Back to Basics: Ultra to 5k training

I recently realized that I have been running regularly for more than 20 years (with the usual breaks for injuries and exceptionally busy college semesters). I started running in 7th and 8th grade track and field, where I ran the mile, but it wasn’t until high school when I joined cross country and started running 3 mile races that I really learned what it meant to seriously run. Our team was always a top finisher at state, and we trained hard. Since high school, I have gone through a 5k race phase, an obstacle course run phase (think Tough Mudders and Spartan Races), and slowly worked my way up to ultra marathons.

Fast forward to earlier this summer. I trained for and ran a 40 mile race that absolutely wiped me out. I was exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. Furthermore, I was frustrated with my training and performance. Sure, my endurance was fantastic, and I could keep a slow jog up essentially indefinitely, but I didn’t feel strong, flexible, or agile. My hips felt like they were starting to fossilize, and I could barely reach my toes some mornings. I wasn’t injured, but I had plateaued, and I couldn’t figure out how to get better. After the race, I took two full weeks off from running: one full week of rest and one week of yoga and strength training, but I still couldn’t get excited about running. I didn’t have any races to train for, so I didn’t even know what kind of distances to think about training for. 

Then, my little sister (currently in high school cross-country) had an idea. She said, “Why don’t you run shorter distances? Like 5k races?” I loved the idea! Doing shorter runs every day sounded really refreshing, and I would be back to a racing distance I know really well. I was as excited as if I had plans to visit an old friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years. Furthermore, I was excited that I would have so much more time than I did when training for marathons and ultra-marathons. And what could I do with that extra time? More non-running workouts of course! I started doing 30min to 1hr of yoga and/or weight lifting three or four days per week on top of the Advanced 5k Training Plan by Hal Higdon. I like his plans because they’re free and they incorporate a lot of different types of speed workouts. The one change I made was my weekend long run. Instead of a road run, I went for a much longer trail run or hike because getting out to nature one day per week is the closest thing I have to a religion. For my cross-training, I use Peloton (an app with a lot of different fitness workouts, both pre-recorded and live streamed). I like having someone tell me what to do for these types of workouts. That way I don’t have to think about it at all – I just turn on a class and do it. 

Two weeks ago, I finished the 5k training plan. From the beginning to the end of the 8 week plan, I cut a little over a minute off my 5k time on the route I use around here. I was hoping to get closer to my all-time best time, but I was still pretty happy with this. There’s a big hill on this route, and I need an actual race to really see how fast I can go. Moreover, I feel so much stronger than I did before. The power yoga in particular has helped me strengthen my glutes and all the little balancing muscles in my ankles. I haven’t rolled my ankles in MONTHS! At its worst, I was rolling them almost every trail run. Along with strength, I’m also feeling more flexible and less stiff. I did a perfect backbend last week without feeling like I might tear something in my hips or shoulders. My foot pain has almost completely disappeared, and my IT band, which starts to nag at me when I’m overdoing it, has not twinged once. I can’t believe that I haven’t done this before. Now that my 5k training plan is over, I’m going to do Hal Higdon’s Advanced 10k training plan, and I’m going to try and get to the point where I can do some of these upside down headstand/handstand yoga poses. I’m considering working my way all the way back up to marathon distances in this way, but we’ll see how it goes. Maybe I’ll go back to shorter distances for the whole winter. 

In conclusion, if you’re not feeling like your running self anymore, get back to the basics, whatever that may mean for you! Maybe that means a Couch to 5k or perfecting your mile times on the track. Maybe it’s a non-running activity like backpacking or biking. Either way, I bet it’ll renew your appreciation for running and make you all the more excited to lace up your shoes and get back out there. 

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