Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reader Question on Volume vs. Quality and Training for a 100-Miler

Note to reader: Question edited for better clarity.

Hey Wyatt, I'm training for my first 100-miler in June and am curious about your thoughts on volume versus quality as I know you've experimented with both approaches. Do I need to run lots of miles or will quality with some long runs sprinkled in do the trick? - JL

Great question and one I get quite a bit, which is why I've decided to post this question and my answer. The short answer is, there's no one specific approach to training for a 100-miler that works for everyone. There are some tried-and-true elements of training for 100s, such as the long run, but by and large what you do beyond that comes down to what works for you and only you. And you need to tailor your training to the specific challenges of the race (mountains and hills v. flat, trail v. pavement, cold v. hot, altitude v. sea level, etc.). If you're training for Rocky Raccoon, there's not much need to hit the mountain trails. If you're training for Hardrock, you're not doing yourself any favors training on a sidewalk. You get the idea.

I know guys who have trained for and won 100-milers running 140 miles a week with a ton of quality (track intervals, tempos) sprinkled in. Mark Godale comes to mind. Back in his prime, the dude would crank out 5:20 mile repeats and killer tempos every week, all while doing doubles just about every day (an approach I took in 2008 and 2009 and it seemed to work for me). I know guys who have trained for and done well in 100s running half those miles. Lucho comes to mind, though know that Lucho built a huge base over a period of several years as a professional triathlete. And, though I don't know him personally, I have heard Bob Africa takes a less-is-more approach to big undertakings like Leadman.

I have done well in 100s after running 100-110 miles a week for weeks on end (Burning River 2007, Mohican 2008, Mohican 2009). I have run 100+ miles a week training for a 100 and not done well (Leadville 2010). I have tried lots of approaches over the years, rationalizing to myself why each should work, and experienced varying results. Lately, it's mostly been mediocrity. What I have ultimately come to realize for myself, based on trial and error, is that I thrive on volume. I need lots of mileage and tons of aerobic work, with some quality like tempos and hill repeats every so often (a few times a month) just to stimulate different systems. Big volume pays off for me especially in the latter miles of 100s. The best race I've had in a few years (Leadville Marathon 2013) I came into having mostly run in my aerobic zones, with some fast stuff here and there (mostly fast finishes), for the previous two months. The reason I didn't break 20 hours at Leadville in 2013, or come damn close to it, was that my stomach went south and my ankle was still jacked from an injury. But I am convinced that the aerobic stuff I did all summer had me in amazing shape when I lined up for that race.

Anyway, the key, I think, is to listen to your body and train as hard as you can without breaking yourself down. Getting to the starting line of a 100-miler healthy is half the battle. So, if you need it, take Monday off after running 40 miles over the weekend (just an example). Don't feel like you have to go out and grind through the mileage day in and day out even if you're feeling horrible--and definitely don't do fast stuff or go super long if you're feeling crappy (been there, done that and it's a road you don't want to go down, especially when you're old like I am). The key is to adapt to what you're doing with your training. Just remember that your body will tell you how it's responding and rest is how your body gets stronger. The gains come not when you're piling on the miles but when your eyes are closed and you're asleep. You run 30 miles and then the next day you rest/do light active recovery stuff so your body can recover and make gains from those 30 miles. The same goes with tempos, hills, intervals, etc.

As far as quality, I believe quality and volume are what make a great marathoner. I've long been skeptical of quality's helpfulness in training for 100s. But it depends on how you define "quality." Anyway, in 100s, you're mostly aerobic (zone 2, maybe even zone 1). If you "go anaerobic" in a 100 for a long period, that's not good because it'll result in muscle breakdown. You need to stay aerobic and burn fat in 100s. So it makes sense to me to do most of your training in an aerobic, fat-burning state and get super efficient. With that said, I'm not convinced long tempo runs of 12 miles at 6:30 pace (just an example) really have a big payoff in 100s when that pace may be twice as fast as what you're doing on race day. Sure, long tempos will help with strength and speed (huge in the marathon) and they'll induce some adaptations, but in 100s you're running significantly slower, so why not log most of your miles at that pace especially when it's inducing fat-burning--which you need when going the distance? Don't do everything at aerobic effort--you'll go stale--but aerobic efforts are the bread and butter of your training.

