Training – How much is too much? (Or too little)

After the heady heights of the Kilian’s of this world, we come back down to earth now with a little bit of thought as to training and how much is too much, or indeed too little as well as quality versus quantity.

Not to hark on about the little man from Catalan, but I seem to remember reading that the week before Western States, Kilian knocked off over 30 hours of training with 20,000m of vertical. Wow! So no taper then. It was also reported that he had only ‘trained’ for two weeks prior to the event too. Now you can argue just how much of that is true, because the reality of the situation is that he’s in training all year round being a professional sportsman.

Do we need to do those extra kms? Or is it our ego telling us to?

But for the weekend warriors, which is what most of us are, how much training should we or can we do? From a personal perspective, I hold down a good job and work anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week, depending on workload. I’m also married, so have a wife to keep happy as well as a couple of children on the way which will dramatically change my life, but in a hugely positive way. Considering all of the above, hitting out at 160kms a week would probably be my peak (less when the children come along for sure). Maybe I could squeeze in a 180km week if work was a little lighter, or indeed the missus was away or something, but for me that’s enough.

On the flipside, I know of people knocking off 200km+ weeks, but similarly those who do a fairly minimal amount at around 70-80kms a week. Now, bear in mind we’re talking about ultra running here, so even 70kms a week would be considered a rather large amount by Joe Public. But what is deemed appropriate? When is it too much? When do diminishing returns set in? How much of it is a mental limit we place upon ourselves?

The simple answer is that there is no answer, and a comment from Bryon Powell on an article on this site made another very good point. As runners, we’re never happy with the amount of training we do as we always question if we could have done more, or we could have done it better so to speak. But when can we truly look at ourselves in the mirror and say “You know what, I couldn’t have done anymore.” We don’t like to admit that, because that means we’ve essentially found our peak, and as runners, do we want to admit that we’ve found that peak?

Good hurtin' baby!

Here’s another example. I train with a group of people, and each Tuesday morning we do a hills session. This is a tough session that not only has some nice steep hills, but it’s effectively a tempo session as we’re working at pretty much full tilt. For the last 6 months or so, my PB on said course has remained at certain level, which means my training had plateaued so to speak. The guys I train with have posted some pretty hot times that are 2-3 minutes quicker than me, and which are times that I thought I’d never actually be able to do. Low and behold, out of nowhere, I smashed that PB by 2.5 mins yesterday with a time that I never thought possible, and is now on a par with them.

So here’s the question(s), was I running to my ability for the last six months and trying hard enough? Was I doing the right training? How come I managed to smash that PB by so much, off what I thought was not great training up until now? I still don’t have that answer at the moment, but it got me thinking about the type and amount of training I’ve been doing i.e. the old argument of quality versus quantity.

Going back to the numbers game, the question of diminishing returns also begs to be asked. When do you reach a point that the training you’re doing is not having any effect at all, and you’re effectively doing junk kms? We’re all guilty of it. For some reason we set round numbers as our goal for the week e.g. 150kms, and if we get to Sunday and we’re 3.5kms short of that goal, how many of us have gone out and run that last 3.5kms to hit the number? To me, that’s just ego telling us to hit the number, rather than making a conscious decision that doing those 3.5kms is completely worthless.

For my training block for the Northburn 100 miler, it was all about distance and logging as many kms as I could. This benefited hugely as far as the distance was concerned, and in a sense the speed looked after itself. I remember a debate just before 6ft track as part of the beer bet, with people banging in about 10km speed work. I dismissed it at the time (for a number of reasons), because I knew my long distance training had taken care of the need for doing any specific speed work (based on what it is we were trying to achieve). Hey presto, I set a new PB at 6ft track. Bizarre, but sometimes it’s difficult to explain these things to be honest.

