So how do you prepare for four 100 mile races within the space of six months? That was the question I asked myself in the summer of 2016, having decided that my big goal for 2017 was to complete the Centurion Running 100 mile grand slam: Thames Path in April, South Downs Way in June, North Downs Way in August, and finally the Autumn 100 in October. To find the answer I turned to the internet, as you do.
The first website I checked out was centurionrunning.com. You will not find a step by step guide to be a successful grand slammer here, but James Elson, race director and ultrarunner extraordinary, provides some really useful advice on how to train for 100 mile races. From this I got what became my golden rule when designing my training plan:
All training runs should have a specific purpose. No junk miles!
I.e. all runs should be either speedwork/intervals, hill work, recovery runs or long slow runs. You should not go for a run just to hit a specific weekly or monthly mileage. In other words, quality over quantity.
Ian Sharman, who is the record holder for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning™ (WSER, Vermont, Wasatch and Leadville 100 mile races), also has some useful information on his blog. Before the first race of his record-setting grand slam in 2013 he wrote about how he had prepared (and judging by his results he got it pretty spot on). To summarize his advice:
If you are fit enough to run one 100 mile race then you are fit enough to run four, there is no need to train four times as much as you would for one race. Each 100 mile race serves as a long training run for the next. The main focus between each 100 miler is rest and recovery.
This means that you should include training specific to each race in the build up to the first. So even though the Thames Path 100 is as flat as they come you should still include hill work in your training, as the very hilly South Downs Way follows only 6 weeks after. With a couple of weeks needed for recovery and a couple of weeks to taper, that leaves you with a two week window for quality training – far too little for any meaningful fitness gains to be made. Between South and North Downs Way you have about a four week window for training, if you have managed to stay injury free, that is. Again, not enough if you have to start from scratch to prepare for the monster hills and steps on the North Downs Way.
Having picked the two underlying principles for my training I started to design my training plan.
Phase 1 in my grand slam training – rest (September)
In addition to one hill session, one speedwork session, 1-2 recovery runs, and back to back long runs at the weekends I wanted to include two strength training sessions per week. Systematic strength training was something I had neglected for a couple of years, and I believe my poor results in races in 2016 (except for being 2nd female in the Thames Path 100) and the injuries I had in 2015/2016 was at least partly due to this. I also wanted to have at least one complete rest day day a week. Therefore, with 6 runs and 2 strength training sessions per week, (in addition to the 3-4 weekly fitness classes I was teaching at work) I would have to do multiple workouts on some days of the week, meaning some days I would run before work and strength train after, meaning I would have to get up early. Since I work a lot of nights I tend to eat late and go to bed late, so my grand slam preparation kicked off as follows:
For the whole of September I practised going to bed by 11 pm and getting enough sleep.
Phase 2 of my grand slam training – Aerobic base building (October-December)
In early July 2016 I participated in the Norwegian Ultra Trail Championships. Just 100m after the start I felt exhausted, and I crossed the finish line 14 hours later having battled fatigue and runner’s low all day. I thought a few days on the sofa would get my energy levels up again, but a few days turned into a few weeks. I only left my flat to go food shopping and run two ultras I had signed up for months before. (With the benefit of hindsight etc…)
At the end of the summer my fitness had plummeted and I still felt tired. I therefore decided to begin my training for the grand slam with a three month period of aerobic base building. That is three months without any hard workouts, all cardiovascular workouts were below threshold. This was something I had been taught to do on countless courses back when I was a Spinning® instructor, but never had bothered with before as I thought this would be boring. It turned out to be invigorating, and it did not mean I could not do any speedwork or interval sessions, I just had to do them at a lower intensity than normal. So I did progressive tempo runs from easy pace to marathon race pace, interval sessions at marathon pace, and hill repeats aiming to keep my heart rate as low as possible. Twice a week I did strength training, working with high reps and low weights, and also incorporated eccentric and plyometric leg exercises to prepare my legs for downhill running. (You will find more on this subject in Outdoor Fitness Magazine soon.)
At the beginning and end of this phase I took a body composition test (performed with InBody720). During the 10 weeks between the two tests I lost 3,5 kg of bodyfat, and gained 1,5 kg of muscles! However, I also made some mistakes during this period:
I live in a city, and therefore have to travel at least 45 min each way if I want to run on trails. Because I was still feeling tired (or maybe it was just laziness?) I did not want to spend several hours a week travelling on top of the time I spent working out. I therefore did most of my weekend long runs, as well as my midweek recovery runs, in the city for the first month. My speedwork, interval and hill sessions were done on a treadmill. Maybe it was because 2/3s of my mileage was on tarmac, maybe I increased the mileage too quickly? Whatever the reason, my left ankle started hurting after about three weeks. I had had a bout of tendinitis in this ankle 6 months previously, and recognised the signs and symptoms. My solution was to shorten the weekend runs and increase the mid week mileage to allow for greater recovery between runs, start hitting the trails at the weekends again, and every other week I simulated a long run by sandwiching squats and lunges between two short runs, so that my legs were really tired on the second run. These measures seemed to do the trick, the pains in my ankle went away and have not returned since.
