Book review: Training Essentials for Ultrarunning

By Jason Koop with Jim Rutberg 2016 CTS https://trainright.com/ultrarunning/

“What does success look like to you?” asks Jason Koop, the author, in his book, nay manual, nay authoritative treatise on ultrarunning published several years ago.

My question is “where has this book been all my (running) life?” I only learned of this book in March 2021 though it was published way back in 2016. After poring over the book and taking copious notes, I immediatley set out to read it a second time.

This book really illuminates the benefits of having a good coach. To be honest, this book inspired me to find a coach who was a knowledgeable and compassionate as the author, who wrote “Care more about the person than the performance” (p. 14). With fingers faster than Eliud’s legs, I navigated to their website searching for a list of services! Then I woke up, because #teachingpaysbutdoesntpay.

Luckily, this book can help people of my sort, coachless but highly self-motivated. I am now using the information in this book to prepare for my next event next month – a 100 miler, Karhunkierros NUTS. Will this book make a significant difference in my success next month? Perhaps a little bit, but had I found it a year ago, the answer would be YES.

My purpose in reviewing this book is two-fold: First, I would like to share what I have learned with my vast readership of at least three people, and second, I would like to distill my chicken scratch sticky notes into something more permanent, for my own future review. I’m sure others have reviewed this book, but I haven’t checked; maybe I will after writing. I should also mention that I don’t have a degree in sports science, so my interpretations are my own. I also assume that this book was written for people who already have spent a few years trail running, rather than for brand new runners.

The take home Lesson – flip it

Perhaps the overarching lesson I learned while reading this book is the importance of backwards engineering in regard to training for an ultra long running event, like a 100 miler. What this means is to flip assumptions on their head and watch the world spin. In practice this means changing from the mindset that training for an ultra should start with long and slow runs ‘to build up a base’ with more focused running and perhaps some speed later on. The author obliterates this thinking and suggests that runners should do the activities least like the actual event first; so high intensity to increase your threshold and thus make it easier to run longer, faster. After an initial 8 weeks, or however long, one shifts to threshold or near threshold training to hone the ability to run long and steady at a pace faster than you could previously manage (I’m leaving out lots of important technical details). Finally, in the last phase of training, runners would be focusing on back-to-back long runs and steady state training. I found this video about steady state training that seems to follow this book’s ideas. All of this focuses on the importance of maximizing cardio vascular fitness, perhaps the single most important variable in running performance success (p. 15).

Another important lesson this book drives home to me is that success can often be measured by lack of failure. I am in fact, a master of failure. If I had a Euro for every foot and stomach problem I have experienced in long races over the last few years, I would already have Jason Koop as my personal coach!

The mistakes we make

As just noted, one way to learn well is to learn from mistakes. As it goes, you can learn from your own mistakes or those of others. The more you can learn from others probably helps you avoid repeating what they have done. Here are a few mistakes mentioned in the book.

  1. Too much volume without intensity. The author himself wrote “I see ultrarunners making the same mistake. They unnecessarily prioritize mileage over focused training” (p. 11). Unfortunately for myself, I am GUILTY as charged! The author spends many pages writing about the need for intensity in training, even for ultrarunners. In particular, it seems that intensity in the beginning of a training cycle is best.
  2. A sample size of N = 1. Everybody has an opinion, but science is empirical, so that next time your friend shares advice about something related to running and says ‘it worked for me’ you should think a bit more critically and consider the sample size. A personal anecdote from my teenage years comes to my mind: My friend once told me that he would no longer wear seatbelts in cars. Why? Because his sister had recently been in a car accident and avoided injury because she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Makes sense, right? Wrong.
  3. Lack of specificity. The author shared an anecdote about seeing runners training on the 400m track in Chamonix, France in preparation before the mountainous UTMB 100 miler (10,000 meters of climbing). That is ridiculous. Interestingly, I have my own anecdote about UTMB in Chamonix from when I was there asa volunteer for irunfar.com. When I was there, I saw a runner vaping before one of the races. That was one of the stupidest things I have ever seen.
  4. Should I go on a starvation diet to lose weight and (hopefully) increase my performance? Well, weighing less for many running events is advantageous, but the author wrote “While being excessively heavy is not advantageous, there is a benefit to carrying some additional muscle, and being too lean can be problematic” (p. 104).

