Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Slow Ultra-Training: A Paradigm Shift

'The Slow Movement is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail's pace. It's about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible.'
Carl Honore, 'Slow'

It's 1986 and Carlos Petrini isn't happy. Fast food giant, McDonalds, are proposing to open a new store near the Spanish Steps in Rome, and it pisses him right off. So what does he do? He establishes a direct alternative to fast food - Slow Food - with an aim to promote local foods and centuries-old traditions of gastronomy, and to oppose the modern-day clamour for convenience food, along with industrial production and globalisation.

Starting out as a bit of 'a game', Petrini's Slow Food organisation touches a nerve and becomes more popular than he could ever have imagined. In 1989, the founding manifesto of the International Slow Food Movement was signed in Paris by delegates from 15 countries. Since then, it has expanded to include over 100,000 members with branches in over 150 countries.

Over time, the philosophy behind Slow Food has developed into a widespread movement that advocates a cultural shift towards slowing down life's pace. An internet search will provide details of how the ideas behind Slow have expanded to many facets of everyday living. Wikipedia gives details of sixteen Slow subcultures, ranging from Slow Cities, Slow Travel and Slow Design to Slow Parenting, Slow Education and Slow Science. What Wiki doesn't list, however, is Slow Ultra-Training.

That, dear reader, is where I come in.



Six months ago, a dog came into our lives. Elsie, a border terrier, quickly became a much-loved member of our family. In spite of many people reminding me of what a chore it was to walk a dog, I quickly came to the realisation that dog-walking, an activity I'd never really done before, ranked as one of the most enjoyable things I'd ever experienced. Equally, if not more enjoyable than running. (That's saying something.)

Whilst there's a definite joy to moving quickly over ground, the contemplative joys of life at 3 miles per hour are astounding. In no time at all, the dog-walk was the highlight of my day. (I lead a simple life.)

Over the Christmas holidays, I began to yearn for being out longer. My weekly plans for the next year, I decided, would include lots of running, but would be supplemented by a good deal of walking. Initially, this idea was inspired by pure enjoyment and the thrill of the detachment from the busyness of life that walking provides. Gradually, however, as I tramped through fields, lost in thought, Elsie by my side, I started to contemplate if a Slow method of training could be utilised to facilitate a 'fast' time in an ultra race. The outlines of Slow Ultra-Training began to take shape.

Common (Mis)Conceptions

In recent months, a lot of people I know have thrown their hats into the training ring with the 'science' camp. They're taking lactate threshold treadmill tests, following precisely engineered running schedules and running to heart-rate. Although I hold a degree in Sports Science and accept that this approach works in training for shorter long-distance races (marathon, 50k, 100k), I began to question if such an approach could ever work for super-long ultra performances (races such as TP184, GUCR, C2C Ultra). My conclusion was, most probably not.

Looking back on personal experience, when training for a super-long ultra, I've always stuck to the commonly-held conception of running a ton of miles at a moderate pace, with a couple of faster runs during each week, and a long run (5-6 hours) at the weekend. Off this sort of background, I've always done ok in races, but never come away feeling like I've particularly achieved what I set out to do. There comes a point when the sheer amount of time on your feet gets you. Muscles start cramping up, feet start swelling and aching, hips get tight, and you slow from a jog to a plod, done for.

My race experiences suggest then, at least for me, that the widely-accepted way to do things just doesn't work.

This nagging doubt is, perhaps, confirmed by the following information:

- In a typical marathon training schedule, scientific studies have shown that the quickest athletes do around 80% of their training at a pace under their race pace (steady or easy running), and 20% at a faster pace. Some marathon runners might stretch this ratio to 65% / 35%, but evidence seems to suggest that an increased amount of fast running doesn't necessarily correlate to faster race times.

- Compare this to a super-long ultra. If average pace per mile in a race is 10-12 minutes per mile (or slower), there's a good chance that by training in the conventional way, all of your training is done at  quicker than race pace.

Does this make sense?

I'd say 'No'.

An Alternative Approach

I'm proposing that the key to super-long ultra-training is not miles per se, but the amount of time spent on your feet and moving forward. Of this time, a good proportion (more than half) should be done at a pace slower than race pace, ie. walking.

Of course, this alternative approach has one serious drawback in regards to modern-day lifestyles, and that is the time needed to do it justice. To perform well on race day, you're going to be spending a vast amount of time outdoors. Most people don't have, or are unwilling to devote, the time that's needed to achieve a decent race performance. It's my theory that the reason runners train for super-long ultras in the traditional way is, almost entirely, because it takes less time than this alternative Slow approach.

So, What Is Slow Ultra-Training?

The Slow approach is best not viewed as a 'training regime' but more in terms of a 'total lifestyle overhaul'. Accordingly, it might not be for everyone.

