How I’m Training for My First Ultramarathon in 9 Years… With No Long Runs
In 2013, I ran my first 100-mile ultramarathon.
And then, just like that, I quit running.
Quitting wasn’t really the plan. But I got busy with the tour for my first book, and just never started training again.
The 100 had been the culmination of a decade of hard work, ups and downs, a Boston Marathon journey, and of course, a plant-based diet.
I had actually loved running the race, and figured it was the first of many 100’s. But after I stopped, I learned that I really enjoyed not running at all.
So that’s pretty much what I did. For the next nine years.
Even When I Used to Run, I Wasn’t a Runner
Even when I used to run, I said I wasn’t a real runner.
There were times when I felt like part of the community (particularly when I read Born to Run, and later, after the Boston Marathon bombing.) But running never did for me what I knew it did for real runners.
I never “needed” to run like they did, and really, I never wanted to run either. Mostly, it made me bored — especially the dreaded weekend long run.
Race days excepted, I can’t think of a single day when I’d have preferred to run than to stay inside. Or to go to the gym, or play soccer, or whatever.
So why run at all, you ask?
Because even though I didn’t love running, I loved training. Having a big goal, making visible progress, and eventually accomplishing something that I once thought was impossible (for me, anyway).
The Boston Marathon and the 100-miler became significant sources of meaning and pride for me, and still are. For me, they’ll always be symbols of what’s possible.
Improving was addictive. That’s why I ran.
And now… I’m back. With a twist.
Last year was a transformational one for me. I got into near-daily kettlebell training, and I’ve kept it up for 14 months now.
During that time, I started running again. Never because I “wanted” to, but just for fitness. Two miles here, three miles there. No long runs, and almost never more than 10 miles in a week.
In September, I ran a 10K with my son. A friend who worked with the sponsor offered us free entry, and I figured why not?
Then I ran a trail half marathon out in San Francisco, a Spartan / No Meat Athlete collaboration. “A work event,” I told myself.
And then on a whim, I signed up for a 5-hour run on New Year’s Day. I didn’t do any traditional training — really, I just wanted to see how all my kettlebell training would translate into easy-pace ultrarunning. It wasn’t an astounding result, but it wasn’t bad either: 28 miles, good for third place among men.
Again, this was without specific running training. The half marathon had been my longest run up until then, and other than that, an easy nine-miler and a couple seven-milers were it.
Is it possible, I wondered, that I could start racing marathons and ultras again… without doing almost any of the long runs I dreaded so much?
And so began Act III of my running life. (If you consult your program, you’ll see that Act I was qualifying for Boston, Act II was the 100.)
How to Run Ultramarathons Without Doing Long Runs
This isn’t the first time no-long-run training has piqued my interest. In 2011, I read it about Brian Mackenzie and Crossfit Endurance in Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Body.
The claim was that Crossfit Endurance athletes ran 100-milers without ever doing more than a half marathon in training, focusing instead on strength, form (via the POSE method), and the spillover benefits of anaerobic workouts into aerobic fitness.
Count me in, I thought.
But of course, there was a catch. Just about every mile (and fraction of a mile) on the sample Crossfit Endurance plan in Ferriss’ book was fast. If not a 400- or 800-meter repeat on the track, it was a race-pace 10K, 10-miler, or half marathon… pretty much every weekend.
Oh, and did I mention Crossfit workouts themselves? Not just between running days, but often on running days, in the evenings following a morning track workout.
I was intrigued (how could I not be?). But with an aversion to Crossfit that kept me from showing up at a box, and a lack of publically available training plans, I let the fantasy of becoming an ultrarunner who didn’t do long runs die.
3 Books Guiding My New Approach to Training
My success in the 5-hour run this year rekindled that fire. Without any running beyond a half marathon, and a whole lot of kettlebell training, I had managed to run 28 miles without injury.
What if I kept up the kettlebell training, but added some more serious running to my weekly routine? What if I trained in the Crossfit Endurance style, and limited my long runs to races themselves?
