Specific training for the event you’re tackling is obviously a sensible thing to do. And yet it’s something that often trips people up.

In the build-up to this year’s Tor des Geants in the Aosta valley, Italy, Kirsty Reade and Natalie White will share their training and preparations in a series of article focused on the race and mountain ultra-running. 

The media reported, with incredulity, that Barkley Marathons finisher Jasmin Paris had completed nine hours of hill reps in the snow in the early hours one morning. Add to the that she also tackled a simulated Barkley course that her family had created for her as part of her training for the event, the public saw it as odd. Ultra runners were probably not that surprised.

A few years ago I did a multi-day mountain ultra and met somebody who had done all their training on the road.  They proclaimed they’d be ok though, because they’d run a sub 3 hour marathon. That’s fast, but still, they didn’t last long in the race…

It should be that surprising that flat, fast training doesn’t always translate to fitness for long days in the hills. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect to run a 5k PB when training for a mountain ultra. You might, but only if you haven’t updated your PB in a while.

The theory may seem obvious at this point in the article it is something that can be difficult to put into practice.

Trying to be specific

I’m training for Tor des Geants in September, a 330k race with 24,000m of ascent, and specificity is very much on my mind.

For the moment this is going to relate to my training week, what terrain I run on and my strength work, but as we get closer to the event it’s also going to relate more closely to nutrition (what I’m going to eat at different times of the day in the race), sleep (doing some night runs and runs that mimic how I might nap and then run in the race) and, possibly most important of all, spending some time on the actual race route.

One of the first things I did with my coach (FR editor Robbie Britton) was work out what races I was going to do in the run-up to the Tor (or TDG). Or more accurately not do.

I was already entered into the British long distance races Northern Traverse and Lakeland 100 when I got the place in TDG. Whilst Northern Traverse didn’t go to plan and the weather, in part, put paid to a finishing the race for the second time, Robbie and I came to the decision that Lakeland 100 will be a DNS.

Whilst being fairly sad about not starting one of British best 100 mile races it’s not as specific as you might think to TDG (it goes over passes rather than summits and most of the terrain is quite runnable in comparison). Add to that it’s a little close in terms of recovery (7 weeks), but, more importantly, it would mean I miss some important weeks of training when tapering, running and recovering the 100 miler.

Finding my own Italian Alps

In terms of training I’m very fortunate to live on the edge of the English Lake District. Hills won’t be a problem! Even so I’m also heading up to Scotland to get some even longer climbs in.

I’ve earmarked some hills as ‘the right sort’, eg Skiddaw with its long, gradual, rocky path, and others as ‘the wrong sort’, eg Yewbarrow, a straight up grassy monster. Longer runs will take in as many of the ‘right sort’ of hills as possible, but hill sessions will continue to be done on old favourites with an elevation I can actually run.

My training plan will include some weekend adventures where I do a long, hilly run on a Saturday, refuel and sleep somewhere for a few hours and then carry on with another long, hilly run on the Sunday. This will be getting me ready for the run, eat, short rest, repeat nature of non-stop multidays and getting used to running on tired legs.

Most of the time it helps to be carrying all the kit I’ll have with me during the race because I’ve made that mistake before – starting a race thinking ‘this bag feels really heavy’, then finding out it chafes your shoulders after a few miles.

Paul Tierney in the 2021 Tor des Geants gathering some experience to help Kirsty in the future. Photo: Roberto Roux/TorX

Covering all bases

For my strength work I went to Paul Tierney, who assessed me and set me a TDG specific plan. He broke the race down into its key components for me – “it’s basically walking uphill for a really long time, then jogging some long downhills and flat” – and worked out what I needed to load in order to prepare for it.

Paul is a multiple finisher of TDG and the longer 450k Tor des Glaciers and one of the most experienced and well-read strength and conditioning experts out there, and I trust his process implicitly. We’ll be going into his approach in more detail in a future article.

I’m really looking forward to the next few months of training and preparation for TDG, mostly because a lot of it is the stuff I enjoy doing anyway. When people struggle to train with specificity for a race my first question is whether they have entered a race they’ll enjoy.

All too often we can get swept up in entering races because other people do them or they’re labelled as ‘bucket list’ events, but we’ve all got different strengths, motivations and reasons for doing races. And even if we really want to do them, it might not be the right time in terms of experience or other things going on in our lives that make specific training difficult.

If you want to give yourself the best chance of succeeding in an ultra, whether it’s a flat 50k, a hilly hundred miler, or a multi-day mountain race, specificity is key.

If you’re interested in racing in Italy then check our the TorX website with several of their races and more information on how to follow the events this year.