How to improve

The book is full of useful information, but I will focus on a few select issues that can help improve running performance. Based upon my notes, here are some thoughts concerning how I might approach improving my performance as an ultrarunner:

  1. Due to heavy training loads and the average age of ultrarunners (usually well over 30), it’s a great idea to do intense training on hills, primarily uphill. Why is running uphill a good idea? Although moving uphill is slower than moving on flat, on an incline, runners can reach and exceed their lactate threshold more easily. Moreover, the physical pounding of the joints and muscles is reduced, thus reducing injury risk. Finally, in an ultra, much more time is actually spent running/walking uphill than cruising downhill (p. 103). BTW, practicing downhill running can be useful but a little goes a long way (quad conditioning and/or technical descent training) and anything more can lead to debilitating injury.
  2. I have often heard that heart rate training is less effective so I have avoided using it much, but I never understood why until reading this book. I won’t rehash the reasons here, but the better idea the author proposes is called Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and relies on using your brain over technology. Although the near future may bring technology that really measure training impact for runners (like power meters in cycling), RPE tends to be the most useful tool for now (p 135). I am slowly beginning to adopt RPE in my own training. Fortunately, Strava (popular online exercise tracking platform) allows users to ignore heart rate information and use a 1-10 scale for RPE.
  3. Some of us runners really like to focus on how many kilometers / miles we run each day, week, or year. I definitely count myself among this group. The author, however, wrote that total time in hours training is a better metric than distance; when talking about trail running (p. 126). I agree, but it sure is fun to track kilometers!
Screen shot of the video I mentioned below

Notes for myself now, and my future self.

The following section consists of issues that I found of particular importance. The casual reader could skip this and proceed directly below. Essentially, this is a rapid fire list of things I highlighted in my reading that will hopefully help me in the future.

  1. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Does this mean I have to train in the rain? 🙂 “Being willing to be uncomfortable is essential for building toughness; it’s a characteristic that will pay dividends when honed to its full potential” (p. 35).
  2. Stomach problems (GI distress) is the leading reason people fail to finish 100 milers (p. 46). I need to learn more about GI training. The problem is that my stomach only begins to experience GI distress after 6-8 hours of running, so how do I train for that without risking overtraining / overuse injury (and finding the time!).
  3. As for those who actually finished 100 milers, the biggest reported problem is blisters (p. 65). I suffer from blisters during any runs over 3-4 hours in length. The problem is so acute that quite some time ago I bought the book Fixing your Feet from John Vonhof to try and help me. I made video about the book here. I was happy to read that Jason Koop also made a DIY box of foot products (p. 77).
  4. Do more ‘middle effort training like Steady State Runs (SSRs) and Tempo runs. Traditionally I have done lots of training at a slow ‘forever’ pace with a bit of speed work here and there (street orienteering / rogaining) and occasional speed sessions. Since January 2021, however, I have included meaningful speed work in my regime. I have noticeably improved my overall speed and increased my Vo2 max (according to Garmin), but now I need to include more near-threshold training. It’s fairly straightforward, but certainly not easy, to train above my threshold by sprinting, as well as below it by running easy. Training in the neighborhood of my threshold, on the other hand, is tricky and something I tend to avoid. My brain thinks I should train fast and hard or slow and easy: Why train in the middle ground? The answer is found in how this type of training strengthens my aerobic engine and enhances the role of mitochondria – reintegration of lactate (p. 141).
  5. Most of my races in 2020 and 2021 were cancelled, but if the COVID pandemic ever ends and we can return to racing, I need to develop some specific goals for specific events. The author wrote at length about long term goals (outcome) and short term goals (process). This is something I need to do more intentionally (p. 233). What is my goal for a certain event? What process goals will help me achieve this outcome?

My questions for the author Jason Koop, should he ever read this review.

  1. Several pages in your book mention or at least hint at your reticence regarding strength training for runners. Do you think the research on this topic is conclusive/convincing, or is it possible that your view will change? Perhaps certain variables may lend themselves to including strength training in one’s regimen? For example, older runners for whom muscle loss is a concern, or runners prone to injury?
  2. Because of the pandemic, most of my races have been cancelled. How can I train meaningful if I have no scheduled event? How do I mix intensity, threshold work, and event-specific training when there is no event but I like to exercise and want to continue to improve? Is there a sort of ‘holding pattern’ training I could follow?
  3. Backyard Ultras, last person standing. I was going to ask about this but then noticed a post on March 30, 2021 on the CTS Facebook page about the topic. The post doesn’t, however, provide nearly the detail I had hoped. How about expanding and adding that to the next edition? 🙂

Conclusion

Thank you Jason Koop and Jim Rutberg for this amazing book. Your experience has provided tangible improvement to my own running in both physically and mentally. I really wish I were your next-door neighbor so I could randomly ask you stuff all the time. 🙂

Thanks to Lari Koivu (Instagram @larikoivu) for lending me this book. I have since purchased my own copy. It’s in the mail, but Brexit is delaying delivery to Finland.

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