Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Ultrarunner's Quandary: The Fine Line Between Productive, Intense Training and Dimishing Returns

Yesterday my aunt sent me an e-mail asking if I'd seen an article about over-training for ultramarathons that appeared in the Tuesday, 9/7 edition of The Wall Street Journal. The article is entitled, "Why Trainers Say, 'Slow Down'," and focuses almost entirely on ultramarathoners.

Among those prominently featured in the article are Lynn Bjorklund, who set the still-standing Pikes Peak Marathon women's record in 1981, and Julie Fingar, a running coach, both of whom have learned about over-training the hard way. Says Julie as quoted in the WSJ article:
"Type A personalities will increase their training load until something backfires.... In their minds, taking rest means they're not working hard enough."
Says Lynn in the article:
"The body responds beautifully to the right schedule of training stresses.... However, too much stress and not enough nutrition or recovery pushes your body toward injury and illness. You need to stay in that zone of just enough, and that takes a very high tuned and honest appraisal of yourself."
Exactly! FYI, for her own races, Julie runs about 70 miles per week and incorporates plenty of recovery, good nutrition, and cross-training. She's the two-time women's winner of the Rocky Raccoon 100 and has placed among the top 5 women at the Western States 100.

Julie's quote really hit me between the eyes because I am Type A! My wife is also Type A, but somehow we manage a great marriage! Maybe Noah won't end up being Type A, which would introduce a welcome new dimension to our family, but already he's showing some Type A signs. I think being Type A is in many respects a good thing, but you have to understand your Type A tendencies and exercise some self-control, or else your drive is going to grind you and those around you down. This is what Lynn and Julie are getting at in their quotes.

Right now, as I'm nursing a foot that has been stricken with a nasty case of plantar fasciitis (but is improving by the day), reflecting on my training philosophy and considering the differences between training at sea level (as I did) and elevation (as I now am), I see many mistakes and faulty assumptions and am formulating a better approach to my next big race. At 37 years-old, I still have a few more years of optimum performance and don't want to flame out just when my times should be at their best.

My theory is that an ultramarathon training program consisting mostly of running, along with some cross-training and active recovery, as well as core and upper-body strengthening and stretching (as well as a good diet, which I've always had), would be more effective than what I've been doing for the past 4 years: tons of miles, push-ups and crunches, and little else. I'm actually considering this product, in a slightly scaled-down fashion, as a complement to my training or at the very least a good strength builder during the winter months. I think the P90X program could be adapted for long-distance runners in a way that doesn't build too much bulk. Maybe I'll make myself a guinea pig.

Instead of just hammering out 100+ miles per week for my next 100-miler, what if my training was about 80-90 miles per week (with the occasional triple-digit week), along with regular cross-training (biking, swimming, rowing, and walking/hiking), strengthening and stretching? Maybe more intensity and a few recovery weeks, too. Would I then see greater returns and arrive at the starting line better than ever? Maybe it's worth a try.

Hats off to The Wall Street Journal for some great reporting and sound advice.


  1. It's always an interesting topic this one and at the end of the day we are all an experiment of one.

    Personally I am now moving from 4 days a week to 6 / 7 days a week. But during this transition I am only focusing on doing aerobic runs for around 12 weeeks before adding more specific runs (tempo, intervals, hills etc) afterwards.

    Of course the distance / time will vary run to run but the theory is that during this base mileage period I will look to maximize my aerobic capacity enabling me to take on more intense training later. This type of approach requires discipline but I think like yourself I am trying to see how my body will respond to differing approaches in order to improve performance.

    Of course healthy eating, sleep (biggest factor I think) and running on more forgiving surfaces will all speed recovery.

    Good luck

  2. This is a great post. I try to find better (more effective) ways to rest so that I can train harder. I think the most common mistake is not resting properly. It is difficult for me to rest enough between high mileage weeks and work commitments. I run 6 days per week but feel I must make this 5 days from time to time. I suppose age can also be a factor. I'm 47.