Pace Yourself for Ultrarunning Training and Racing

Most ultra runners are familiar with using a pacer: in general, someone to run along with you during a long race (over 50K) to keep you moving at an ideal pace and, ultimately, to help you finish the race.

But as an ultra runner, you should know how to pace yourself during training and racing in order to achieve positive results.

Pacing for Positive Results: Long Training Days

In “Training Tips for Runners,” I discussed the need to have a long training day once a week. On your long day, you will go out and run for 3 to 6 hours at 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. There are several ways to calculate your maximum heart rate, but the easiest way is to start with 220 and subtract your age. That is, if you are 40 years old your maximum heart rate is 220 minus 40, or 180 beats per minute (bpm). A 60 percent intensity level would mean running so that your heart rate is about 108 bpm (180 x 0.60). To increase to 80 percent, run so that your heart rate is about 144 bpm (180 x 0.80).

During your long training days, practice pacing yourself by starting out slow and then increasing the intensity level so as to finish strong before doing your cool down.

If you are going to run for 6 hours, start out running at about a 60 percent intensity level for the first 2 hours. Do not be afraid to power walk (more on this in another set of tips), especially on the up hills, if you need to in order to keep your intensity level/heart rate at about 60 percent of your maximum. Starting slowly helps your body “settle in” to the activity and will help to teach your body to switch over from burning carbohydrates to burning fat. This is an important thing for your body to learn, as fat is the most concentrated form of energy that is stored in the body. In fact, one pound of fat can fuel you for up to 50 miles. (No wonder losing weight is so hard!)

Slowly increase your intensity level to 70 or 80 percent. For the next 3 hours, vary the intensity between 70 to 80 percent, remembering to power walk whenever you need to so that your intensity level does not exceed 80 percent. As always, keep hydrated and snack along the way to keep your energy levels up. Be sure to add electrolytes (especially salt) either to your fluid intake or in your food, especially on hot days. For the last hour, bring your level slowly back down to 60 percent to cool down.

While these guidelines may seem complicated, realize that you do not have to run with a heart rate monitor, or constantly be taking your pulse. As you train more and more and get comfortable with your body, you will know your intensity level just by the way you feel. A 60 percent intensity level will feel relatively easy; at 80 percent you will feel like you are pushing more, but you will not feel exhausted by the effort. Just get out there and run – you and your body will catch on sooner than you think!

Pacing for Positive Results: Racing

There are numerous ways to approach completing an ultra running race, but here are some general guidelines using our motto: pace yourself.

For an ultra, I recommend starting out at about an 80 percent intensity level. Trust me, the excitement of the start and all of the other runners around you will force you to run at least this fast. Resist the impulse to run even faster to keep up with the pack, as all you will do is burn yourself out early! Keep your pace at no more than 80 percent for the first few miles of the race. You should feel like you are moving at a comfortable pace, capable of more.

Then, vary your level of effort from between 60 to 80 percent for the first half of the race. Remember to power walk, especially on the up hills, when needed to ensure that you do not work too hard. At the half way point you should feel that you are working, but should not feel beat up or completed exhausted.

For the second half of the race, you should have enough energy reserves left to maintain the 60 to 80 percent intensity level. Remember, the ideal race that runners strive for is an even split; that is, running the last half of the race in approximately the same amount of time as first half was run in. If you can truly pace yourself, as described here, you should be close to an even split and be able to finish the race feeling that every ounce of effort was given on the course, yet you should not be totally trashed.

A Closing Thought

My wife Heather often says, “Slow but sure is my steady pace, a motto for the human race.” Words to (ultra) run by!

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2 Responses to Pace Yourself for Ultrarunning Training and Racing

  1. TeeJay says:

    Marshall, I'll really begin to learn this s I take my runs from 2-3 hours up to 5-6 hours. And I should also say that I find it much easier to pace properly on the mountain trails than on the roads. Heck, on the trails, my training partners and I will even take stop breaks to hydrate. But we always know that if we feel our bodies beginning to cool, it's time to get moving again. 🙂

  2. Glad to hear that you've been pacing yourself appropriately. Sometimes, on the trails especially, the terrain will do the pacing for us.

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