For this latest training block, I’ve not actually written a detailed plan as I normally would, simply because I don’t want to set limits on the amount of training I should/want to do. But also because I know my training routine inside out now. I know how many kms I want to hit in any given week, but it’s also to ensure I don’t do junk kms, which I think can so often be the case when we map out a plan. Of course there is a flipside to this in that I’m not actually committing to what I’m going to do each day. However I would hope that my own internal motivation to do well would overcome any sandbagging on my behalf.

Anyway, some food for thought for now. This post is not intended to be a scientific one as such, merely to raise some questions and hopefully start some debate. I’d love to hear your thoughts around quality and quantity of training, and hopefully some answers to some of the questions raised above too.

Like our articles? Take a second to support Ultra168 on Patreon from as little as $1 a month!
Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

25 thoughts on “Training – How much is too much? (Or too little)

  1. Dan,
    I won’t detail it here but next week I was going to put up what I’ve done in the build up to the Commonwealth Champs which will include comparison to my previous 24’s and to a 24 hour rogaine. May as well chuck in some discussion about Northburn as well as I’ve been asked plenty of times how to train for that. Short answer for Northburn is that I tell people it’s got bugger all to do with running and more to do with Hiking efficiently.

    Generally – I don’t have the time to run 100miles/week, but what I do run is about 90% hills with slopes of 10-25%.

  2. Would be great to see that Matt. I agree re: Northburn. Everyone was looking at the climbing to be done. I said to quite a few people that it should be the downhills that people should be training for and are just as important. Agree on the hills… so important.

  3. Great post Dan, needs a load more thought before I post anything worthy of discussion. But initially, it is interesting to read the difference in training that Geoff Roes put in for UTMB compared to Kilian, it seems Geoff has reached a plateau where he was feeling more crap on his runs than feeling good, i.e. he believes 80% of your runs should feel great and 20% just not great, but recently this ratio has been reversed, so he is likely to now take a break. Bringing it back down to our level, on this mornings 20k tempo run to Manly, which over the last 3 weeks members of Ultra168 have been getting a couple of minutes faster on, was never going to be easy for me this morning. So I declared that today would not be a PB day, low and behold, my mates poo pooed the idea and said you should only declare that sort of stuff at the end of the run. As it happens we ran easier this week, chatted a bit more than normal and returned home only 4 seconds a KM slower than our PB or roughly 3 mins slower overall, yet we were not busted up and in great spirits ready to jump into some massive KMs on the weekend. Big blocks of training are crucial, as there are no shortcuts to training for ultras, but there is definitely so merit in taking it easy on the odd run during these massive blocks, more so for the mental fatigue. Remember that in order to run 180km weeks, its somewhere in the region of 20 + hours if you combine loads of hills, that means 3am alarm clocks and eating and sleeping smart everyday. Flying Kiwi raises a good point, the pros seem to include loads more vertical in their training than Joe Public, something I am interested in finding out more about.

    Food for thought…….

    1. Hills – Cos Dunedin ain’t flat like Australia 🙂 and it’s way more fun to train in the mountains than on the road. My daily commute (9.4k each way) has about 150m/350m of climb in it. Grant Guise who came over for TNF lives in Castle Hill (Arthurs Pass) and likes to put in 1000m (pace isn’t considered) when he runs. In the winter he’s ski touring, much like Kilian. Martin Lukes trains bugger all but likes to go on missions in the Mountains with a massive amount of vertical. Again Pace isn’t an issue. I know on a recent one he took 2 hours to cover 500m, downhill. Norman Dunroy (2nd in the Kepler) rides a lot and runs hills. Vajin Armstrong – less hills more k’s, like 200k.

  4. Just chucking thoughts up there as I go, whats everyones take on mixing up training for ultras with riding a road and or MTB ? I notice the Jono Wyatts, Kilian’s and Andrew Vizes of this world clock up around 150-200kms a week nice and easy. Does it help or hinder? Don’t hear the likes of Anton or Geoff or Bryon Powell doing a lot of riding.

  5. Thought provoking post Dan. I loved our long chat in your first 100km at Glassy. There is a similar post on coolrunning entitled “physical vs mental”.