Fundamental requirements include:

a) Lots of available time
                                     Slow Ultra-Training can't fit into the socially-accepted regime of work / leisure. In order to follow the approach properly, and still have time for the things more important than running (spending time with family and friends, for example), you might have to cut down on the amount of weekly time you spend at work. Drop down to a 4-day week or less. By working one less day, you might sacrifice 20% of your income, but you'll gain 50% more free time. Since this is a day you've gotten used to wasting at work, don't pencil in jobs or errands that you've never done on this day (because you're usually at work), use it to get outside.

b) A dog
              Slow Ultra-Training involves a great deal of walking. Whilst it might be unreasonable to take a dog along on a weekly 40 mile+ walk, shorter outings of 1 1/2 - 2 hours are always better with a canine companion.
   Bear in mind that the essence of Slow Ultra-Training lies in enjoyment of the present moment. The typical 'reluctant marathon runner's mindset' of 'I don't really fancy a training run tonight, but if I drag myself out the door now and get my head down for an hour it won't seem long before I'm back home in the warm' is a way of thinking that is totally alien to the Slow approach. A walk with a dog, I'm sure you'll find, is always a pleasure.

Once you've arranged to work less and bought a dog, you'll be ideally placed to embark on Slow Ultra-Training.

Getting Down To Nuts And Bolts

Let's assume you've decided to target a 150 mile race and aim for a time of 35 hours.

I'd suggest an average of 35 hours of training a week, starting from a base of 20 hours per week, and increasing incrementally over 6 months.

At least half of this time will be spent at training at slower than race pace, a fair portion of this being done with a dog in tow.

A sample mid-block week might look like this:

SUN  - AM: 3-4 hours hilly off-road run (steady)
            PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking

MON - PM: 2 hour run-commute from work (easy)

TUES - AM: 2 hour run-commute to work (easy)
             PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking

WED  - PM: 2 hour run-commute from work (easy)

THURS- AM: 2 hour run-commute to work (easy)
               PM: 1 1/2 -2 hours dog-walking

FRI - 12 hours steady walking (3.5 mph)

SAT - AM: 1 hour jog
          PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking                                   TOTAL- approx. 32 HOURS

This assumes a work week of Monday-Thursday. As can be seen above, much of my own running during the week involves commuting to or from work. Not only is this a tremendous way to start or finish your work day, it also saves you money on fuel and reduces your carbon footprint. If such a routine is impractical for you, I would suggest that you strive to run at different times of the day during the week. By getting your body and mind used to running both in the early morning and in the evening, you'll cope better in an actual race when you'll be running right through a night and day.

A Personal Perspective

I adopted the Slow Ultra-Training approach at the start of the year, and, already, I'm beginning to see benefits. On a typical Friday 12 hour walk, I'm finding my legs and feet are in much better shape at the end (and the day after) than they were just a month ago. Of course, if I ran a shorter race now, I'm sure my times would be well short of what I'm used to. This approach doesn't have the faster running required for a decent marathon / 10k etc. But, then again, focus is required. The aim of the approach is to complete a super-long ultra in as quick a time as possible, not to run a marathon PB.

I intend to dedicate this year to Slow Ultra-Training. At the start of next year, I have my eye on a race where I'll put my theories into practice. As of now, I'm confident of the outcome.

A Plug

Once I've personally proved the merits of Slow Ultra-Training next year, I shall be available for on-line coaching consultations at extortionate prices. Get your money ready.

Details to follow in due course.


  1. I would say that running, from a 'Slow' perspective would not involve competition, so 'Slow' training would not exist, as training normally involves working to a goal. I believe that with 'Slow' running, the running itself would be the only goal. That's my view of 'Slowness' anyway!
    While we are on the subject of such things- I've started biking to Skeg from A-town thru the Creek and down the coast road. This got me thinking about 'Soul'. If you ear a record and think it 'Soulful', is it the singer who's soulful, his voice that's Soulful, the actual record that is Soulful or non of the above, but you, the listener that is Soulful? Or a mix of the above?
    The Coast road to me feels more Soulful. Is that just how I percieve it or could the road actually have 'Soul' ? Thoughts please.

  2. You're right. Slow Running would be running entirely for it's own sake. Even without the prospect of a future race, I'd be doing this stuff anyway because, at this time in my life, it just seems right.
    I met a bloke on my long walk a couple of weeks ago. We got talking and he asked me how far I'd gone. When I told him, he said something like, 'Fucking hell. What you doing that for?' There's something slightly weird about saying, 'I'm just doing it because I enjoy it', so I came up with a cock-and-bull answer about training for the upcoming Cross Britain Way trip. It's like there always has to be an end product.
    I've not reached where I want to be yet - where I can leave all that crap behind - and so a race looms. Ego? Yep, that's part of it too.
    I could go on, but I'll save it for when I see you next.

    Can a place have Soul? I'd say. Anderby Creek has Soul - you can feel it.