I started digging, and I didn’t have to go far. I devoured three books in the span of a week, all of which focus more on strength, technique, and mobility than on pounding out miles:
- The Unbreakable Runner by TJ Murphy and Brian Mackenzie
- Ready to Run by Dr. Kelly Starrett and TJ Murphy
- The Running Revolution by Dr. Nicholas Romanov
The Unbreakable Runner
The Unbreakable Runner was pretty much exactly what I couldn’t find back in 2011: a solid argument for the Crossfit Endurance approach to training, along with specific plans for every common race distance. Plus just enough instruction and examples to do Crossfit-style workouts at home, without joining a box.
Ready to Run
Ready to Run is mobility guru K-Star’s plea that runners stop pounding out miles while ignoring the rest of their fitness and good movement principles, in the form of twelve biomechanical and lifestyle checkpoints that one should satisfy as a prerequisite for serious training. The promise is that it’ll ward off chronic injury and allow more efficient running and faster recovery. It comes with a prescription to work on mobility for at least 10 minutes a day (non-negotiable!), and so far, I’ve stuck with this habit.
The Running Revolution
The Running Revolution is a repackaging of the POSE method of efficient running technique, by its original developer. Although the plans in The Unbreakable Runner include 20-40 minutes of POSE-method-style drills before each run, I wanted to go deeper. If I’m not going to be putting in long miles, and instead relying on strength and efficiency of movement to carry me through race day, then it seems to me like I’d better make sure my stride doesn’t waste energy or needlessly increase my risk of injury.
The No-Long-Runs, No-Easy-Runs Ultramarathon Plan
So this is how I’ve trained for the past five weeks. The backbone of my routine is the Crossfit Endurance framework, but I swap several Crossfit-style workouts each week with the full-body kettlebell workout (from Simple & Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline) that I’ve done for the past year.
Each run is preceded by a lengthy warmup session, including 15-20 minutes of POSE drills. And every day — every single day — I do 10-30 minutes of mobility work in the evening. (Sometimes more.)
Here’s a typical week on my training plan (in fact, it’s exactly what I did last week):
Monday: Two-arm kettlebell swings, 100 reps @ 80lb, Turkish get-ups, 1 @ 70lb, 4 @ 80lb each side
Tuesday: 3 series of 20 pushups with green resistance band + 20 one-arm swings @ 60lb
Wednesday: Drills, 5K @ 90% of 5K race pace
Thursday: AM: Turkish get-ups, 1 @ 70lb, 4 @ 80lb each side (plus one left side with new 88lb) PM: 4 rounds for time: 6 deadlifts, 12 knees to elbows
Friday: Drills, warmup, 5 x 3:30, rest 3:00 between each
Saturday: Drills, warmup, Tabata sprints
Sunday: 10K @ 90% 10K race pace
I don’t deny that this is risky, and might not work. I’ve taken an already-controversial method (no long runs and no easy runs) and bastardized it by swapping out several high-intensity Crossfit workouts for longer (but lower average intensity) anti-glycolytic kettlebell workouts.
While high-intensity interval training (i.e. a typical Crossfit workout) aims to improve your body’s ability to deal with a flood of lactic acid, anti-glycolytic training (like my kettlebell workouts, and even typical easy runs or long runs) is meant to better prevent lactic acid buildup in the first place.
To me, this sounds like a better option than constant lactic-acid workouts, because I worry about the sustainability and injury risk of such an approach. I still get plenty of those hard workouts from my interval runs and the couple of Crossfit-style sessions I do each week.
Plus, since anti-glycolytic kettlebell training is kind of similar to easy running, it allays some of my fears about what might happen when I try to run an ultramarathon without having done any actual easy running.
But there’s certainly some risk that this middle ground I’m taking, between two proven (sort of) approaches —Crossfit Endurance and traditional endurance training — could end up being not enough of either one, and have disastrous results.
