Triathletes are often considered crazy/audacious/intrepid by the general public, but those ultrarunners … arguably more so. Runners who have the mental prowess and interest in going longer than 26.2 miles are definitely a special breed. Could you be one of them?
“Most triathletes, especially long-course specialists, are familiar with prolonged suffering and know what it’s like to be inside their own heads for extended periods of time, which translates well to ultra training and racing,” says running coach Mario Fraioli.
Focusing on an ultra-distance race in the off-season could have benefits for triathletes looking for a new challenge—training for one would help you build volume and further develop run-specific skills while temporarily de-emphasizing swimming and cycling workouts, Fraioli says. And consider all that mental fortitude you’d gain in the process! “For Ironman athletes especially, ultra training and racing can help build the physical and mental strength necessary to run a strong marathon following 112 grueling miles planted in a bike seat,” he says.
As you plan out your entire 2017 season, think big picture: If you’ve been curious to try an ultramarathon, consider an early spring race if you’ve been training for a winter marathon and aren’t doing your first triathlon until June or later, or add a late fall race to your calendar so you have a baked-in goal for when triathlon season is over.
Who is best suited for ultrarunning?
Renowned ultrarunner Scott Jurek says people who have the ability to draw from experience and who are born strategists and fighters—he cites former military and mothers as good candidates—can typically handle the mental and physical strength needed for the extra long distances.
“Ultrarunners can suffer, but they are still strategic—you have to put your head down and hammer, but you also have to drink,” Jurek says. “If you don’t take care of your body and manage things, the wheels can come off.”
Exercise physiologist Krista Austin, Ph.D., says people built for ultras are typically taller and carry more body fat than most marathon athletes since they can store more fuel on the body. “They also have a solid whole foot strike (no toes!) and a great push off the ground that has to come from great glute and hamstring strength and control,” Austin says.
How to take the plunge
At the end of the triathlon season, take 2–4 weeks of rest and active recovery before kicking off an ultra-distance training cycle. “Depending on the distance of the ultra race you’re targeting, block off 10–16 weeks of training in order to safely build up your run volume and adequately prepare for the demands of your new undertaking,” advises Fraioli.
But that doesn’t mean you should ditch the pool and your bike entirely—do at least 1–2 swim or bike sessions per week as recovery. “I have also had some of my wannabe ultramarathoner triathletes do two-hour-long runs off a 2–4-hour bike ride to practice running on tired legs (while eliminating some of the pounding) and that’s proven to be beneficial,” Fraioli says.
What NOT to do
Ready to go long? Heed these warnings from coach Mario Fraioli.
DO NOT over-emphasize the long run. “While long runs are the cornerstone of an ultra-distance training program, going too long, too often will break you down if you’re not careful.”
DO NOT eliminate speedwork. “It’s important to continue working on your leg turnover even though you’re training for a race that will take you multiple hours to complete.”
DO NOT put your bike and swimsuit in the closet until the race is over. “While the frequency of your running workouts will increase, as will your overall running volume, you should utilize the bike and the pool for non-running recovery workouts when appropriate.”