Phase 3 of my grand slam training – Turning the heat up (January-April)
I already had the framework for my training in place, so now it was just a matter of increasing the intensity of the interval sessions, the length of the long runs, and lifting heavier weights and doing fewer reps in the strength workouts. A typical week would look like this:
- Monday: HIIT training class, 45 min (teaching) + 5 mile recovery run
- AM: Speedwork on treadmill, e.g. 2 miles easy, 2 miles fast, 2 miles steady x2
- Lunch: 45 min step aerobics class (teaching)
- PM: 45 min strength training
- Wednesday: REST
- AM: Hill reps, e.g. 15 min easy, 7×3 min hill reps with 2 min recovery between, 15 min @ marathon pace, 15 min easy
- Lunch: Functional strength training class, bodyweight only (teaching)
- PM: 45 min strength training
- Lunch: 45 min HIIT training class (teaching)
- PM: 5mile recovery run
- Saturday: 2,5 hour trail run.
- Sunday: 4 hour trail run.
I used a training plan from Trail Running Magazine for guidance when plotting my long runs into my schedule. They adviced that one of the back to back long runs should be hilly while the other should be run on flat or easier terrain, which fitted nicely with the training for all four races at the same time approach. This plan was also quite conservative, which suited me. In my three previous 100 mile attempts I developed injuries before, during, and immediately after the races, so one of my major goals for the grand slam was to stay injury free. My mantra, stolen from ultraladies.com, therefore became:
It’s better to be undertrained than overinjured!
Compared to some other people I know who has completed the grand slam I kept my long runs fairly short. The longest was supposed to be 6 hours, but ended up being «only» 5,5 hours as I tried a new route route which was less demanding than anticipated. My longest distance in training was just short of 50k, done on sandy beaches. I also did not enter any other ultra marathons or marathons to use as training runs, unlike many other runners (and myself in the past). Looking back over my race results in previous years I realised that I had never finished more than 4 ultra races in one calendar year. I had sometimes started more, but that was when I had ended up injured. If I wanted to finish the grand slam I would therefore have to make those four races my priority. I also knew from previous experience that saying «but I’m only going to use this race as a training run, I will not be competitive» was no good, I always end up pushing myself. I made an exemption for a couple of half marathons put on by my running club, substituting these for the speedwork session the same week. However, despite this conservative approach, and despite having an easy, low mileage week every 4 weeks, my monthly mileage was the highest it has ever been during this phase of training.
I managed to be extremely disciplined during both phase 2 and 3. I think I missed less than 10 workouts during those 7 months, and most of those were due to having to work late or travelling for work. If I didn’t have the time or energy to travel to the trails on weekends I would go for a run in my neighbourhood instead, and instead of skipping a strength workout I would swap days if I could not complete it on the scheduled day. I have not had a social life for most of 2017, but visualising myself with the grand slam buckle made it all worth it.
Phase 4 of my grand slam training – Recovery between races
I had not planned what to do training-wise between the 100 milers beforehand. I was actually so sure I would end up injured, I nearly booked some post-race treatment sessions at my local sports injuries clinic long before the first race of the grand slam. Bwteen races I had expected to be mostly resting, hiking in stead of running, and doing rehab style exercises in stead of strength training. However, my body surprised me by staying healthy and injury free throughout the whole grand slam. A between race routine looking somewhat like this therefore developed:
- Week 1 post race: Walking a lot the day after the race (shopping and getting round airports). Rest or short workouts on a cross trainer in the following days, and then an easy 10k run the weekend after the race.
- Week 2 post race: Brick workouts of 30 min on cross trainer, 30 min on treadmill and 20-30 minutes on step machine. 1-2 strength workouts using body weight only for leg exercises. Teaching my normal fitness classes (thank goodness, the HIIT classes had been changed into circuit training by then, meaning I only had to supervise). Back to back long runs of 20k each on easy trails at the weekend.
- Week 3 onwards: Resuming normal training. Taper for the next race started two weeks pre-race.
The main reason for resting more or less the whole week following a race was that I took 3-4 days off from work after each race, mostly so I could recover from the sleep deprivation, but also to ensure I could rest if I needed it. Since I work in a fitness club not all exercise I do is voluntary or can be tailored to my needs. Taking time off work thus also means being away from the gym, and I ended up resting more than I felt was needed (but it probably did no harm).
Between the NDW in August and the Autumn 100 in October there was enough time for about 7 weeks of proper training. Since the last 100 mile race in the series did not have a lot of elevation, and since I needed a fast finishing time to attempt to break Sally Ford’s overall grand slam record for females, I made the decision to follow an advanced marathon training plan here. This meant a higher emphasis on speedwork, less emphasis on hills, and a lower weekly mileage than before the preceding 3 races.
My biggest mistake:
…was not doing enough hill work for the SDW: The SDW was the route I was least familiar with, and I did not have the opportunity to go for any recces. The fast finishing times, and the SDW100’s reputation for being very runnable, probably made me underestimate the need for specific training for this course. Afterwards I wished I had included more elevation in my long runs, and that I had done som 2-3 hour long continuous hill workouts on the treadmill.
However, with 3 wins, 3 overall top 20 finishes, 4 sub-20 hour finishes, and no injuries or illness (except from a lot of vomiting during some of the races), the conclusion is that I did most things right. For my needs and fitness level, that is. Remember (to quote James Elson again):
Don’t take somebody else’s training plan and try to run it yourself.
Race reports from the grand slam: