Every once in a while a training book is published that stands out as a likely candidate to become a classic. Jason Koop and Jim Rutberg have done just this with their new book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” (VeloPress, 2016). After two readings, I am convinced that this work will take a place next to other classics like “The Lore of Running”, “Daniels Running Formula”, and “Hansons Marathon Method” (among others) as the “go-to” book for ultrarunning training.
The training required for successful ultrarunning racing is unique and through the application of established physiology, sports psychology, and years of working with elite and aspiring athletes, Koop and Rutberg have provided a comprehensive guide to anyone who wants to excel at ultrarunning.
Much of what little is available on training for ultramarathon races is based on extensions of marathon training principles peppered with anecdotal information (or, more typically, misinformation) that just does not have a repeatable, logical, and justifiable basis for establishing an ultrarunning training regimen. Parts of these “training approaches” work, other parts do not, and little of this available information helps in development of a season-long training plan that identifies focus races and puts structure in place to allow a dedicated athlete to excel. Koop and Rutberg provide a detailed, substantive, and thoughtful process for putting together a training plan for ultramarathon racing- they call it the “Ultrarunning Revolution” and I concur that the training principles and the associated plan development process presented in the book will revolutionize accepted approaches to training for ultramarathon races. Throughout the book the authors methodically put the coffin lid on the “run more” philosophy of ultrarunning training- a training approach that not only doesn’t produce excellence but also maximizes the probability of injury. In it’s place they offer details of a high intensity interval-intensive, progressive, periodized, and race specific plan approach that is based on current endurance sport physiology understanding as well as their extensive endurance sport coaching experience.
What currently passes for ultrarunning training is perhaps reflective of the historic community that has evolved around the sport- a casual, low-key, fun-loving group of great people trying their hardest to enjoy life to the fullest. This, otherwise admirable, approach when applied to training ofttimes leads to a similarly casual, low-key process that is not consistently grounded in the realities of endurance sport physiology focused on excellence. The authors part ways with a large ultrarunning contingent that subscribes to long, low heart rate, running as the primary or, for some, the only, element of a training program. Some call this MAF (maximum aeorobic function) training and I do not remember that the term was even mentioned in this book- and rightly so! The drivel that is associated with the basis behind the singular efficacy of MAF training is nonsensical and in direct conflict with available, peer-reviewed endurance sport physiologic studies.
After over 40 years of endurance sport training on the part of myself and my 2-time Olympian wife in the sports of cross country skiing, road cycling, mountain biking, and running, and competing at the national, international, and Olympic levels, it is abundantly clear (at least to me) that high intensity interval training is the key element to excellence in any endurance sport. Not to the exclusion of other foci but, rather, as a central piece around which a training plan is designed. Koop and Rutberg provide not only the physiologic basis for utilization of high intensity interval training as a foundational part of the training process but they detail how to use intervals to the best benefit as applied to ultrarunning racing. Their guiding principle is to deliver the athlete to the starting line in the highest possible state of fitness- where “fitness” is an optimal state of aerobic capacity, anaerobic bandwidth, physical toughness, and mental preparedness. High intensity interval training plays a critical role in each of these “fitness” components- intervals, as the authors put it, create “the stimulus necessary to achieve positive adaptations.”
Training the Gut
But the training process for ultrarunning racing is not just composed of cardiovascular, musculo-skeletal, and mental fitness. It also includes gastrointestinal (GI) “fitness” as well and the authors devote an appropriately substantial chunk of the book to this subject. In 45 pages of text and figures, Koop and Rutberg provide the first comprehensive guide to “training your gut” for ultramarathons. Given that the number one reported cause for failure in an ultramarathon race is GI-distress, this has been a long time in coming. Avoidance of GI-distress-associated reduction in pace (and, for some, a DNF) is critical to any competitor who wants to race to maximum ability. Strategies for hydration, fueling, and “training the gut” are fully integrated and given the importance they deserve.
Conceptual Training Approach
The overarching training approach presented in the book is based on an “energy system” block periodization that follows a temporal progression of training blocks that increase in specificity to the focus race. In the general case of an ultramarathon this means that in the early season a VO2 max interval block is followed by a lactate threshold block and then the build-up ends in an endurance running block, preferably on similar terrain to the race (and most preferably on the actual course) just prior to the race. The early season blocks develop the cardiovascular engine and efficient neuromuscular adaptations required to be able to maximize the output of the endurance running block and, hopefully send the athlete to the line in an optimal state of fitness. To me this all makes sense, but I would point out that the jury is still out on the efficacy of the block periodization in endurance sport. Although shown to be advantageous in power sports (like weight lifting) there is scant data available that supports block periodization in endurance training. From a conceptual perspective the block periodization model is appealing and certainly worthy of one’s time and effort, particularly given the solid physiologic basis and success that the authors have had with it in their coaching practices.
“Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” is a valuable and comprehensive guide that represents a landmark in the unique and quirky realities of training for ultrarunning. The text is pleasingly readable, well structured, nicely illustrated, and grammatically consistent. Included are sidebar anecdotes from some current elite ultrarunning athletes as well as valuable peripheral information like opinion pieces on the value of downhill repeats, when to power hike vs run, the fallacy of “fat adaptation”, cross training, and many others. An index is included as well as a thorough listing of references to peer-reviewed studies. This book is highly recommended and should be read by anyone seeking to excel in ultrarunning competitions.
- A comprehensive guide to training for ultrarunning
- Founded on sound physiologic principles
- Includes significant material on hydration, fueling, and “training the gut” for the rigors of an ultramarathon
- Good discussion on the use of RPE (reported perception of effort) versus heart rate in training, particularly during intervals
- Excellent illustrations
- Informative anecdotes from current elite ultrarunners
- Valuable opinion pieces on peripheral topics
- A good index and a nice collection of reference material
- Very readable for a lay audience whilst still being detailed enough for subject matter experts
- No discussion of the efficacy of block periodization
- The text alludes to the potential for power meter-based training but does not include a thorough discussion of the topic. Should the current running power meters being developed (e.g. Stryd) prove to be accurate and user-friendly, a second edition of this book may be in order.
- The discussion on salt totally ignores the work of many researchers including the data and analysis provided in the book “Waterlogged” by Noakes. Reliance on the ACSM for guidance in this area is highly suspect and casts an ill light on the recommendations in the book. The saving grace is that too much salt rarely leads to issues.
- Although a good index, it is a bit skimpy