In six weeks I’ll be back on the start line of the only race I’ve ever failed to finish, The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail. The 120km race takes place in the Dolomites with over 5,800m of climb and a similar chunk of descent, all on highly technical terrain that includes mud, rocks, tree-rooted paths, loose scree, river crossings and just about everything a single race can throw at you. In 2016, I got to 95km after 21.5 hours of running before the course eventually beat me into a dreaded DNF.
Having sworn never to go back, like never, ever no matter what, the first question everyone has been asking is why on earth I’ve changed my mind? Why am I willing to face more of the same suffering? It’s simple: I’ve got unfinished business out there, something to prove to myself.
After I explain this, the next question people ask tends to be, ‘how does someone who lives in London train for a mountain race like the Lavaredo?’ It’s a great question, even London’s steepest hills are tiny in comparison to the quad-burning, brutal climbs that surround Cortina D’ampezzo, home to Italy’s shorter answer to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.
So how do you train for the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and what will I change this year to give me the extra I need to reach that finish line? Here’s my take on how a city-living, sea-level loving plodder like me can prepare for a vertical challenge like the Lavaredo.
Build on a solid base
This year I’ll be building on a 30-week training programme that I used to prepare for my first 100-mile ultra, the Centurion Running Thames 100, with a six-week schedule that takes me up to race day. It features a total of 22 strength sessions, four sets of hills and five longish, slow endurance runs but nothing more than 13 miles. With 100-mile ultra in the legs and the head, my aerobic endurance engine should be in good shape. What I will need to do though is work on adding some leg strength for those hills.
Do gym drills for big hills
At least four of my six training sessions each week will take place in the gym where I rotate between four different sets of drills, two upper and two lower body. The aim here is to build lean muscle, shed body fat and carve out the kind of strong legs that can cope with the punishing ups and downs of the Dolomites.
The leg sessions focus on the important muscles for mountain racing, the glutes, hamstrings and the quads, while also improving range of motion in areas like the hips which is crucial. The exercises include weighted back squats, dead lifts, straight leg deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, weighted lunges, split squats, box step ups, leg curls and leg press.
Suffer uphill pain fests in Richmond park
The other most important session is my Saturday morning hurt fest on a 360m hill in Richmond Park. I became very familiar with this stretch of grass when I was training for the Marathon des Sables and last year ahead of the Lavaredo.
The idea is simple, sprint up the hill as fast as you can, then jog-recover back to the bottom before turning around and doing the same again. Repeat this as many times as you can in a hour. Each week the aim is to do more reps than the previous week. To make it a little more demanding I’ll carry a rucksack with 6 litres of water (about 6kg) on my back.
This session doesn’t just convert the leg strength training I’ve been doing in the gym into actual running improvements, it’s also great for psychological strength. It’s a brutal mental battle that boosts your confidence each time you conquer it. The lungs burn and the legs scream from the very first repetition, so when you’ve got 15 to go, it’s crucial to develop coping strategies to keep you going. These are the same techniques you need halfway up a bloody big mountain after 18 hours of running. It’s about getting used to suffering and knowing you can come out the other side.
Obviously the terrain in the park is nothing like what we’ll face in the Dolomites but it is at least off-road, and depending on what the British weather is doing you can either be slip-sliding up a muddy bank or pounding hardened ground that’s more concrete than compacted mud.
Eat right to become a fat burning machine
In order to perform at my best I’ve discovered I need to work as hard in the kitchen as I do in the gym. In training mode, my diet will shift to a mash-up of the paleo diet and the Whole30 approach. This involves cutting out grains, gluten, soy, sugar, dairy and alcohol and focusing on good quality, well-sourced lean protein, good fats and nutrient-rich vegetables.
I’ll increase my protein intake to help build muscle. I’ll also get plenty of good fats such as high-quality fish oil (by the spoonful) with every meal, avocados, oily fish and coconut oil. In order to become a fat-burning machine your body needs to learn how to break it down and feeding it good fats helps with this process.
I’ll also supplement my diet with zinc, magnesium and vitamin D3 to support my system, improve my sleep and reduce stress.
There’s only so much I’ll be able to achieve in six weeks but the target is to get down to below 10% body fat.
Work on mental toughness
In my experience the mind is the hardest thing to train but increasingly I see how important it is to succeeding in ultra running. One way to build mental strength is by experience. The Centurion Running Thames 100 took me a to a darker place than I’ve been previously in my running, darker even than where I was when I stepped off the Lavaredo course a year ago. For 30 miles I was reduced to step-by-step progress. Knowing now that I can keep moving when my body screams stop is a big lesson I learnt out there and that’s given me new tools to cope with the mountains.
One is to expect it to be hard and slow and know that this is ok. As runners we’re kind of engineered to feel like we need to be moving fast but when it comes to ultras any forward motion is progress that you need to mentally reward yourself for.
This year I have the advantage of being familiar with the Lavaredo course, well 95km of it at least. One thing that I found tough in 2016 was that you never really knew where you were or what was coming. The course profile that comes with your race number hides many evils, such as lots of steep-enough foothills before you hit the main climbs. Just when you’ve steeled yourself to take on the monster mountains you realise you’re not even at the start of it yet. This chips away at your belief. This year I can visualise a lot of this and I intend to run through the course in my head a lot.
Develop a drinking habit
A trainer once told me three months before an event that hydration starts now not three days before the race. He suggested it was possible to be hydrated on a cellular level. Whether this is scientifically true or not I don’t know but I think the principle is sensible. Optimum hydration every day from now until the race means improved performance, better sleep and all-round improved function. Just as I want to be fully stocked nutritionally on a daily basis, it’s also smart to be 100% focused on hydration.
That doesn’t just mean drinking lots of water, it also means keeping a close watch on my electrolyte levels to ensure that when race day comes I’ve got the right salt levels from the very start
(Kieran Alger is running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail with The North Face.)