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The following training advice has kindly been prepared by Andy Dubois of Mile 27, one of Australia’s leading Ultra Running coaches. (Andy raced Big Red Run in 2016, coming in 2nd place male and 3rd overall, so he knows what it takes to train for such a demanding event).
It is general advice to help people with their training approach and strategy for Big Red Run and is therefore not tailored to any particular level of runner. It is not a specific 12 or 16 week training plan, but it does give you good insight into the types of training that will help you achieve your Big Red Run goals.
We thank Andy for his valuable contribution.
For more details about Andy Dubois and Mile27 coaching click here.
The Big Red Run is a challenging but achievable race for most people and the right training will make the experience even more enjoyable. How to train for an event like this is something that many people are unsure about. What is the best type of training to do? How long should my long run be? Should I do speed work?
This guide aims to answer most of those question:
There are a few key sessions that will help you maximise training gains for an event like this.
Lets look at each of these and give you an idea of how much you should be doing and the type of sessions you should be doing.
Long run or walk
Ideally , given that the longest day in Big Red Run is 84km, a run of 40-60km is long enough. The lower end of the scale is if you only have a few years of conditioning in the legs and the upper end if you’ve been running ultras for a while and know that you can handle that distance without any soreness. Build your long run up gradually and give your body time to adapt. Increasing each week by a maximum of 10% of the previous week is a good rule of thumb.
With 250km to cover in 5 days and 84km in one day the long run is the key session in your weekly program . How long depends on how much your legs can handle. A good test is if you can wake up next morning after your long run feeling like you could go for another easy run with no more soreness than any other day then your legs are coping with the distance. If even the thought of running the next day makes your legs sore then you are running either too long or too fast.
The pace for the long run should be very easy - you should finish each long run feeling like you could have done more or run faster rather than being at your limit. Conversation pace the whole time.
Try and spend plenty of time running on sand both soft and hard in your long run to get used to the conditions you will experience in the desert. Make sure you also do several runs with a fully loaded pack to get used to running with one and making sure its adjusted right for you.
One factor many people don’t take into consideration in the long run is walking. It’s highly likely you’ll be doing some walking during the race so you need to train for it. Adding walking breaks to your long run also means you can cover more distance and spend more time on your feet with less stress on your legs and less chance of injury. Compare a non-stop 3 hour run with a 4 hour run where you walk for 2 minutes every 18 minutes. You end up running for 3 hours 36 minutes but I bet you feel better after the 4 hour sessions than the non-stop 3 hour run. In training you can try out different walk run ratios and see what feels best - for example some people may prefer a 5 minute run 1 minute walk ratio - others 17 minute run 3 minute walk. If you plan to walk at some stage make sure you train for it.
Back to Back Runs
Once your long run is around 3 hours long you should be able to handle back to back runs . This simply means you do a run one evening and then the next morning run again so you simulate running on tired legs.
Initially start with a short run as the first run and gradually build that up. Some of you may get to doing 30km one day and 40km the next - but most will be better off doing 20 one day and 30 the next to minimise the risk of overload and injury.
Once you can handle back to backs the next step is to make the first run a harder run like a tempo or hill repeat session so you get used to running long the next day on even more fatigued legs. But don't attempt this unless you can do an easy run back to back first.
Tempo and Speed sessions
You may be wondering why we need to include speed and tempo sessions for an event thats 250km long. Speed training helps us run faster with no extra effort and increases the distance we can run at a slower pace for so is very beneficial for any event no matter how long.
Start your speed sessions with shorter faster reps and gradually increase them as the race approaches peaking around 3-4 weeks out before making them shorter again.
Here is a guide on how to progress them and keep in mind there are many different ways to perform a speed session - these are just some of them.
5 x 1600 fast 90 seconds easy
5 x 1200 fast 90 seconds easy
5 x 10 minutes fast 2 minutes easy
4 x 15 minutes fast 2 minutes easy
2 x 30 minutes fast 2 minutes easy
The aim for these is to run them at the fastest pace you can maintain for all reps however if you haven't done speed work before I recommend a period of a month where you gradually increase the intensity to give your legs time to adapt. So aim to finish the first 3-4 sessions feeling like you could have run faster or done more reps rather than feeling exhausted.
How quickly you move along that progression depends on what your body can handle . As a guideline though that progression should take at least 16 weeks spending a few weeks on each workout before progressing to the next one . Don’t rush through the progressions , if you don't get to the last few that’s fine - listen to your body and only progress when you know you can handle the session.
Hill repeats aren't just for hilly races. Whilst the only hills in the Big Red Run are the dunes the benefit of hill training is in both increasing fitness and running economy on the uphills and developing muscular endurance on the downhills. Both will help you cope with multiple days of running.
Start with shorter reps and taking the downhills nice and easy and as you adapt begin to run faster on the downhills to condition the legs. Be warned running fast downhill is tough on the legs , but so is running 250km through the desert!
