Training for a 100 miler (it is possible!)

A few people have asked me about how to train for a 100 miler and my answer has always been “well…if I told you, then I’d have to kill you”. Just kidding! I love sharing training tips and strategies with people, so for what it’s worth, here’s my guide to training for a 100 mile race. Just remember, what works for me may not work for you, so make sure to listen to your body and be smart about it! (Yes, that was a feeble attempt at a legal disclaimer. You can take the runner out of the lawyer, but you can’t take the lawyer out of the…well, anyway).

Physical Training:

(1) Set a schedule.

This goes without saying, but give yourself enough time to train. When I trained up for my 100 miler, I really only had 6 weeks… but I was coming off of a 250 km multi-day race, so my base was pretty solid at that point (ah, those were the days). Anyway, be honest about where you are at and build a schedule you think you can work with. If you start training too early, you’ll get burnt out (and ultimately that turns into laziness). If you start too late, you’ll try to cram too much mileage in at the end and you’ll wind up either injured or completely spent. Not exactly ideal.

Your schedule should be firm enough to make sure you don’t wuss out on those long weekend runs when you get invited to the Hamptons/Cotswolds/cottage country, but flexible enough to take into account how your body is reacting to the training. Your training schedule should be like the spanx of ultrarunning. Enough structure to keep you where you’re at, but flexible enough to stretch if you’ve eaten too much over the holidays. (For my male readers who have no idea what I’m talking about when I say ‘spanx’, use google at your own risk. You may not want insight on this one.)

For instance, two weeks before the Vermont 100 miler, one of my best friends (Cat!) was coming to New York to visit me. As if I wanted to waste the entire day running. Instead, I woke up at an ungodly hour and started my 50 mile training run at 4am. She came to join me for the last three hours, and by noon we were done and ready to roll, just about the time that the other manhattanites were starting to surface for brunch. Awesome! If you give up too much for running, you’ll resent it, and if you don’t give up enough, you’ll feel unprepared. Find your own balance. If you need a day off, TAKE IT. But take it for the right reasons.

(2)  Set your priorities

Are you aiming for a particular time? Or do you just want to finish? Or maybe you just want to see how far you can go? It is really important to figure out ahead of time what you want to get out of your race. Your mentality going into the race will dictate your experience – truly. For me, my goal in my first 100 miler was just to finish. That was my ultimate goal. I thought it would be a bonus to “buckle” (which refers to the silver belt buckle runners receive in finishing 100 milers in under 24 hours), but if all else failed, I wanted to finish. This meant that when I set my schedule, I wasn’t too concerned about speed – I was concerned about time on my feet and getting the distance in. It also helped me keep my priorities straight on race day, but more about that later.

Make sure you tell your support crew what your priorities are too. If your goal is to just have fun, then they will know not to call you a complete wuss/failure/waste-of-space if you mention the idea of dropping out at mile 70 (which is, in all other cases, a totally legitimate motivation technique). If your goal is to finish, then your support crew won’t be as concerned with rushing you through checkpoints when you are looking rough (aka puking…just kidding). However, if your goal is to finish in a particular time or to buckle, well, your support crew will have to implement tough love and push you on your way even when all you want to do is curl up and take a nap at the rest station with a protein bar clutched in your clammy little hands.

With that in mind…

(3) My 100 mile schedule

100 miles is a crazy distance. No doubt about that. But it is doable! I’m going to give you my general schedule, but remember that there are tons of different models that work. This is just one…I was lucky enough to have Ray Zahab’s advice on this one, so it is worth a thought!

My schedule was not based on mileage, but rather time on my feet. This was partly due to the fact that I am generally injury-prone and that my goal was just to finish. If you think you fall into this category, set time goals rather than distance goals. That way you won’t get too stressed out if you’re running really slowly or if you need to take breaks. You won’t be pushing yourself to run faster than you should. You can just focus on quality running, at whatever speed that entails, and enjoying the run. The point is on getting the time on your feet. Distance goals are great if you are healthy, strong, and you want to finish the race in a certain amount of time. Whenever we set distance goals in training, we are motivated to finish it as quickly as possible, and this means that we push the pace – sometimes subconsciously.

During the week I would do short runs – max 10 or 15 km – and mostly interval training. Intervals really help increase speed for races, even 100 milers. This is what will set you above the pack. I would usually do a combination from mon-thurs of the following exercises:

  • 10 km tempo run
  • 7 min tempo, 3 min slow run, repeat for 1 hour
  • intervals for 45 min: pick your distance – could be 500 m on (aka fast), 500 m off (aka slow) for ten reps, and then 400 m at an even faster pace, 400 m off for 8 reps, 300 m …etc.
  • 5 km as quick as possible

You get the idea. Focus is on short, fast runs.

