I have been blessed to be able to race on a variety of courses and environments over the years. The past couple of years I have spent some time exploring the world of track ultrarunning. This has reminded me of an important lesson in ultrarunning: training specificity is king.
I have done a total of four track ultra-events since starting the sport (Desert Solstice, South Carolina 24 Hour, Six Days in the Dome, Kingsburg 12 Hour). These events have ranged from very structured to relatively last-minute planning in both the event setup and the level of specificity of my training. One thing I've learned from these four events is that getting on a track during training is very important. I've gotten a bit dinged up from three of the four track ultras I've done--Desert Solstice in 2013 is the only one that I came away from completely unscathed--which I believe is likely due to not enough specficic training. The frequent turning forces the body into positions not typical of normal flatland running (and the faster the running, the more exaggerated the position), the hard surface is relentless, and the perfectly constant terrain and incline focuses on a much smaller group of muscles than in other race types.
These three characteristics (track turning, hard surface and one-dimensional muscle usage) are what I have paid most attention to as I prepare for Desert Solstice (DS) 2015. I will outline how and why I addressed them in my biggest training block for DS.
Stack those miles!
Specific training requires, first and foremost, requires a lot of running, or at least incredibly long periods of some kind of activity. This is an ultramarathon after all. The target event is all day long, or even more for some events. This doesn't mean you have to never take it easy, but there should be big blocks that adequately stress your body to a degree that it can adapt and optimally prepare you for race day. This is relative to some degree based on your goals and your past training, but when it comes to maximizing performance it's key. For me, running has very much been a lifestyle and with a decade of high mileage I have thoroughly adapted my body to handling the rigors of some big mileage weeks when peaking for a race. My biggest training block for DS included three weeks of 169.1 miles, 143.9 miles, and 144.9 miles. This is in line with my past training volume, so the stressor was both reasonable and adequate.
Strava Data found here
Hard and Flat!
As I mentioned above you, will be on the same surface and the same incline all day. Focusing the bulk of your training on hard, flat surfaces is key. I did this by putting the majority of my training on the road and the track. Running on flat surfaces for long periods of times engages particular muscles, and it also puts a much bigger stress on a few areas as you are never switching up muscle groups from undulating terrain. I did most of my workouts on a track. My go-to workout was a 17-18 mile run. I would do a warm up and cool down running to/from the track (20 minutes each way) and proceed to run approximately 12 miles around the track. I would often end with a progression run to really stimulate the muscles required when hugging the turns. I am thankful I did this, as I did notice a few abnormal sore spots that went away as my body became accustomed to the turning. That kind of soreness is something I want to avoid on race day, so having worked through it in training will be key. Along with the progression miles, I did a few faster efforts like 400 repeats and even some 100-meter all-out sprints. The faster stuff, although not likely directly used during an ultra-race, can pay dividends for a couple reasons. I always find that after building a strong base the easy miles get a bit easier when exposed to some quick quarters, or over speed sessions like 100-meter sprints. I usually notice a nice reduction in my average pace once I'm recovered from these sessions. The other benefit is form. Your body tends to learn to be more efficient when going fast. I find that some over-speed training helps with form as well as keeping things strong enough to hold form for longer periods at slower distances, which is important in an all-day event.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you don't want to burn out mentally with the terrain you will be racing on. The mental side of a track event itself can be so incredibly mind-numbing, you don't want to arrive at the starting line already loathing the task at hand. Although the bulk of my training was done on the track and flat streets of Davis, CA, I made a habit of getting at least one big effort on the trails every week. My go-to here was definitely San Francisco Running Company and their Saturday morning group run through the Bay Area Trails. They draw upwards to 60 local and visiting runners on a regular basis, which provides an amazing morning of running on some of the most beautiful trails imaginable. Running with the group on Saturday morning provided not only a change of pace in the environment, but a chance to reconnect with the social aspect of running. This was a great way to end a week when the flat miles were beginning to get a bit monotonous. These trail bouts kept my mind fresh to the specificity training task the other days of the week.