But Even if Crossfit Endurance Doesn’t Work, Right Now It Works for Me.
Arguments abound over whether the Crossfit Endurance approach to training has any merit.
To some, like me, it sounds like a dream come true: Can I really have the fun of ultrarunning, without all those awful long runs that drove me away from the sport entirely? Not to mention without the accumulated damage to my body of all those miles? Runners are famously injury-prone and imbalanced as far as strength goes, and Crossfit Endurance claims to correct both of those deficiencies of traditional training.
To “real” runners, it sounds like heresy. They love their long, slow distance, and they certainly have a point when they say it’s effective. There’s little doubt that the best way to run your fastest race is to train with a lot of miles, most of them slow. This is how champion runners train, and as far as I know, a low-mileage approach like Crossfit Endurance has never seriously challenged it at the highest levels of competition.
In a nutshell, here’s the appeal to me: I’m not trying to be competitive; I’m trying to be healthy and fit, while still getting to enjoy the fun of racing and (even more importantly) training and making progress towards goals.
If I had 20-25 hours a week to dedicate to running and wasn’t concerned about long-term joint health, then I have no doubt that the best way to use that time would be to spend 16-20 of those hours running at easy pace, just below ventilatory threshold, so that I could become more fat-adapted and raise that threshold. And to spend the remaining 4-5 hours on faster-paced workouts, to increase VO2 max.
But for several reasons, I’m unwilling to run that much.
For me, it’s too boring and too likely to lead to chronic loss of mobility, and it comes at too big an opportunity cost (I’ve got two kids, a career running a growing business, and lots of other interests).
So the question changes, from “What’s the most effective way to train?” to “If I only have eight hours a week to train, what’s the most effective way to spend that time?”
The goal of Crossfit Endurance is to increase overall, general strength and fitness to the point that, as a consequence, you’re able to go and run races, perform pretty well, and recover quickly.
It makes total sense, to me, that this probably isn’t going to be as effective as a training program that specializes in a specific discipline like running.
But that’s not an option for me, as the past nine years have demonstrated.
And the undeniable fact of the matter is that this has me training again. And in better shape than I’ve been in a very long time — in many ways, I’m much stronger and more capable than I was when I ran my 100-miler.
Plus it has me excited, and wanting to read and write about training again.
I haven’t told many people what I’m training for yet. I guess I’m afraid I might fail spectacularly. Or maybe it’s just that for so many years as I was training to quality for Boston and run ultras, I shared everything with everyone — and used that as motivation not to quit.
Right now, it’s really nice to know that I’m not training for anyone else but myself. If I quit, or fail, or decide not to race at all, nobody will really care.
Whatever the reason, this mindset — and this crazy way of training — is exactly what I need right now.
To be continued…
About the Author: Matt Frazier is the founder of No Meat Athlete and the New York Times bestselling author of The Plant-Based Athlete. Follow him on Instagram (@realmattfrazier).
Im really interested in how you are progressing. I have a Achilles injury that feels like it is taking way too long to heal up. I would love to reduce the amount of miles I need to produce and do strength training to run the NYC Marathon this November. I also think I could run for many more years in the future using this method if it works. Thanks for blogging about it.
This post really resonates with me! After two years with no races due to Covid, my perspective has changed a lot. I want to train to be healthy and run until I don’t enjoy it anymore. Long runs on weekends seem tedious nowadays and I prefer shorter, sharper workouts. I’m also interested to see where this will lead to in terms of race ambitions.
I’m really curious to hear how you progress. I did CrossFit Endurance style programming for my second marathon and my first 50k. I did ok. Really my big win was being able to maintain strength despite the running. My running time wasn’t too amazing. Since then, I’ve really cut back on my lifting and really amped up the running volume, and my race times dropped. Then I cut back on volume, switched to pose method, made my hard workouts harder, added lifting back in, and my race times started to slow down.
