Hal Koerner's Training Advice for 50Ks and Beyond - Page 2
To best train for an ultra, you should endeavor to get out one to two times a week for “specificity training,” by which I mean you are out in conditions that are as similar as possible to what you will face on race day. If you will be doing an ultra on the trails (and most do take place on trails), then specificity training means running on trails rather than roads, and on hills or unpredictable terrain rather than flat pavement.
Ascending: It seems like you either love it or hate it. Or maybe it is that many runners have a love-hate relationship with it. My favorite thing about the ascent is getting to the top and seeing the view. That is always a great motivator that helps me through the moments when climbing gets really tough.
Mastering ascending is all about form. When you are going uphill, avoid hunching. Hold your head up and your shoulders back; this helps free up your breathing by keeping your chest open and making the necessary room for your lungs to expand. Also, with your head up, you are able to look where you are going, which is key on a trail where there may be bikers, other runners, tree branches, and numerous potential hazards.
Some studies have shown that the “sweet spot” for your gaze while running is about 5 yards in front of you. Focusing on that distance allows you to see what is unfolding ahead of you but also allows your brain to pick up its immediate environment peripherally. You can adjust your gaze, depending on the technical nature of the footing, but avoid the temptation to look directly down at your feet; that view can be dizzying, with things moving too fast, and closes off what’s ahead or to the side.
Another important aspect to mastering ascending is tied to your footsteps themselves. Having a higher cadence, which means taking smaller, quicker steps, works well on the ascent.
Finally, stay relaxed. Tensing up your muscles and holding your breath won’t get you up the hill faster and more likely will make the climb harder. Periodically check in with your breathing and notice any tension in your muscles. As the trail gets more technical, continue to work to find a balance between being focused and staying relaxed. Some accomplished trail and mountain runners gauge their steps per breath and adjust the ratio according to the grade and the trickiness of the footing.
Physiology of Running Uphill
You will target muscle groups differently on the uphill, depending on how you run and your exertion level. Speaking for myself, my power comes from my calves and from pushing off through my glutes. Other runners may pull from their abdominal muscles and hip flexors. I try to maximize my power by working through the bigger muscle groups. I also rely on different muscle groups as the trail steepens or changes, allowing for some selective recovery.
For example, if I’m attacking a trail in a more upright position, working through my calves, and then come upon a steeper section, I will switch to a power hike, with my hands on my knees, utilizing my quads more. This allows for the different muscle groups to recover rather than overtaxing just one area. This is similar to a mountain biker who shifts gears, sometimes cranking hard while standing on the pedals, other times spinning in a seated position.
Power hiking is a useful tool for ascending. It is particularly great for when terrain is uneven and you don’t have the ability to maintain an efficient high cadence and still move through rocks easily. It is also useful when a trail is too steep and you need to put your entire foot down for traction, or you are breathing so hard that running becomes less efficient than hiking. The beauty of power hiking is that it keeps you moving; furthermore, it is a strong way to move across mountains.
I admit that I didn’t always feel this way about power hiking. I once thought you should run everything. Growing up, I was a great admirer of ultra legend Eric Clifton. He held virtually every 100-mile record for years and was a guy who didn’t believe in walking or hiking during a race. I took the same stance for a long while, adhering to the philosophy that changing your form from running to walking to running took more energy, so it was better to just keep on running no matter what. My thoughts on this have evolved, however, and I definitely include power hiking as a tool in the belt. When making that extra effort to run on a climb is more draining than useful, then hiking all or part of that section is a strong choice.
Training for Ascending
Two words: hill work! And to the best of your ability, try to tailor that hill work to the course you are training for and what you will actually be doing. Hill work is great, but not all hill work is created equal. If you know that in the middle of a race you will have a 5-mile climb, and you’ve been doing 10- to 20-minute climbs in your training, that’s not going to be enough to prepare you. Find someplace where you can practice a similar distance uphill. Yes, this means your entire run of the day may be focused completely on the uphill. That’s not as fun as going out for a 5-mile easy trail run, but believe me, the work will pay off in your race.
If you’re training hard on your uphill, ease up on the downhill, and vice versa. Choose one or the other to run hard, not both. I have a friend who trains for the ascents by going to a ski resort to practice those tough uphill climbs. He runs up a slope, takes the lift back down, runs uphill again, and then repeats. The focus is squarely on uphill training, and he takes it as easy as possible on the way down.
If you live in a place without hills, and you know you have three long climbs in your race that will take you a few hours each, a treadmill may be your only option. No one likes that idea, but time on the treadmill will be well spent. It will get your muscle groups ready, even if not in the same way that trail running can fine-tune them; however, you will be actively shaping and preparing your muscles for what is to come. Other options include stairs, stadiums, and overpasses.
Avoid eating on the uphill unless you are walking or hiking that section. If your ascent will last more than an hour, you will certainly need to fuel during that time, so practice what and how you will eat during your training.
Technique Tips for the Ascent
- Posture: Keep your back upright and your gaze directed approximately 5 yards ahead. Keep your head up, even if you must bend forward on the steep grades to put your hands on your knees. Keeping your back straight and your head up allows for better breathing.
- Hips/glutes: Move your hips forward as if someone is out in front of you, pulling you in with a rope attached to your belt. This keeps your glutes working and allows for better breathing.
- Arms: Don’t forget arm motion! Being strong in the upper body, with arms pumping back and forth with a greater swing and range of motion, helps tremendously with momentum.
- Foot landing: You can get more power through the glutes on your power hike if you land on your entire foot. For speed, it is best to stay on your forefoot or midfoot.