Training for an ultra distance race on 5 hours per week

By Andy Blow | 13 Minute Read

One of the most popular blogs I've ever written was about fitting training in around the rest of life. It resonated with a lot of people who are also trying to balance work, family and social commitments with preparing to take part in endurance events. 

In this post I'm going to share what I learned from doing a 9 hour endurance event on just 5 hours of training per week...

 

The event

Swim Smooth founder Paul Newsome - an old friend from University - asked me to do the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championships in Sweden with him.

The race involves 10km of open water swimming (wearing shoes) and 65km of running (in a wetsuit) on some pretty gnarly off road terrain with some 46 transitions to navigate along the way.

We both hit the big 4-0 this year, so it was Paul’s idea for a good way to mark the occasion!

 

The less said about this the better...

 

Having done the race back in 2014, I knew very well what I would be letting myself in for, so it was with great surprise that whilst my brain was saying "No, you categorically said never again", I noticed my fingers had already typed "Yes, 100% in mate" and hit Send in reply to Paul's request.

At the time I was already fully committed to do the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race in March, so I was in full training for that. I told myself that I’d start my swimrun-specific training in April and that would still give me ~5 months to get in shape and that seemed like an achievable target. 

 

Overall training goals: Be consistent and don't get injured!

I decided early on that my main aim with training would be to go for consistency above all else rather than trying to push too hard looking for a handful of extra percent here and there.

This decision was based on the limited time I had available for training - making any time missed due to injury disastrous - and the fact that your race as a pair so I felt  that I owed it to Paul to turn up fit and healthy rather than run the risk of carrying a niggle that could jeopardise our ability to finish.

We wrote about how both of us had aimed - pretty successfully - to minimise injury risk in the build up. But I also wanted as good a depth of fitness as I could acquire in the 5 months because (in my experience) being robust rather than outright fast is what gets you through this kind of long day out. I figured that as high volume training was simply out of the question, consistency over a number of months was the next best thing.

I decided that I’d do a little more swimming and a little less running than you might expect given the makeup of the course, simply because the injury risk with swimming is so much lower.

I was also very mindful of the fact that Paul is an excellent swimmer. He’s won the Round Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and also crossed the English Channel in just a pair of tiny speedos!

But he's probably a little slower than me on the run, so it also seemed like a good idea to balance out our relative strengths and weaknesses from a tactical point of view.  

 

 

My training by the numbers

For the first time in years, I religiously logged all of my training with my Garmin Fenix 5 GPS watch. This covered the 20 weeks from April 2nd up to when I started my taper on August 20th (2 weeks before race day). 

This included every single lap in the pool, every open water swim, every practice swimrun race as well as every jog, steady run, interval session and long run. I even included warm ups and cool downs to try to get a truly accurate picture of everything I did in preparation.

The times I logged were ‘moving times’, so if I went to the pool to do an interval session I only logged the swimming time, not the whole time in the water. As a result my average '1 hour swim' was actually logged as more like 40-45 min of moving time, when you take out the rests between reps and sets.

Here are the headline stats...

  • Total training time: 103.5h (~62h of running and ~41h of swimming)
  • Total distance covered: 842km running and 181km of swimming
  • Longest run: ~32km
  • Longest swim: ~4km 
  • Average hours per week:  ~5 hours
    • Peak volume week:  7.5 hours (I raced the sprint and full distance races at the ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly Swimrun in June)
    • Lowest volume week: ~3 hours
  • Average run week: 42.1km over 3.8 run sessions
  • Average individual run: ~49 mins, covering ~11 km.
  • Average run pace: 4:24 per km (7:06 per mile)
  • Average swim week: 9km over 3.4 sessions
  • Average swim: 36.5 mins (moving time), covering ~2.6km
  • Average swim pace: 1:22 per 100m

 

The downside of training data (and ego)

When I first worked out the total hours and mileage I’d put in, my first thought was "Oh sh!t. Is that all?!".

If you’d have asked me to estimate my average hourly training time I’d have pegged it at around 7-8 hours, so to come in under that was a bit of a disappointment and a shock.

I put this down to the fact that I had only logged 'moving time', so my ‘1 hour’ swims were more like 40-45 min in reality, but I also think it's probably indicative of the fact that - like many athletes - I'm probably wired to over-estimate my level of training!

