High Mileage and Ultra Marathoners – A Case Study

The Western States Endurance Race took place last weekend. The race, which is run on trails of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, is 100 miles long and runners climb a cumulative total of 18000 feet. It is one of the most famous ultra marathons in the world and one of the most challenging tests for any ultra runner. This year, the race was won by Geoff Roes of Douglas, Alaska, in a record time of 15 hours, 7 minutes, and 4 seconds. Finishing just over six minutes behind Geoff was Anton Krupicka. I happened to find an online running log for Anton and was amazed at what it takes to be an exceptional ultra runner.

Anton’s blog is called Riding the Wind. Throughout the blog, he posts his daily and weekly training mileage. Out of curiosity, I reviewed his weekly mileage in the four months leading up to the race, which was: 197, 208, 167, and 184. The entries for some of the days during this stretch are just amazing and hardly seem possible. For example, on May 27th, he ran 25 miles in the morning and 8 miles in the evening. Wow! Perhaps even more incredible is that he ran 184 miles in the week before one of the most important races of the year.

Even though Anton’s weekly mileage totals are staggering and obviously worked for him, I just don’t know if they would be beneficial for all runners. Most experts seem to agree that high mileage is good, but there is a point at which it can have diminishing returns. In my personal running history, I have run much better races at 70-75 miles a week than when I was trying to run 90-100 miles a week. I could feel my body start to break down past 100 miles and invariably became injured.

The bottom line is that having a high mileage training program is essential for developing the heart and lungs and teaching the body to burn fat. However, it is important not to get sucked into the idea that more mileage always means faster race times. As evidence of this, I took a look at the log of the winner of this year’s Western States, Geoff Roes. Geoff’s weekly mileage leading up to the race was: 93, 89, 109, and 63. These totals are basically half of what Anton ran, but Geoff ran faster on race day. Obviously, Geoff’s inherent running talent probably has a lot to do with that, but the fact remains that relatively small mileage did not prevent him from winning the race.

Therefore, keep a simple rule in mind: Even through it is tempting to compare your training totals with other runners, a runner must confidence in his or her own training plan, focus on high quality workouts over simple quantity, and listen to the body.

Photo courtesy of Richard Webb

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