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Ultra Endurance

Ultra Endurance: Is it for you?

Current trends in endurance participation have drifted towards longer athletic events. Some events have stood the test of time such as the 90km Comrades ultra endurance running race founded in 1925 while others have increased in availability and popularity such as Ironman triathlons. Furthermore, new events have been created to appeal to those athletes who still seek longer more grueling pastimes such as Adventure Racing, 3000 mile RAAM cycling race, multistage events (Marathon Des Sables) and Ultraman Triathlons.

Defining Ultra Endurance

Some investigators identify the term “ultra endurance” as greater than 4 hours (Hawley and Hopkins, 1995; Kreider RB, 1991). However, a definition of ultra endurance could be based on physiological or psychological reasoning. For example, the 26.2 mile marathon is an event that is completed on average near 4 hours and has become popular in their association with fund raising and societies. Physiologically the marathon can be labeled as ultra endurance, but relative to the vast number of events that exceed this duration, a marathon may be classified simply as a long distance event. For the purpose of this article, ultra endurance events are those that are greater than 6 hours. The longer events have more reliance on adequate exercise management and long term preparation, optimal rate of movement, sufficient nutritional needs accommodating environmental stressors and psychological toughness. Generally, the longer the event, the more important preparation becomes in successfully finishing with functional health.

Training Principles

The training required for ultra-endurance events is no different from other sports with respect to underlying principles – successive stresses must be applied to the body over time in order to provide a stimulus to initiate an adaptation so that subsequent training or performance is accomplished at a higher absolute intensity or for a longer period of time. The transformation from an endurance athlete to an ultra endurance athlete takes time and patience. Countless hours of training need to be accumulated safely without sacrificing structural health. Incorporation of long single session training bouts and successive training days need to be apart of an athletes’ plan. It may not be necessary to accomplish the entire distance nor duration in training. But rather, up to 80 percent or segmented training bouts adding up to the events distances. Cross training to accumulate training hours maybe used to simulate longer training sessions particularly for runners and high impact activities.


Successful ultra-endurance performance is characterized by the ability to sustain a higher absolute speed for a given distance than other competitors. Although ultra-endurance training and competition may be viewed as a physical challenge, the athlete should be considered as a living psycho-social-physiological system (Kenttä et al. 1998). This holistic approach can be expanded into five areas that when combined culminate in an integrated view of performance. The five components are physiology, biomechanics, psychology, tactics and health/life-style. All these components need to be functioning at a near optimal levels in order to achieve a successful performance or for the maximization of the training adaptation. Generally most ultra athletes have an unique quality that allows them to make tremendous sacrifices, focus on the immediate task, tolerate extreme levels of numbing discomfort and maintain mental health during the training, race and post race.

For the ultra-endurance athlete, the following principles may be considered critical to success:

  1. The principle of all-around development – this principle suggest the need for an underlying general athletic ability that is supported by a strong psychological platform and technical ability in the various activities an athlete engages in. Within the training process, overcoming training and competition stresses promotes will-power, self-confidence, and tolerance for higher training and competition demands (Schmolinsky 1996). For example, an ultra runner might engage in cross country ski racing in the winter months to strengthen their soft tissue and maintain cardiovascular fitness.
  2. The principle of over-load – this over-loading principle addresses the concept of progressively increasing the training load and volume of physical work such that after a recovery period, an over-compensation and improved fitness is achieved through the correct sequencing of training over-load. Thus an athlete will be able to compete or train at an improved absolute intensity. Stacking two or three long training days in a row of either the same activity or a different activity is an example of over-loading for an ultra endurance athlete.
  3. The principle of specificity – for the ultra-endurance athlete, this principle is fundamental to success. The principle emphasizes the need for practice under similar conditions to those of competition. It recognizes that specific exercises and skills are required to compete efficiently and effectively in an event.
  4. The principle of individualization – it is recognized that athletes will react and adapt differently and over individual time-frames even when presented with identical training regimes (Norris et al. 2002). On a continuum, there are two broad categories of athletes – those who are genetically talented and at the other end of the continuum, those with a highly developed work ethic, with a system guiding their effort. Thus there is a requirement for individualized training programs with monitoring systems available to evaluate individual responses to a training load.
  5. The principle of reversibility – this principle highlights the requirement for consistent training. As suggested by the fitness-fatigue model of Bannister et al.(Banister 1991) fitness and fatigue are never constant and interruptions to training caused by injury, illness, or social needs, breaks the consistency of training that is required to achieve improvements. The loss of fitness gains can occur through inconsistent training and fatigue may also occur through non-training stress factors and inadequate recovery.

Although there are many other factors that can certainly affect the preparation and eventually the outcome of an ultra endurance event, physical training still remains to be the most important. By assessing an athletes background and maturity in endurance sport, a program can be created by following the principles listed above. At times, there are athletes that just naturally flow into these longer events, not necessarily because of genetic predisposition, but rather by recognizing they have tremendous mental toughness along with a lifestyle that allows for consistent and progressive training. Are you one of them?

Author: Calvin Zaryski MKin, CEP

coachcal@criticalspeed.com  CriticalSpeed.com



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