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Training For A Mountain Ultra Marathon


The latest challenge that I have set myself is to compete in Le Grande Trail du Canigou - a 38-mile Ultra Marathon in the French Pyrenees Mountains with altitudes that peak at 2,800m. This is one of the hardest challenges I have ever set myself and it has required some intense training. Find out what I have been doing to prepare for this race.

My Training For A 38-Mile Mountain Ultra Marathon

A few weeks ago, I was hiking in the French Pyrenees with some friends for my birthday. I have been going to the region for almost 20 years. Every year there is a race up the highest mountain in the region – Le Canigou. I have always wanted to do the race but previously I was training and competing in the 100m, 200m, and 400m.

My strength and conditioning coach, Adam Fedorciow was with me and we got into a discussion about how I would train if I was to enter the race. Needless to say, after that discussion I got the idea in my head and it had to happen!

In this article, I will give details of the event and go into detail about Phase 1 of my program with exercises I have used to get into the right condition.

The Race

The race is a 63km loop that starts in a village called La Bastide which is situated at 800m above sea level. We will then make our way down the valley in front of Le Canigou to roughly 450m, then straight up the mountain to the peak which is 2,800m! As we travel higher the air will get thinner and thinner making everything much harder. From the peak, we make our way back down the mountain in a big circle to finish in La Bastide.

Mountain Ultra Marathon Loop Course Image

Mountain Ultra Marathon Gradient image

The race is on 7th July, which means it is likely to be incredibly hot which will mean I will have to manage my hydration with extra care. Fortunately, I have been sponsored by Totum Sport who create complete, natural electrolytes which I will be taking every hour on the race.

Use code “max10” to get a discount on Totum

I am hoping to complete the race in 12 hours, which would be an average speed of 5kph. There will be roughly 150 people participating, I think I am the only person from the UK!

I am raising money for Mind Charity, the biggest mental health charity in the UK. Any contribution you can give would be most appreciated!

The Training

I am NOT an endurance athlete, my whole life I have trained and competed as a sprinter, both on the track and in the swimming pool – this is going to be a big challenge for me. On top of this, for the last 8 months, I have been training and learning the Olympic lifts, which means I haven’t done ANY cardiovascular training for about a year – I am the heaviest and strongest I have ever been!

I plan to go back to the Olympic lifts afterward, so my goal is to maintain my strength and attempt not to lose too much muscle (which is often an inevitability of endurance training.

Fortunately, my good friend and coach Adam Fedorciow is going to get me ready for the event. Here is an explanation of the first cycle in my program:

Notes from Adam Fedorciow:

“The first phase for Max was designed to correct structural imbalances. Before Max started this training program he was in a maximal strength phase (1-3 reps) utilising the Olympic Lifts, Squats, and Pulls as the main stimulus.

The first phase of this program was aimed to be a little more general, less Olympic Weightlifting, more emphasis on single-leg/single-arm work to correct strength imbalances created over the previous 3 months and activate his lower threshold stabilising muscles. This was achieved via various core, balance and reactive exercises that stress these stabilising muscles more. Max had never been done a lot of these exercises which is why I gave it to him. Variety is key to growth.

Singe Leg RDL from 2 Meal Day on Vimeo.

SL, SA, DB Press from 2 Meal Day on Vimeo

Single Leg Lateral Box Hops from 2 Meal Day on Vimeo.

Poliquin Step Ups from 2 Meal Day on Vimeo.

Step Ups from 2 Meal Day on Vimeo.

The Strength Protocols for Phase 1

For his compound movements (Deadlift, Back Squat, Front Squat), I put him in a 5,3,1 descending rep scheme to gradually bring him out from 1-3 reps. Max has never done more than 4-5 reps due to the nature of weightlifting and as a result of initially focusing on the technique of his Olympic lifts. It was all about getting him more efficient with the muscle he had.

However, we now had to gradually build him up to be able to handle muscular fatigue – the total opposite end of the spectrum.

Below is Max’s progression of reps until the race:

Pre-Run training = 1-3 reps

Phase I – 5,3,1 reps

Phase II – 4-8 reps

Phase III – 9-20 rep

So you can see we are gradually increasing the reps over the phases to make it more specific to what he needs to do. He has an excellent foundation of power, which will prove vital when going up the mountain, but now we need to build his strength and eccentric capacity for when he goes down the mountain.

Front Squat with Pause from 2 Meal Day on Vimeo.

The Cardiovascular Protocols for Phase 1

For the first phase, Max did two runs per week, one 30 minute speed run, and one long slow run. With two other days devoted to Modified Strongman training. In my mind, Modified Strongman training is one of the best tools to help get you in incredible shape. Pushing, carrying, lifting and moving awkward, heavy objects is what it’s all about. It’s like becoming a manual labourer for 30 minutes. Non-stop, low intensity, low impact work for a time. It’s my preferred method of conditioning as it is super safe on the joints and concentric-based thus easy to recover from.

Remember, Max isn’t just running 30+ miles on a flat surface, he’s also going up and down a mountain!!! You have to be strong, have gears and be able to have the capacity to run fast downhill for a long period of time. As soon as you start adding any type of incline the stronger you are the better.

This initial phase focused on power – as that’s what Max knows and is less specific to what he needs on the day.

The general rule of thumb, the further away from your race/competition, the less specific your training should be in comparison with your event. Therefore we focused predominantly on training the anaerobic and aerobic power energy systems by getting him running for time i.e. has a fixed time limit and has to run as far as he can within that time frame, trying to improve each week – run faster and cover more distance within a time frame).

We set the time frame based on an initial test where I literally asked him to run for as long as he could until couldn’t no more. Simple. We then designed his whole running plan off that.”

Prowler from 2 Meal Day on Vimeo.

Why is there so much strength training for this endurance event?

Endurance sports are tough…I mean seriously tough! Not only physically but mentally. You have to be strong. In my opinion, strength training gives your body and mind the raw materials they need to become tough. It teaches you lots of lessons that can be applied during everyday life and in a competitive sport which aren’t often taught at home or in school.

It’s not about putting on muscle and getting bulky. It’s about getting strong and taking back control of your body. Plus, the car will drive much faster and probably last longer if there is less junk in the trunk. What I mean is that by adding strength training to your running program, it will help you lose more body fat, feel lighter and run faster. I’ve had many clients put ON fat whilst training for a marathon. It helps to balance out the body from becoming to catabolic.

I feel it’s imperative that everyone should be doing some form of strength training, especially runners, as it will:

  • Improve your pace and make you faster overall
  • Improve your “final kick”
  • Recruit fast twitch muscle fibers
  • Decrease body fat = lighter and faster
  • Improve coordination and rhythm
  • Strengthen your core
  • Improve posture and flexibility
  • Prevent common injuries e.g. achilles tendinopathy, lower back pain, etc.
  • Increase natural antioxidant levels
  • Improve nutrient partitioning
  • Improve mental toughness

I am enjoying the training so far and my body is adapting well, I am hoping I won’t pick up any of the usual running “niggles” that many people experience. Long distance running puts a tonne of stress on the body if you aren’t strong enough to take that stress your body will start to break down – knee injuries, shin splints, lower back issues.

Adam has created a Marathon Strength training plan that will get your mind and body ready to be able to run your first marathon or improve on your previous one.

I personally don’t recommend trying a marathon if you are looking to be in optimal health, but if you are going to do them make sure you are following an effective program like Adams. Find out more about Adam and his programs here!

Video Tutorial

Poliquin Step Ups
Singe Leg RDL
Single Leg Lateral Box Hops
Single Leg, Single Arm, Dumbbell Press
Step Ups
Front Squat with Pause

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