For a 100 mile race, you want ONE long run on the weekend. Multi-day races require back-to-back long runs on the weekend, but the bliss of single-stage races is that you only have to ruin one day/night of your weekend. I also chose to do mine on a Saturday so that I could go out Saturday night when it was done and act like a complete bum on Sunday guilt-free, but each to his or her own. Whatever day you do your long run, take the day before off (or do yoga or an easy 5 km) and take the day after off.

To recap: tempo/intervals on Monday to Thursday, Friday OFF, Saturday long run, Sunday OFF.

Now for the long runs. I usually set my peak weekend and then work backwards. Your ‘peak’ weekend is the weekend before your race when you will do your longest run, after which you will taper. Some people do a three week taper, some do a two week taper. I did a two week, but that was mainly due to timing constraints. Here’s what my weekend runs looked like for the five weeks preceeding the 100 miler:

5 weeks to race time: 2 hours of running (fast tempo)

4 weeks to race time: 4 hours of running (any pace)

3 weeks to race time: 7 hours of running (any pace)

2 weeks to race time: PEAK – 8 hours of running (any pace)

1 week to race time: 2 hours of running (easy pace)

Like I said, this as a particularly quick progression, but I had a really good base at the time so make sure you don’t increase your mileage too quickly!  And keep track of your overall weekly mileage. I always made sure my total mileage didn’t increase by more than 10% per week (commonly known as the 10% rule)… as your weekend long run increases, consider making your weekday runs shorter. In my longest run, which was 8 hours, I ran 51 miles. Unlike the marathon, where traditional advice suggests running around 75% of the total mileage on your peak run (30-35 km for a 42 km race), for a 100 miler this isn’t necessary. Running 75 miles in training would be crazy.

Last point on this part: I never did a night run, but if you’ve never run in the dark before then it might be helpful for you to test it out before the race. Running when you’re tired is one thing, but running when you’re tired and the shadows look like dancing leprechauns is another. Trust me. Try a night run with a head torch and hold a hand-held flashlight as well. The head torch shines at a steep angle downward and often obscures obstacles like roots or bumps in the trail. If you hold a hand-held light down lower as well, this will pick up shadows from bumpy obstacles. Just a suggestion!

Mental Training

Get used to being out there. For a long time. Don’t think of your training runs as being training. Just think of them as being opportunities to be outside and see stuff you wouldn’t normally get a chance to see by car. The trick is to make yourself forget that you are actually running. If you are always looking at your watch or at your mileage, you will hate yourself pretty quickly! Running – and running without injuries – is an incredible privilege and the ability to complete ultras is what I would call almost a miracle. Seriously. Think about it. Your mindset can completely change how your runs go.

It isn’t all rainbows and fluffy bunnies, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the training really, really sucks. But keep in mind that in the race, it WILL be so much easier. There is a magic of race day that simply can’t be replicated at any other time. The crowds (which is defined as a gathering of more than two people in an ultra, ha), the excitement, the anticipation, the abundance of M&Ms…. don’t underestimate how far this can take you and how much of an effect it can have on your mental AND physical performance!

Boring Nitty-Gritties

Set a race plan – which should be tied to your goals (see above) – and stick to it. Try to estimate how long it will take you to get to each checkpoint and what you might like to have at that point. This will help your support crew or help you figure out what you might want in your drop bags. It will also give you an indication during the race as to whether you are ahead or behind schedule. Here are things to think about:

  • vaseline and/or some kind of body glide. Always a good idea. Actually, always an essential idea. I can distinctly remember running into one aid station around the 50 mile mark with a crazed look in my eyes yelling “VASELINE!!!!” to a bunch of startled volunteers. When one of them offered to apply it for me, I gently suggested I should do it myself. Yes, you will chafe in areas that no person should.
  • change of shirt. It will make you feel like a million bucks. I changed my shirt three times during my 100 miler and it was one of the best ideas. Ever.
  • baby wipes. The shower of champions. Keep them handy. Once the salt starts to crystallize on your forehead and get into your eyes, it is game over. You’ll be running 100 miles in the wrong direction.
  • treats.  A lot of 100 milers supply food, but nothing beats your favs. Make sure you have a variety handy – solid vs liquid, salty vs sweet, crunchy vs soft… you get the idea. It is kinda like being pregnant (or so I’ve heard). You don’t really know what you’ll want until you want it. So best to have it handy!

On Race Day

Talk to people, enjoy the experience, and remember – the race is the reward from all of your training! It is just one…long…day and then you have at least a couple weeks – if not a lifetime – of bragging rights. I usually go with a coffee, a protein bar and a banana on the morning of a race. The coffee helps wake me up and, cough, gets things moving if you know what I mean to avoid an embarrassing  forest stop during the first 5km. The protein bar fills me up and the potassium in the banana helps with muscle cramps. Then, the next most important thing is to KEEP FUELING. Even if you aren’t hungry, eat. If you aren’t thirsty, drink. Ya, ya, ya, it is technically possible to over-hydrate during a race…. but seriously has anyone heard of that ever happening?? I find it difficult to get down the amount of water that I know I need to, so I always remind myself to drink whenever I can.