Maybe I’m that type of person who really excels with gads of easy volume. And if that’s the case, just more ancedotes that we’re all different and what works for one person might not be that awesome for someone else.
Good on you! I wish you the best of luck with the training and can’t wait to hear how it pans out. I’ve not given Brian’s methods a true run-through, but read his book years ago when I was more into CrossFit and found it very interesting. If you haven’t heard it yet, Rich Roll had Brian on a while back and it’s a fairly humorous interview with Rich obviously coming from a much more traditional, Phil Maffetone style of endurance training vs Brian’s renegade, HIIT-based approach. Anyway, enjoy training!!!
This is awesome! I’m so excited for you! I’m definitely going to follow this, because like you, this sounds like a dream come true. The long weekend runs were the biggest sacrifice for our family for me to reach my marathon goals, and with me now dreaming of ultras while our family is growing, I’m super excited to hear this is a thing. Keep us up to date, Matt! And whatever happens, we’re cheering for you and appreciate you sharing your journey!
Good luck with the new training. I think you’ve thought it through and know the positives/negatives. I particularly appreciate and agree with your summary philosophy of “I’m not trying to be competitive; I’m trying to be healthy and fit, while still getting to enjoy the fun of racing and (even more importantly) training and making progress towards goals.” That’s the key. Be healthy and have fun. That is different for everyone. I have run many (N=109 and counting) ultramarathons, including several 100s. I’ve always been a low mileage (25-30 miles/week) runner. No strength training, no stretching, no running drills. With enough races, those were my only long runs. Works for me. I’m not the fastest, but I remain injury-free and do well in my age group. And I’ve been doing it for 20+ years. Plus, of course, being a vegetarian helps!
Interesting. It certainly makes me think about why I run, what I enjoy about it and what concerns me. Joint health and mobility. Thanks, Matt
This is exactly what I needed to hear as I am just getting back onto running after a 4 year vacation, the lazies and other good excuses. Good at the time.
I never did run a full marathon so this time That is my goal, maybe not this year but next for sure.
Happy training to you
I’m a 67 female with bad knees. I used to run but never marathons. I am a vegetarian and I am very interested in working out and improving my health. Do you have books or programs you can recommend?
Thank you for your time. I found your article fascinating and gave forward it to my son and son-in-law.
Hi Matt! As a lifelong distance runner, who is most often training for a marathon, one of the things that has kept me away from strength training is the idea that I don’t want to put on muscle – thus increasing my weight – and making it more difficult to complete long runs because I’m dragging more pounds around. In my naive view, lighter = better.
What has been your experience with your overall weight as a result of your shift in training from mostly running, to a focus on strength and mobility? Have you seen it increase, decrease, or stay about the same?
Thanks for all that you and the NMA team do… you really are an inspiration!
OK. I have so many questions. And I swear I’m not coming at you from the “that’s nonsense!” runner approach, but rather as an exercise physiologist, which is my profession. (I’m one of those rare athletes who absolutely loves ultra running AND is found in the gym 4-5 days a week under an Oly bar lifting heavy. Also a huge fan of Kelley Starrett). And I promise I’m not dissing your approach, I’m all for people finding what works for them. But some of this doesn’t make sense to me, which is why I’m asking.
1) I clicked over to learn more about this “Anti Glycolytic” training method, in which the author says the ATP-CP system lasts for about 30 seconds. Every textbook I’ve ever read says the ATP-CP system lasts about 3-15 seconds max, but is typically on the much lower end (3-8 seconds). I just triple checked three undergrad and graduate level text books to double check that I’m not remembering this incorrectly. I’m curious what sort of exercises you are doing, and how long that takes, to ensure you truly are staying ATP-CP *?
Further, what about recovery periods? The ATP-CP system takes upwards of 3-5 minutes to replenish. Of course, it’s not ALL or NOTHING, but if it’s not fully restored once the next workout interval starts, how do you know you’re not in the glycolytic system? I keep reading that EMOTM workouts are considered anti-glycolytic. Definitely correct me if I’m wrong, I’m curious about this!
