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Training for Your First Ultra

Ever think about running beyond the traditional 26.2? Here’s a crash course in getting your body ready for a one-day test of endurance.

Publicly commit to the race. Send in your entry fee early and tell family and friends months in advance. That way, there is no backing out without a heavy cost.

Run slowly and comfortably. Your slow, comfortable runs will gradually boost your metabolism and strengthen the connective tissues of the hips, knees, and feet, so that eventually they can hold up to an all-day beating. Choose places to run that help keep you motivated. If you are introspective, a nice woodland trail is the perfect place to be alone with your thoughts. If you are a thrill seeker, find a rugged mountain trail. If you enjoy running with others, find a group that runs at the right pace for your needs. Your slow mileage needs to be easy, so don’t run with people who will push you too hard during these runs.

If your slow running is not so comfortable, mix walking and running. Or split the slow running into different times of day-15 minutes in the morning and another 15 in the evening, for example.

The long run. Lengthen one of your runs each week – so that it stands out as “the long run.” Although you may be starting with a 20 minute long run, gradually increase to at least 3-4 hours when you are about a month away from the big event. This run works on your aerobic capacity, demanding the sustained rapid delivery of energy and nutrients throughout your body. Use this run to practice eating and hydrating the way you will during the big event. You can get by with one every other week – especially if the run is very long. You can also do back-to-back long runs on consecutive days.

The fast run. This is one that many would like to overlook. It’s also known as the “threshold” or “tempo” run. It basically involves running hard but steady at a pace you are just able to sustain for a given period of time. Starting from scratch you might try 10 minutes. The goal will be to lengthen this run to a full 60 minutes of leg-pounding, heart-thumping fun before your training peaks. Do your fast run once per week. More than that and you won’t recover, fewer than that and you won’t improve. A road race can serve as your fast run for the week, but don’t do one of those every week. The excitement around road racing can really engage your nervous system and wear you down over time.

Interval training is one type of fast run that can stimulate rapid improvements in your performance. It seems to target the neuro-muscular system, prompting nerve connections and synchronization that opens up the throttle for other runs. In other words, I’m not sure how it works. Do one interval workout per week, starting 8 weeks before your first big event. Intervals should be short and intense, but otherwise you can be creative. You should NOT start these until you have a good fitness base-at least eight weeks of steady running. You might start with 6 intervals of 2 minutes each and work up to 10 intervals of 4 minutes each. Give enough time between intervals so that your heart slows to a reasonable rate-usually 2 minutes will suffice.

Rest. The body must be given time to re-build after you have worked to tear it down. One or two days a week should be rest days where you do little or no running. You should also allow a longer rest period between phases of your training. After six weeks of solid training, give yourself a week of fewer miles and lighter workouts. It can be hard to slow yourself down when you see improvement – but better to slow yourself down than have an injury do it for you.

Eric Grossman lives and trains in Emory, Va. He is among the front runners at many ultras locally and nationally. Eric is directing the Iron Mountain 50 mile Trail Run this October (

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