In conclusion, to succeed in 100s (and it feels strange to me to be giving this kind of advice when I have a checkered recent past as far as 100s), I think you need to be aerobically fit and efficient and have logged a handful of very long efforts in the neighborhood of 30+ miles with maybe back-to-back 20s run at some point. Log most of your miles in an aerobic state. Do tempo runs, intervals, fartleks, fast finishes and hills a few times a month (but remember to train specific to the course's challenges) to keep the adaptation process going. But the bread and butter are those aerobic efforts. Just know that stress and niggles are to be taken seriously. Stress of life, work, family stuff, etc., doesn't get talked about nearly enough but it will hinder recovery and undermine the quality of your sleep. Sleep is huge, as evidenced by elite marathoners often sleeping 12 hours a day. So if you have a super-stressful week going, maybe back off the mileage. And definitely listen to the niggles--ice them, massage them, rest them.

Good luck!


  1. I agree entirely that it is an individual choice once you have the experience. The tough part about helping people with these types of questions is knowing enough about them. I like Hudson's chapter (Chapter 6 from Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon: How to Be Your Own Best Coach) on self-assessment. I think many runners over estimate what they can do based on their running experience, life stress, experience, etc.... Reviewing something like this and being self-aware can really help set expectations. And I think that is part of what you were referencing in you last paragraph in terms of keeping track of life stress, family, work, etc... I really don't think people understand that the "idols" of this sport are starting to make a profession out of ultra running and that is very different than a typical weekend warrior. Most of them do not have kids, jobs, etc.... They have sponsors for products that help them recover and many of them have several specialists on hand to help them recover as well.

    Personally, I find that most people can do quite will with a modest level of training (55-70 MPH) and well thought out quality sprinkled in (maybe 10-15% of the miles). Like you, I would prescribe the majority of the miles to be aerobic and as much specific training as reasonable. Paired with a sound nutrition plan and race day strategy, I think most runners will come pretty close to their capabilities with a plan built around those rough guidelines.

    1. Great points, AJ. At some point (not sure when), I think I realized I'm not elite, so why put all kinds of pressure on myself? I will always train hard, but ultimately this is for recreation and enjoyment. As for the "elites," I think there are only a handful of true elites in this sport, including Kilian and Krar. The rest are varying degrees of good, awesome and great. But, for the most part, they have a lot less life stress as many of them (but not all of them) are unmarried and don't have kids and can sleep for 10 hours a night. They also don't work full-time. Admittedly, they do have the stress of pleasing sponsors. That is why I'm in awe of guys like Nick Clark--Nick does it all.


    2. Absolutely, Nick Clark is the best example of a guy trying to do it our way. But he is super human! And yes, being "elite" can mean lots of things. I prefer to think of in terms of whether it is your job (near full-time). Anton, for example, runs as his profession, not his hobby. We can argue about whether he's elite or not, but that isn't the point. Thinking that I can train like him is foolish for a number of reason, but the first one is just that he has built his entire life around running and I have not.

      That doesn't mean that we can't do well as recreational runners, but we just have to find a way to do it within the confines of age, families, jobs, "life stress", etc... I think, that starts with setting reasonable goals and expectations. And, I think most runners should have a long-run view and expect to have to do several ultras to gain experience with the distance, plus nutrition, plus recovery. It took me 5 tries before I think I nailed a 50. I am still searching for that feeling in the 100... You mentioned this as well, but the other tough part about expectations is knowing the kind of course you can tackle (specificity!). I am not fortunate enough to live at high altitude or near mountain ranges that I can train on everyday. So why would I take on Hardrock? The misery I would put myself through constantly trying to get up to high altitude and big vert would make training an OCD-stress-filled-nightmare. If I did Hardrock, I would just have to admit to myself that I am under-prepared and have low goals.