And, by saying you are “swapping out several high-intensity Crossfit workouts for longer (but lower average intensity) anti-glycolytic kettlebell workouts.” do you just mean aerobic glycolysis and staying below your VT1 or LT?
2) Now for my above *. Our energy systems aren’t light switches. While all activity starts with the ATP CP system, at any given point we are more than likely using all three systems. So the MAIN source of energy can be one over the other two, but to say you aren’t even touching the glycolytic system is a misnomer. Avoiding the production of lactate, perhaps. But that’s the the same as avoiding the glycolytic system altogether
3) There’s endless research available stating that running isn’t bad for your joints, and that lactate itself isn’t responsible for any “stress” or symptoms of overtraining. It’s almost always a case of under-fueling and under recovering from a lot of hard workouts which leads to a cascade of other negative events. Yeah those hard workouts often do result in lactate production and clearing at some point, but implying the lactate is the cause doesn’t feel right here.
OK, this is probably you’re most annoying comment of the day, haha! I swear I’m just trying to understand the method, because I’ve never heard it mentioned before, and I’m intrigued.
ALL OF THAT SAID, as a coach who focuses almost exclusively on training ultramarathon runners, I am 100% on board with the ‘less is more” and “quality over quantity” approach. I don’t run my 100 mile clients into the ground with unnecessary mileage. BUT, I’m also a firm believer in the principle of specificity. I can see this approach working for 50K’s in those who already have the running experience, but the longer ultras? I’m skeptical.
Long story short, though, I’m really glad that you found something you ENJOY. That really is the most important part about fitness. Like I preach all of the time, 99.9% of us are NOT elite athletes paying our mortgage with the money we earn winning races or lifting weights. So if you don’t love something, why do it?
Thanks for sharing your story and letting me go on an exercise science rant, it’s my favorite thing to do (even more than running or lifting, haha)
Great timing for this article for me Matt!! Good insight. I’m intrigued. What kinda set up/equipment do I need for this type of training at home and where to start?
I am a runner and have been doing CrossFit for four years. I ran my first half marathon a couple years and didn’t run more than a 10K to train for it. My race time was impressive and I felt amazing. I wasn’t even sore the next day. I have continued to use Crossfit and other cross training activities- Nordic skiing, mountain climbing, and biking- to train for races. Hasn’t failed me yet.
Nice, I always get excited when I see runners using KB’s, I too train with them (and power bands) for training, My wife is the runner in the family, she religiously follows you actually, hence why I’m here 😀 I and my 9 yr old son have just started Running with the wife to add to our fitness and for a family goal/achievement.
I see you’re on the Pavel train, he’s quite a character and very informative, have you looked at “Mike Mahler”? he’s a Pavel Graduate and a Vegan to boot, I’ve got some good content from him over time.
I like how your exploring different training methods and approaches and taking a shot at trying to evolve the idea of training to improve your body into something good…rather than grinding it down from overuse.
When I was young we used to say “I live to train” but now I’m at the halfway mark of life I prefer to say “I train to live”.
Good Luck with your Secret Training Quest!
Kind regards, Shannon
As if you haven’t heard enough of my yammering below, look up the book “Ultramental” by Andrew Magness. He has done ultras, triathlons, and 7 day adventure races on 1-3 hours a week of training. Not just “done” these races but been on the podium on races like the Frozen Otter trek (64 mile ultra with a 5% finish rate) and his amateur team finished 7th (out of 75 teams) at GODZONE the largest adventure race in the world (to name a few).
This post was instrumental in hitting my “reset” button! Did some research, read Simple & Sinister and am feeling happy with my workouts again or as Pavel would say, “practice” Thank you, Matt!!
Wondering about an update on this. Hoping it was a good theory that we can all implement!
Would love to know how this went. Thanks!
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