It’s easy for your ego to get involved in the estimation process and to convince yourself that your bigger weeks are pretty much ‘average’, so that’s perhaps something to be aware of when listening to friends and colleagues bragging about how much training they fit in each week! 

 

 

Interestingly, immediately before working out my training totals, I'd been subjectively very pleased with where I’d got to by mid August. I was feeling good, not suffering too much residual fatigue, with no major injuries niggles or concerns and I was looking forward to the event.

But, when I figured out I’d ‘only’ averaged 5 hours a week in preparation for a 9+ hour event, I have to admit I did suffer a bit of a confidence wobble! I started to wonder if I really did have enough in the tank for such a long day out.

I managed to put those negative feelings to one side, as with 14 days to go it was clearly too late to do some 'panic training' and so I just tried to focus on how good I’d felt during some of my key running and swimming sessions instead. 

When I dug a bit deeper and analysed the pace I’d trained at, I took quite a bit of confidence from that too. After all, quality of training is just as important a metric as quantity.

 

How I made the most of limited time in the water

 

I trained specifically for the race

I chose to do be extremely specific with a lot of my swim training in order to maximise the impact of my limited training time. I regularly swam with my full kit (paddles, pull buoy and running shoes) on in the pool - much to the amusement of my training buddies!

I’d even done a 4km open water race in the full race kit, so I had a very good appreciation of how fast I was realistically able to swim come race day.

I knew from past experience that the quickest swimmers in swimrun tend to be able to hold something in the region of 1:20-1:25/100m splits during races.

I’d averaged 1:22/100m for the 4km open water race as well as getting under that kind of split for many big sessions in the pool, so I knew that I would be comfortable swimming with the pace towards the front end of the race.

That would also mean I'd likely be in my comfort zone swimming on Paul’s feet as he'd definitely be at least that quick, if not a bit faster in the water.

 

I focused on getting in tough but impactful sessions

I have to thank Paul for introducing me to his concept of the ‘Red Mist’ swim set, which really helped bring my swimming pace on during this training block. The ‘Red Mist’ is basically a 4km set (the classic version being 10 x 400m), completed at a very hard but consistent pace off short rest intervals.

It's one of those workouts that requires you to screw your head on properly before starting and a bloody minded determination to get all the way through it! I completed one of these Red Mist sessions almost every week for the final 10 weeks of preparation and think they were highly influential in getting my swimming into decent shape.

 

 

What the data says about my run training

I was pleased to see that I’d averaged under 4:30 per km for all my runs (even easy sessions) and that most key long runs had been ~4:00 per km.

Whilst this was all done on terrain considerably kinder underfoot than I'd encounter in the race it gave me confidence that out and out speed was not going to be an issue - we were likely to be running a lot slower on the islands of the Stockholm archipelago.

Despite being happy with the pace, I was still a bit disappointed in the total running mileage I’d achieved. I hadn’t even averaged the race's running distance (~65km) per week - never mind got anywhere near doing it in single day!

But I had to be realistic about the fact that, if I’d have pushed the mileage up any higher, I'd have struggled to find the time to fit it in and I'd have run a real risk of getting injured.

I had intended to get a pair of 40km and 50km runs in about 4-5 weeks out from the race, but canned that idea at the last minute as I was starting to get some slight calf niggles around that time.

I figured that it was a bit risky to throw such long sessions in at that point and instead opted for a couple of shorter, back to back runs over two days.

Despite being a bit light on overall mileage, I ultimately took heart from the fact that I’d not had a single week without any running in the entire 20 week block and that some of my longer runs had gone extremely well (e.g. this 32km run at ~4 min per km).

I think deep down I knew that I was likely to feel the pinch from the lack of volume late on in the race - but that was something I’d just have to deal with on the day.

 

How did I fit those 5 hours of training a week in?

 

Get it done early in the day

To fit my training in around work and family time, I tried very hard to follow my own advice of getting most of it done early in the mornings before anything else could get in the way.

I routinely swam from 6-7am with a great bunch at the David Lloyd Club in Ringwood and did a lot of my running at a similar time of day.

 

Longer sessions at the weekend

Longer sessions, including key long runs and swimrun sets, were done on either Saturday or Sunday mornings, as early as was realistically possible, to try not to impact family activities too much. Inevitably, after some of the longer workouts Daddy was probably not as much fun to play with as he might have been!

I almost never managed to fit in more than a single session in one day, but this routine worked well and I even logged a long run most weekends.

