The corner stone to ultra-training is the long run. And not just one long run a week, but two. Back-to-Back. Ultra-runners get out there on the trails both days of the weekend (or whichever days are their weekend) to put time on their feet—a long time.
Some runners new to ultra-running may think that just time on their feet is enough to finish a 50 or 100-mile run, and maybe it is for SOME runners. But, most ultras will gobble you up and spit you out if all you’re thinking about is putting time on your feet or just getting whatever miles you can in for the day. Being able to run/walk on flat ground quickly will not make you a successful ultra-runner.
Ultra’s climb. Ultra’s descend. It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s a beautiful nature and I wouldn’t want it any other way. There are only a handful of ultra’s out there which are “flat.”
You need to train to climb and to descend. It’s hard, but worth it. Your long runs should include multiple climbs and descents. Don’t skimp on the hills. Make sure you are getting some tough ones in, especially in the last five miles. Race directors love to throw in that last climb at the end of a race. The one that makes your eyes bug out of your head when you see it. The one that makes you pray to a god, even when you don’t believe in a god.
The muscles you use to climb are different enough from the ones you use to move across flat ground, that you have to train them to get the job done. It’s the same with the muscles you use to descend.
To climb well, you need to strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and calves. You don’t want to rely solely on your quads to get you up the hill. You use your quads to descend and putting more strain on them when you can recruit other muscles to help with the work will only slow you down as you make your way along the course. The best way to strengthen your climbing muscles is by climbing and focusing on engaging those muscles. Think about them and make sure they are working. In the gym you can do hamstring curls, slow deep squats, hip thrusts, deadlifts, and the glute-ham raise.
Climbing is hard, but in my experience, descending is harder. One reason that descending is harder, is because people think it is easier and they just go for it and then they hit the ground with their foot way out in front of them. Big Mistake. The impact forces on your muscles and tendons in ankles, knees, hips and back are much higher when you are going downhill. The best way to train descending muscles and tendons is by descending. Even with this, I recommend adding in some gym time that includes core strength, all of the above, calves, quads, and balance.
I know this seems like a lot, especially, when you’re running 15-20 hours a week, but two days a week for an hour is enough time to get this in and it will pay off at the end of your race. Strength training in the gym or at home is critical for those training for mountain races through the winter when mountains are not accessible or for those living in areas where it’s hard to find a hill.