To get the most out of your hill sessions choose runnable hills - and work your way through the progressions below
10 x 2 minutes fast up easy back down recovery
8 x 3 minutes fast up easy back down recovery
6 x 4 minutes fast up, short recovery at the top then on the way down, fast but comfortable, then
60-90 seconds recovery at the bottom
5 x 6 minutes fast up, 30 seconds recovery at the top then fast but comfortable back down, then
60 - 90 seconds recovery at the bottom
6 x 4 minutes hard up then fast back down - 90 seconds rest a the bottom
8 x 3 minutes starting at the top run down fast then back up hard - 90 seconds rest a the top
This progression should take at least 3 months , if you haven't done much hill running before then it may take 4-5 months . Downhills place a lot of stress on the legs ( which is why its beneficial) but that also means higher risk of injury so needs to be approached with caution, allowing time for the legs to adapt.
Recovery and Easy Runs
Not every run in your training program can be long or hard. In fact 2 hard sessions a week is enough. The rest of your runs should feel easy. The mistake many people make is running the easy sessions too fast thinking it is better training, when in reality all it does is make you tired for your harder sessions. The net result is you are worse off than if you ran your easy sessions slow. Save the hard efforts for the hard sessions and keep the easy sessions easy.
How many kms per week should you run? There is no magic number as to what you should be doing. Simply increase your running volume according to how much time you have and what your body can handle. For some people that might be 60-80km per week others 120+km. What matters more is what you do in your training sessions. 80km a week with a long run of 35km, a tempo session, a hill rep session and some easy runs would be far better than 120km a week of simply running 10km morning and night for 6 days a week.
Don’t strive to reach a certain number, gradually increase the volume as your body adapts and build to a peak around 4 weeks before the Big Red Run. Better to arrive at the start line underdone training wise but injury free than with niggles because you tried to up the volume too quickly!
Recovery and Avoiding Injury
Recovery weeks every 3-4 weeks are very beneficial even if you don't feel like you need one. They help reduce risk of injury and allow for more adaptation to occur from the training you have done.
A recovery week usually means you still run the same amount of times per week but your long run is less and change your hill and speed sessions to easy runs.
Niggles are part and parcel of training. I define a niggle as something that doesn't quite feel right but doesn't effect your training. Ignore them and they can become injuries which do effect your training. Sometimes is best not to stick to the plan for the day and just do an easy run or have the day off instead. Knowing when you can ignore a niggle and when you need to pay close attention to it comes with experience but if in doubt ease up.
Time On Your Feet
Many people will be wondering if they are only covering 80km a week how will they cope with running 250km in a week. The bigger the gap between training and racing the more potential for something to go wrong. How can you decrease that gap without increasing risk of injury or taking up too much time? We all have families and jobs that take up time as well!
The best way is to walk as much as possible. Walk every day, walk to work, walk to the shop, find any excuse to walk you can. It’s all time on your feet and helps prepare your body for covering the extreme distances in the race. When you do walk don’t stroll – walk fast. For many people walking will be how you cover a good percentage of the race so the more walking you have done beforehand the better. People tend to think if you can run then you are fit to walk. But walking is a different movement to running and needs to be trained for specifically.
There is no doubt that strength training is beneficial to runners especially as we age and lose muscle mass so adding one to two strength training sessions per week can be very beneficial. Aim to make the exercises specific - squats, 1 leg squats, and lunges are the best for runners. Use lighter weights more reps (15-20+) to help develop muscular endurance.
What a weekly program might look like keeping in mind we are all different, have different capacity to handle training, have different amounts of time available to train so this is a guide to how training might look:
Monday – 45-90 minute easy run
Tuesday – Hill repeats
Wednesday Strength training + 60 minute walk
Thursday – 45-90 minute run on sand – easy
Friday – Tempo run
Saturday – Long run
Sunday – 60 minute walk + Strength training
For some people this will be too much and you’ll need another day of or two of rest so make sure you tailor the training to you. If you are currently only running 3x per week then don't suddenly add 3 more sessions. Increase gradually, listening to your body rather than sticking to a pre determined schedule that may not suit your body.
Training to Finish
If the thought of all those long runs, hill repeats and speed sessions takes away the enjoyment of training then fear not you can still finish the Big Red Run not doing any of that. Of course you’ll be a lot slower than if you did those types of sessions but not all of us are concerned about speed.
To simply have the fitness to finish the race then the key is spending time on your feet preferably on sand and as much as you can.
Whether that’s just easy running or fast hiking - the more you can do the better you’ll cope in the desert. Make sure you do some long hikes with your pack o get accustomed wearing the pack for long days on your feet. Keep in mind that walking a marathon can take 6+ hours and the 84km day may take some of you up to 20 hours, so it is important to try and get some long days hiking on your feet to prepare the body and mind.
The Big Red Run is a unique high profile fundraising event, which draws significant media coverage. If you are interested in Big Red Run sponsorship opportunities, please contact us, and our sponsorship manager will respond to you.