    I can run (very average times over) trail ultras and for years I have only averaged 100km per MONTH, not peer week. Mostly mental methinks. Running the 3.5km on a Sunday to ‘make your miles’ is just that, like you say, mental training = confidence.

    I think the point of diminshing returns is different for everyone, but is firnly somewhere between 1 and 1 zillion per month 😉

    One day I will want to be competitive and train hard, but with 3 kids under 8, Ill settle for toughing out the last 20% of every ultra and enjoy every minute in the bush until then.

  6. I would say that having a diverse training regime is important. Have lots of different routines that will shock your body from time to time will get better results than a routine that involves running the same route day in and day out..

    I also belive that training volume depends alot on what stage you are at in your ultra lifecycle and what you are trying to train:

    If you take a guy who is new to ultras then his training volume needs to be relatively high since he is predominatly training for physiological change in his body – more mitochondria in the muscles for instance – these changes take years to develop but, once you have them, then they don’t go away quickly either.

    A more experienced ultra runner needs less milage because he already has the physiological make-up that he needs but he may want to better train his cardiovascular system to be more efficient and allow him to sustain a higher level of intensity for longer.

    I have read countless stories of ultra runners who require less and less volume as their career develops – Yannis Kouros claimed to only run as far as 12k in any one session in his late 40s and Bryon Powell ran Western States on some very modest mileage just to name two off the top of my head.

    Its a really interesting topic and no doubt you could write a PHD thesis on it.

    1. I’m with your line of thinking Charlie.

      2008 – I just ran to and from work 4 days a week with backpack on plus a 45km run/walk on the weekends – finished the 100 mile GNW (just) – 29:05 6th place

      2009 – Modified it to make sure the junk miles were minimised, worked on my running weaknesses by training specifically early mornings before work with faster guys, started to jog small inclines during the race, previously had never ran anything that even looked like a hill, weekend long runs started to become about pace not distance – 25:13 GNW – 1st place, C2K 33:XX (many hours of suffering)

      2010 – Continuation of 2009 but got hung up on overall weekly distances, running streaks (86 days at 21km+ per day) and ultimately training was not maximised because I was chasing the big weekly totals without regard for quality. Part of this was the fact I was training for C2K at the same time as GNW – 24:33 GNW – 1st place but only 2 legs of this race were faster than the year before. C2K 30:06 (felt great)

      2011 – Reckon I have the balance sorted now, I’m still learning each and every day and enjoying trying new training techniques / programs but every session has a purpose – that purpose is to make sure I can complete the next days planned training session at the highest level. A lot more active recovery and making sure i am “up” for each training run.

      A big part of training is what you do in the hours you’re not training.

  7. good stuff guys. for me, quality seems to surpass the need for quantity, although, if I can find an ideal ratio between the two that works then great! you guys said it, everyone’s different and there is no magic number. I’m all about finding that “sweet spot”, like I mentioned, that ideal ratio between quality and quantity that keeps my body healthy, my mind sane, my passion continuing to flow, my priorities in line with marriage and a full-time job. all in all, finding that balance in life. for me, 90-100 miles per week seems to be my sweet spot in training. great discussion. and Marcus, I love road biking! great supplement to training I think.

    1. Thanks for commenting Jacob, great to have your thoughts and insights, and indeed this was the point of the article, to see what others do and what advice they can offer. Matt’s post is gold for people like us, to know how some of the best runners in New Zealand are doing this kind of thing too. so we appreciate your thoughts.