 

Planning ahead, especially during busy periods

When I was on the road with work I tried to book accommodation that had a decent swimming pool nearby, or at least access to somewhere interesting and safe to run.

When travelling in America I have found that most cities have YMCA Run/Fitness Centers that offer passes for around $10 a day and that these often have 25m (or 25y) swimming pools, so I made full use of this.

I also managed to do a couple of very nice long runs in around Central Park during a trip to NYC and over the Golden Gate Bridge when I was in California. I even did a memorable and sweaty speed session around the outside of the Dallas Cowboys' Stadium during a trip to Texas in July (don’t even ask about the heat and humidity there in the Summer!).

 

Training smart to avoid injury layoffs

As I was aiming for consistency above all else, I was relatively cautious about backing off when either niggles or fatigue started to rear their heads. I didn’t train on days when I’d flown long haul and I cut a number of fast running interval sessions short rather than pressing on with a tight or sore muscle to make sure that I didn’t break down. 

I'm pretty certain there were times when I could have gotten away with taking more risks and managed to fit a bit more mileage in and this may or may not have given me a higher level of conditioning when the event came around. But, I was pleased with the fact that I avoided the temptation to over do it (as has definitely been a tendency in the past) and I got to the start line in robust shape as a result.

 

How it all played out

Paul has written an in-depth race report and ÖTILLÖ made a great video summarising the experience, so I won't dissect the day in too much detail. I think the only slight difference in perspective I have is that I think he's a little hard on his own performance!

We finished in a shade over 9 hours, about 30 minutes quicker than I’d managed back in 2014. That was good enough for 32nd place (out of 160). 

 

 

As the training stats suggested we could, we swam really well, exiting the first long (1,700m) swim within touching distance of the leaders and continued to swim well all day long, pegging back considerable time on the teams around us every time we hit the water. 

As we might have predicted, we found some of the long runs later in the day pretty grizzly - for me this manifested itself mostly in stiff and tired legs (i.e. a lack of muscular endurance) rather than having troubles with cardiovascular conditioning.

We were pretty average when it came to our ability on the narrow, rocky and highly technical trails that are quite unique to the event, but did run quite well on the flatter less technical stuff.

 

What did I learn and what might I do differently next time?

Even though I’ve got over 20 years of experience of doing these kind of endurance events under my belt now, I still feel like I learn new things each time I compete in one.

I think that's one of the reasons I keep going back for more even though my level of performance is gradually dropping off as I get older. 

I have to admit to being a little surprised about how well we managed to perform on what was a pretty modest training volume.

As I mentioned, I was initially nervous about going into the event with only 5 hours per week in the bag but, from a swimming perspective at least, I found that what I did was more than adequate to be very competitive in the water.

Being highly specific in the swim training - i.e. doing most sessions at or above race pace and using paddles/shoes to increase resistance and drag - was extremely important. It meant I was very well conditioned for what race day threw at us.

The ‘Red Mist’ sessions were key as they pushed me out of my comfort zone once a week, a great way to stimulate real progress!

In fact, there's little I’d change about my swim preparations - I was very happy with how that part of the race played out.

If I suffer a sufficiently hard bang on the head and decide to do the event again, I would definitely like to find a way to get a little more overall running mileage in during the build up.

65km is a serious amount of distance to cover in a single day and, coupled with the nasty, rough terrain, it required a level of basic strength and endurance that cannot really be gained from anything other than lots of miles.

Whilst I was moderately prepared for this, the reality is that my muscular endurance started to fail 5-6 hours in and this was the major limiting factor in how fast I could go from there on in.

But, given that it’s unlikely I'd be able to drastically increase my total running volume without a big change in lifestyle, the next best thing would be to do more of my running on very rough, uneven terrain to prepare for that particular aspect.

Although that would be a pain to organise as it might involve going to different environments to do key sessions, I think it would be well worth the effort. I’d also try to prioritise 2 or 3 very long (50km plus) runs in the final few weeks in order to shock my legs into adapting to the sheer distance involved.

I'm not sure what’s coming up next but I suspect it won’t be long before I end up with an entry form in hard wondering how the hell I'm going to prepare for what's ahead of me...

A special thanks to my wife Lucy and our kids Bobby and Bethany for putting up with Daddy disappearing off early in the mornings for the past few months and for supporting me through this and all the other weird and wonderful challenges I tend to get sucked into doing!

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