Plan wisely, and not only will you finish, but you’ll finish strong.
When running a trail marathon or ultra, you can tackle the hills like a beast and spend the rest of the weekend with Netflix and powdered doughnuts if you want to. But if you have to do it all over again the next day, the day after that, and maybe even the next, you need a different strategy.
Stage races intrigue runners of all abilities. You can push your body to the ultimate limit if that’s your thing. You can explore the world on foot. Because you’re running, eating, and sleeping with your fellow competitors, you also build some deep bonds with people from around the world. “The social side is a big part of stage racing’s growing popularity,” says Jen Segger, an endurance coach and athlete based in Squamish, British Columbia. “You get to share the experience with other people.”
Ready to run one? Here’s what you need to know.
Stage Race Training Tips
Unless you’re incredibly physiologically gifted, you can’t just jump into a stage race. You have to methodically prepare your body to withstand stress for multiple days. To cross the finish line—and to do so injury-free—follow these seven tips.
1. Plan Ahead—Way Ahead
Many of Segger’s athletes start preparing for stage races a year in advance. “They have lots of time to rest and build,” she says. “We put in a lot of other goals along the way to keep them on point.”
More seasoned runners can get away with four to six months of dedicated training. And the elite, such as ultrarunner Justin Ricks, sometimes use stage races to springboard to a higher level of fitness. Ricks, a two-time winner of the solo TransRockies Run 3, used the 2016 Grand Circle Trailfest—a three-day jaunt through Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and the Grand Canyon, which he won—to boost his 50- and 100K training. “During TransRockies, I noticed some top athletes had great races a month or three later,” he says. “It’s a great way to push yourself and translates well to a fast ultra.”
2. Stay on Your Feet
Segger helps her athletes adjust to the repetitive load required for a multi-day event by gradually increasing time spent on their feet. She does this with a mix of running and power walking, an essential stage race skill. “With power walking, athletes learn how to move with purpose,” she says. “You can still cover great ground, you can be efficient, and you can give yourself a break from the run stride. It changes people’s mindset from being very intimidated by a six- or seven-day running race to feeling it’s do-able.”
3. Master the Back-to-Back Long Run
Back-to-back (or back-to-back-to-back) long runs are a staple of stage race training. Stacked long runs mimic the escalating fatigue experienced during the event. They also give you confidence that you can handle the distance.
When you’re training, the length of your run depends on your fitness level, your training cycle, and the event distance. An event such as Grand to Grand, which involves multiple runs of 26 to 50 miles, may require back-to-back marathon-distance days. But an athlete training for the Grand Circle Trailfest, which ranges from 12 to 19 miles per day, would do well taining on lesser distance.
4. Incorporate Speed Work
We hope you won’t sprint at any point in a stage race, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore speed work. Regular bouts of higher intensity running help maintain leg turnover and allow you to run stronger for longer. “You don’t have to get on the track, but you should do regular sessions of uptempo faster running,” says Ricks.
But starting speed work too soon is a recipe for injury. Ricks, who coaches high school track and cross country as well as adults, says runners should have a decent base of at least three to six months of consistent running before starting speed work.
5. Mimic Race Conditions
If it’s mountainous, incorporate plenty of up and downhill running, whether outdoors, on a treadmill, or even in a parking garage. This helps you adapt to the stress of hilly terrain. “Some incline once or twice a week will help,” says Ricks. “Do the best with what you have.”
If the race involves desert terrain, run at a nearby beach or in the snow. Practice running in the heat or cold, depending on race conditions. If you plan to run with a pack, use it in training early and often. “My athletes start running with a pack three to four months out, once a week,” says Segger. “We progress in load up to what they’ll probably carry in the race.”
Similarly, practice your nutrition plan during training. You don’t want to discover on Day One of a six-day stage race that your body can’t tolerate the energy bars you brought. Segger recommends eating and drinking every 15 to 20 minutes. (Looking for some fueling guidelines? We’ve got you covered.)
6. Run an Ultra
Peppering in a 50K and/or a 50-miler, depending on your stage race’s length, will keep you excited, build confidence, and allow you to practice hydration and fueling tactics in a race setting. As Ian Torrence writes for iRunFar, ultramarathons compress the challenges of a multi-day race into a single day.
7. Be Vigilant About Recovery
Make recovery as much of a priority as running to reap the benefits of all your hard work. To stay ahead of the injury curve, stretch regularly, take good care of your IT band, practice yoga, and get ample sleep. Most importantly, eat like a champion. “What you eat day in and day out is what fuels your workouts,” says Segger. “Eat an anti-inflammatory diet with lots of good fats and green vegetables. Food is medicine and the backbone of training and recovery.”
Maintain your diligent recovery efforts during the event, too. Stretch, self-massage, and make the most of what’s available to you. Ricks took advantage of TransRockies’ natural ice bath. “We sat in the creek at the finish for 15 minutes, relaxed, and got ready for the next day.”
You don’t have to run all out every day to participate in a stage race. With adequate training, you can experience new terrain and scenery, challenging courses, and unforgettable camaraderie that comes with running day after day.
Races to Run
Whether you’re new to stage races or a veteran, there’s something for runners of all levels.
For Your First Time
- Grand Circle Trailfest, Kenab, Utah, October 2017
- Golden Ultra, Golden, British Columbia, September 22-24, 2017
- TransRockies Run3, Buena Vista to Camp Hale, Colorado, August 15-17, 2017
For the Next Time
- Grand to Grand Ultra, Kenab, Utah, September 24-30, 2017
- Desert R.A.T.S., Moab, Utah, June 18-24, 2017
- TransRockies Run, Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, Colorado, August 15-20, 2017
For a Destination Race
- Coastal Challenge, South Pacific, Costa Rica, February 2018
- Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, Italy and Switzerland, September 6-9 2017
- Marathon des Sables, Sahara Desert, Morocco, April 7-17, 2017
- TransAlpine Run, Germany to Italy, September 3-9, 2017
Example Training Plan
Ricks recommends first-time stage racers follow a workout regime that looks something like this:
Four Weeks Out
The total distance of Friday-Sunday should equal 80 percent of the total race distance of a three-day event—or the longest three days of a six-day event. Break progression runs into thirds: easy effort, moderate effort, race pace. Run on as similar terrain and elevation to the race as possible. This should be the biggest week of your training cycle.
- Wednesday: Hill repeats or a tempo run
- Friday: Easy long run
- Saturday: Long progression run
- Sunday: Long progression run
Three Weeks Out
Long runs should equal 80 percent of the two longest days of the upcoming race, on similar terrain and elevation, if possible. On nonrunning days, supplement with cross-training, keeping adequate recovery in mind.
- Wednesday: Tempo run
- Saturday: Long run
- Sunday: Long run, second half at race pace