Generally, I get my calories from 50% solids (food) and 50% liquids. Too many solids and you’ll have too much bulk bouncing around in your stomach. Not fun. Too many liquids and you’ll be stopping to paint the trails waaaay too much. Over 100 miles, this can add up to 30-60 minutes easily. Think about it! And seriously, without solids in your stomach for 100 miles, you won’t be able to make it. But again, whatever works for you.

The body cannot digest more than 250-300 calories an hour, so you will automatically be in a calorie deficit. But that’s okay. I try to get 150 calories through liquid and I divide my food up into 100-150 calorie packs. That takes the guessing game out of it. Every hour or hour and a half, I just take another packet of food and I know I’m meeting my target. I also don’t deny myself anything if I am craving it. Take the energy where you can!

Post-race

Tell everyone. Come on… whether you succeeded or whether you chalk your race up to an “almost success”, the fact is that you’ve attempted what 99.9% of the population thinks is impossible. I think this is one of the few situations where you can’t really be faulted for being too proud. You rock, you’ve got balls, and you DID succeed, whether you crossed the line or not. Remember, if you fail, that is a blessing. Failing means that you had the guts to push yourself beyond your limits. GO FOR IT!!!!

Suggestions, criticisms, and comments welcome! Happy running!

(P.S. With this blog post, we’ve reached over 10,000 hits on my blog! Thanks for the support everyone!)

Categories: Practical Advice, Training

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7 Comments »

  1. Thanks for posting this! I’m injury prone too, but want to improve my running. I did Atacama this year. Finished but with a couple fractures in my feet and messed up tendons. I’m now attempting to do Desert RATS in June but sometimes still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I just want to finish injury free so perhaps I should focus on time on my feet versus mileage.

    • Hi Maya! Thanks for the comment! Whenever I’ve been injured I’ve focused on time and I’ve found it to be really helpful. Just run at a pace that feels okay for you, at that particular time, and don’t worry about the mileage. The speed will come, but at its own pace! Congrats on finishing Atacama. I travelled over the salt plains from Bolivia in 2004, but by car and even that was tough enough! Desert RATS will be awesome! I’d focus less on huge mileage but more on getting those back-to-back solid runs in on the weekends. Let us know how your training is going – I’ll be cheering for you.
      I think it’s totally natural to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing at times… heck, aren’t we all just winging it? There’s always someone who is more experienced and usually, if you look hard enough, someone who is less experienced who will think that you’re a star even if you don’t 🙂

  2. Great post Steph!! Yes, you were pretty dedicated to run 5 hrs, then meet up with me at your apartment at 9am for the last 3 hours of the run! And then show me around NYC – fun times. Thanks for all the info and tips on your post!

  3. Steph – great post!!! Lots of good info…I can appreciate it from the comfort of my laz-y-boy! Well seriously, I think you detailed a lot of good suggestions, and with blatant honesty! I am doing 2 miles a day on the treadmill.. got a ways to go 🙂

  4. Great post Steph. Trevor is still amazed that the day he met you in Toronto you casually mentioned you spent your morning on a 7 hour run. 7 HOURS??!! Ok now I’m yelling. Question – when you are in training, do you do any resistance workouts or core work? Or is it strictly running? I’m planning for my first full marathon in May *fingers crossed* and just building/tweaking my program..

    • Hey Cheryl!! Great question. Answer is – or at least it should be – YES. I should have included that in my post, but maybe I’ll mak that the subject of a whole new one. When I’m training for a big race I try to get a strength coach to work out with once a week, but you can do it on your own as well. Core stability work using your own body weight (NOT machines) is really helpful. Stomach and back are two areas you don’t really think about in running, but it is pretty important. Also, it helps to focus on areas that runners tend to ‘shut off’, such as the glutes!!! Runners are notorious for having lazy asses, and it is silly not to try to use such a big and important muscle (bigger on some than others… hehehe). One easy exercise to get the glutes firing again is to lie on your back with your legs bent at 90 and feet on the ground, about shoulder width apart. Keeping your feet in place, push your hips up so that your body forms one straight line from your shoulders to your knees while squuuuuueeeeeezing your glutes. Do repetitions of that over and over…. You can only do it on one leg with your other leg sticking straight out, hovering an inch or two over the floor.

      • Right on, thanks Steph. I’ve been mixing in the P90x Core Synergistics workout approx once a week so good to see this actually makes sense for me to do 🙂 I’ve also added Yoga into the mix – mainly because it forces me to chill the F out + it forces me to stretch. As most runners do, I typically suck at properly stretching after my runs..

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