Training for an Ultra, When you Don't Have Time to Train for an Ultra
I spent many years training for track and road races when it was one of the top priorities of my day. I made sure to always have flexible part-time jobs so that I could get in my runs, my naps, massages, and all the little "extras" I thought you needed to compete at a high level. With two recent 50 milers under my belt and being in full-blown training for my first 100, it's somewhat humorous to me that I've been preparing for my longest, most physically demanding races when I have the least amount of time to do so. Between being a head high school coach, a full-time graduate student, and maintaining an internship and a part-time job, I don't have the flexibility that I used to. Not to mention that each of the previously listed responsibilities is a in a different location and for the last year I have been averaging at least 3 hours in the car, everyday. However, over the last few months I've actually come to fully believe that being busy can potentially be the perfect time to tackle the ultra distance (if you're smart, of course). I know. That sounds crazy. But, just here me out. Here are some things that a busy schedule force you to do that can actually be perfect training opportunities for an ultra.
Plan Out Nutrition
You'll hear over and over again that nutrition and fueling is what makes or breaks athletes in ultra distance racing. A busy schedule is the perfect opportunity to plan ahead and pack snacks to not only get you through your run, but through the day. There have been many times when I have had to get in a 30-mile run at 5:30 in the morning before heading straight to a full day of grad school followed by coaching at a long track meet. As someone that isn't always the best at preparing snacks and meals on-the-go this has forced me to think more about what and how much I'm eating. Don't get me wrong, I can think of many busy days when I didn't get to my long run until the evening and by the time I was lacing up my shoes I realized all I had taken in for the day was about 25 ounces of coffee, two sips of water, and leftover cold pizza. I still convinced myself that this was the perfect way to prepare for the upset stomach and bonking that will come on race day. I certainly don't encourage doing that intentionally, but getting used to running while being on the edge of barfing is never a bad thing when it comes to training for a 100!
Run When You Can
With a busy schedule, most days are about finding a time to carve out a few hours to get in training runs. Sometimes that means in the cold, dark hours of the morning, late in the evening, or during a very hot lunch break in the middle of the day. When you set out to race an ultra, you're committing to being out there for a very, very long time. Having to squeeze runs in when you can is a great way to get used to running at any time of day and in any kind of condition.
Make Your Hard Days Hard and Your Easy Days Easy
When training for ultra races, you're most likely never going to hit race distance in a single training run. Thus comes in the back-to-back long runs. I have actually found this type of training to be much easier to manage with a full work and life load. Most weeks I can figure out a way to get in two consecutive solid training days with a lot of volume, knowing that they will be followed by days when I don't do much training at all. Those days can then become free for other responsibilities and obligations and with the proper planning, it works out really well for both training and work/student life.
Nailing an ultra is less about being the fittest and strongest, and more about being the smartest and the most strategic. The best races at long distances are well-thought out and planned to the T. To successfully train at a high level while also wearing multiple other hats, I've had to get very strategic about planning out my week, and no week ever looks the same. That is quite the opposite of previous training in which I did tempos, workouts, and long runs on the the same day, every week, for a decade. This new mindset has carried over well into applying the same logic and preparation to long races and so far that has resulted in less moronic decisions than I've made in the past. It's made me a smarter racer and more resilient to any kind of hiccup or challenge that may pop up because I've planned for it already.
Listening to Your Body is Non-negotiable
I've always been someone who needed a lot of sleep. Currently, more sleep means sacrificing training or time spent studying. So, I've chosen to at least try to operate on less Z's. However, given the amount of training that I'm currently doing, with that decision comes the risk of injury, fatigue, and burn-out. Listening to my body has become non-negotiable. If you're making the decision to set a lofty running goal while juggling many other things (kudos, by the way) then you also have to be willing to let your body call the shots. I've taken more rest days over the last year than I have in probably the last decade. But, I've also been more consistent and injury-free while putting in some of my biggest training weeks. When in doubt...rest.
Get Used to Running When You Don't Want to
One of the most challenging parts of racing for miles, and miles, and miles, and miles....and, miles is the sheer monotony of it. Not only does your body start to give out, but so does your mind. Some of the runs I've deemed my most beneficial days were when I went out there for a few hours when it was literally the last thing I wanted to do. Whether it was because my body was wrecked after coaching a 10-hour track meet, or my mind was fried after after a full day of grad school, I always took solace in knowing I was getting really good at running the miles when it felt like I was starting on an already empty tank. The times you're feeling tired and unmotivated can be the perfect opportunity to practice pushing through that state because it will inevitably come on race day (probably more than once).
There are only so many hours in a day and it's impossible to get everything done. Having even less time to work with has forced me to really think about what my priorities are and to revisit them often. I'm constantly monitoring and deciding what I really need and want that day. Some days that means saying no to a social event in order to get the training done. But, there are also days when going to meet friends for a happy hour or going to a concert seems way more beneficial to my well-being than training. I find that having to constantly make those kinds of decisions has helped me to check-in with myself more often about what I need, and I've been able to create a better balance in my life than I've had in a long time.
Run for Yourself
As crazy as it may sound, running has remained the calm center in the chaos (in a good way) that is my life. It's a part of my day that is for me and only me. It's a time when I don't have to check emails, answer text messages, or fulfill any obligation other than just simply put one foot in front of the other. It's a time when nobody wants anything from me and I don't want anything from myself. I have never thought that a 3-4 hour run could pass by so fast or be so calming. But, my training is a time when I can shut my brain off and decompress from the stress of the day. If you're going to commit to adding training to an already full schedule make sure that running is something you're doing for you, and not just another stressful commitment you're adding to your plate.
Being committed to many important things in your life and training hard so that you can challenge your limits are not mutually exclusive endeavors. I truly believe that not only can you do both, but that it can be a process that is beneficial to training and to general happiness. If you're like me, pushing your physical limits is a deeply personal desire that is hard to ignore. So, you don't have to (and, you shouldn't). I hope the lessons I've learned over the last year are helpful to someone contemplating how to start that journey without neglecting other aspects of life. If you want more specific help or advice, please contact me!