What race distance is the plan meant for?
As I said, I know this one is obvious. But it’s probably not a good idea to select a 50 miler training plan when your goal is to complete your first 50k.
I know the temptation to overtrain, especially when you’re already apprehensive about completing your first ultra. Doing a training plan meant for a longer race can seem like another way to be extra prepared. But overtraining can leave you burnt out, or worse… injured.
2. What is the mileage of the first week of training?
… And how does it match up with your current fitness level? Be honest with yourself. You don’t want the starting distances to be overwhelming to you right now. You should be able to seamlessly begin your training plan without feeling dead after the first week.
This plan could become the right plan for you. If you have the time to build up your base and complete the plan before your race day, you don’t necessarily have to throw out the plan.
If you want to learn how to build up your base safely and effectively... and find out how long you should allow to build up your base, I explain it all in my free guide: How to Customize an Online Training Plan.
3. What’s the intended goal of the training plan?
Aside from the race distance, is the plan meant for you to complete the race? Or does it help you achieve a certain time in a race, like going sub 24 hours in a 100 miler? (Ha! And no, I’m not suggesting a 100 miler be your first race.)
How do your personal goals match up with the plan’s goal? If this is your first ultramarathon, my recommendation is always to have the goal of completion.
How do you know the difference? If the training plan’s goal isn’t directly stated in the plan’s description, there are a few clues that it’s meant for speed as well as distance:
There are a lot of tempo runs and speedwork included in the first few weeks of training. Tempo runs and speedwork are important. But if your goal is to complete the distance, you’re most likely still building up a base in the first few weeks. Those first few weeks should be slow and steady.
Workouts are listed by time instead of distance. If the workouts are posted by time (such as: Run for 2hrs), there is some expectation for the pace at which you’ll be completing these runs… and therefore the distance you’ll cover. If you’re a beginner and running at a slower pace than the workout intended, week after week for the entire plan, you could end up showing up to race day unprepared for the race distance.
The training plan specifically notes it’s for Advanced Runners. There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner! Everyone was a beginner at some point. Stick to a beginner’s training plan, and you’re likely to have success in your race. With a successful race under your belt, you can then officially graduate beyond “newbie” status.
4. What source is the training plan coming from?
Is your plan coming from a recommended training book? From a qualified running coach? Or from a pamphlet at your local gym? Do a bit of research on who you’re entrusting to get you to the finish line, and you’re more likely to actually get there.
5. Does the plan include a rest day every week?
Recovery is an essential component of training. When you work out or run, you create microtears in your muscles. Rest and recovery allow your body to repair these microtears. This repair is what builds your muscles and makes you stronger.
No rest means these muscle tears aren’t able to be repaired. Which means your muscles won’t grow bigger (not talking Arnold Schwarzenegger bigger here 😉) and stronger. And the overworking of torn muscles will lead to burn out at best, and injury at worst.
It’s funny how runners can be so resistant to doing nothing sometimes. But have I convinced you yet? Doing nothing is actually a productive and essential component of training.
So lean in and enjoy those days off. (If you’re absolutely bouncing off the walls, then try a cross training activity that’s going to work a different muscle group: swim, yoga, etc.
6. How long is the taper period?
Speaking of rest, what kind of taper period is included in the race? Taper is a period of time in the final weeks leading up to your race.
During this time, the running volume of your training significantly decreases. You’ve already completed your longest run and your longest week. All of the hardest work is done - except for your race! Your goal in taper is to maintain fitness instead of build fitness.
It allows all that hard training to be realized on race day. As a general guideline, here are the recommended taper periods depending on the race distance:
5k/10k: Taper for 2 days to a week
Half Marathon: Taper for 1-2 weeks
Marathon: Taper for 2-4 weeks
Ultramarathon: Taper for 3-4 weeks
7. How far is the longest run?
Unless you’re an experienced runner and aiming for a specific time goal, your longest training run should not even come close to your race distance!
As an example, when I trained for my first half marathon, the furthest I had every run going into the race was 10 miles. When I trained for my first 50k (31.1 miles), my longest run leading up to it was 25 miles.
Guess what? I successfully completed the entire 50k on race day! And so can you… without overtraining.
Oftentimes with ultramarathons, they’ll have you running two longer days in a row near the end of the plan. This better mimics the stress you’ll be under during the race without completely overtaxing your body.
8. What’s the rate of mileage increase?
For this one, you want to look at the rate of increase for both your total weekly mileage and for the mileage of your weekly long runs.
Both of these should be increasing at a rate of around 10% each week.
For example, if your total weekly mileage of Week 3 is 25 miles, your total weekly mileage for Week 4 should be no greater than 27.5 miles.
25 miles x 1.1 = 27.5 miles
At the same time, if your long run for Week 3 is 10 miles, your long run for Week 4 should be no greater than 11.1 miles.
10 miles x 1.1 = 11.1 miles
Yes, there are exceptions. But as a general guide, you don’t want your plan to increase your mileage too quickly. Your body may not be able to keep up, and you could end up… you guessed it… at best burnt out, or worse, injured.
9. How many days per week are dedicated to running?
Compare this number to the number of days you can dedicate to running. If the training plan has you running 5 days a week and you can really only commit to 4 days, this may not be the right training plan for you.
If you can’t find a training plan that works with your personal schedule, there are ways to customize the plan to meet your needs. For more ideas on how to do this, check out my free guide: How to Customize an Online Training Plan.
10. How many weeks are in the training plan?
This may seem obvious as well, but do you have time to complete the training plan before your race day? If your race is 14 weeks away, you don’t want to be selecting a plan with 16 weeks of training.
Rather than jumping into Week 3 of a 16-week training plan, you may have more success building a base for a couple of weeks. After that, you can start a 12-week training plan that will take you right up to your race day.
11. Does the plan include cross-training and/or strength training days?
Cross-training (like cycling or swimming) is a great tool to use for building fitness and aerobic capacity without overtaxing the muscles and joints you use when running.
Strength-training is also important for injury prevention. You don’t need to become a bodybuilder or hit the gym for hours on end. But 15 minutes of bodyweight exercises or dumbbell workouts done 1-2 times per week, can make a big difference in the success of your training.
12. What types of running workouts are included?
Even though you’re training for an ultramarathon, you don’t want all of your training to be at a slow and steady pace. Your plan should include a variety of running workouts.
Speedwork and hill workouts train your body to engage your entire body and establish proper form. You may also find tempo runs, recovery runs, long runs, and interval runs.
The majority of your runs will be just building that volume and distance, but you’re likely to get bored if every run looks the same for 4 months of training. Plus you’ll want to work your body and muscles in different ways to make sure you’re prepared for everything your race could throw at you.
Not sure where to start?
Check out this helpful chart from Fellrnr. It charts out various ultrarunning training plans by race distance, length of plan, days per week of running, and a few other factors.
A few things that typically aren’t included in a training plan that I like to add are:
A column for notes and comments on how the run went
A column for actual daily and weekly mileage you completed
A plan for training for the elevation change of your race
Still not finding what you need?
If you’re just not finding a plan that suits your race and your needs, or finding the right plan is all just becoming a headache, don’t let that stop you from pursuing your ultramarathon goals! You may want to consider a customized training plan.
If you’re interested in working with me, you can check out the different options I offer on my Coaching page.
Happy Running! ✌️😊
Jillian Beckham is wife to Brent. She tends to fall into the overtraining trap... despite Brent's warnings. She's also a Health and Wellness Copywriter. Looking for advice or help with writing your website, blogs, emails, or ebooks? Check out her website www.beckhamcopywriting for more information.