      There’s a really valuable saying that I always try and live by in the ultra running world, “Listen to everyone, but follow no-one”…

  8. I agree with Jacob that quality beats quantity every time. The only thing I would add to this recognises Charlie’s point that it is good to shock your body occasionally so that it understands that you are not going to give it what it wants all the time. This actually prepares you a lot more than you think. However this totally changes if you are thinking of doing anything other than just finishing without feeling totally cr*p. If you want to express to the finish ala AV then all bets are off and the plan totally changes. I think you have to decide when discussing this subject which camp you live and train in. Example – 2 years ago I did Ironman on an average of 6hrs training a week for 7 months. Didn’t break any records but enjoyed every minute of it, didn’t feel terrible afterwards and felt I had achieved a big goal that had eluded me for some time, having been in triathlon for more than 20 years.
    I am now in a position where I want to get ready for my first Ultra. My mind is naturally thinking what can I manage a finish on? At the moment I don’t know, trial and error. But cross training will help the fitness if I have time and apart from that I will get my 12k’s in during the week 2 or 3 times and hit the trails harder at the weekends. At the end of the day a huge amount of the result comes down to pacing, nutrition and being mentally strong enough to bear up to the time it will take to finish.
    Or I could be totally wrong – here’s to enjoying finding out 🙂

  9. Isn’t there a saying ” you can never overtrain, only under recover”

    So Dan you stated your training had remained the same – so what did you do differently off course in the preceding week to earn your PB?

  10. Tropic… I honestly don’t know, because the week before I was ill and had 4 days off. Maybe that was it… or maybe I’m just fitter and I haven’t given the hills a really good spank for a few months. Maybe I was just being lazy in the last few months? I did feel considerably stronger going up the hills than normal… oh and I’ve lost about 10kgs since this time last year… maybe that’s it…

    1. 4 days off – you had a mid season taper !!! this just adds to the argument of Quality over Quantity

      Dropped 10 kegs heh – down to a chiselled, rock solid 115Kg

      Marcus has dropped a stack too…what you guys planning? an Ultra168 calendar…..

  11. I think the how much is too much is highly depending on the goal you put ahead of you and What sort of success you want to reach ? You want to be the best you can be now or you want to be the best in the country or world ?
    If you have a certain time every week to train, I think it is more important to focus on time than on mileage. 8hours of training can be, 100K or 70K, doesn’t matter. The quality comes in this time. And the more advanced(fast) you become the more miles will fit in to your weekly 8 hours, though it does not have any significance, as the 70K week can have higher training effect than the 100K.

    In case of ultras, especially where you spend more time on your legs, the long runs are necessary. If you read any books from Joe Friel, for instance heart rate training. It says that for instance a race run in an average heart rate of “Zone 2 Low Aerobic Threshold” heart rate, you have to be able to train on the same heart rate at least for half the time. So for a planned 20hour race, a 10hour run can be very useful, and bcse of the low heart rate you can recover easily.
    That is in case of weekend warriors, an unlikely approach. But still if your longer run/hike is 5 hours and you are destroyed after, your chance of finishing a 20hour race by the cut off time is so far “0”.

    In my opinion, if you want to go for success, the weekly available training time determines your goal distance. As on a 70Km week, you can be very very victorious in 5Km-10Km races(in case of correct approach), as the lot of speed work and recovery will help to put in extreme effort on workouts.

    If you want to go for a goal race, for instance first ultra 100k, on an 8 hour week, don’t create any dreams of being in first ten, just do your race finish it and enjoy the scenery. (Unless you are a talent, but most of us not)

      1. I have a few ultra years under my belt and it has quickly become obvious to me that quality trumps quantity once you have many years of base and long racing experience. I spend my time these days doing as diverse an array of training as possible and include more strength work and Crossfit type stuff as I am getting a bit long in the tooth- need to maintain a strong but lean profile. The paradox for me is that I have done my best ultras with leadup sessions resembling 20 X 200m in 40s on 20s jog recoveries – and presumably I am a 90% slow twitch fibre man….

  12. Thanks martin for the great input. Sounds like a tough session. When you say jog recoveries, do you just plod / shuffle for the 20 seconds or is it still running at a certain pace? Good to see you back running after the injury too. AV

    1. Just jog very easily for 20s- it is actually a high aerobic rather than a VO2 or anaerobic session, Very much like an extended stride session where you are improving fluidity of running mechanics and staying loose at a reasonable pace.

Leave a Reply