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Free training programme: Transitioning from ultra finisher to ultra competitor


Last updated: 23-Aug-18

We know that one of the things our RunUltra community values very highly is practical and expert advice on how to improve your running. We have already brought you two great free training plans – how to complete your first 50km and how to train for a mountain ultra. Here, coach Andy Mouncey guides you through how to progress from a finisher to a competitor.

By Andy Mouncey

I’ve had to make a few assumptions here for this article to at least attempt to make sense because as you will appreciate - ask ten runners to define ‘finishing’ and you’re likely to get ten different answers. So writing an article for a wide readership means I’ve had to stick my flag in the sand somewhere and make a ton of assumptions, which means at least some of you would rather I’d have stuck it somewhere else.

Well, that’s your baggage.

RunUltra clearly got fed up of the straightforward writing briefs and dropped this one on me instead. Oh well, I do rather like a challenge.

What This Means For Your Training

For those of you who want to skip the detail and get to the end first – here it is: Train To Transition.

In other words, you look at the differences between where you are now and where you want to be, and you practice those differences in your training.

Or to put it simply: ‘Finisher’ could be characterized by a Train Easy Race Easy approach. Contrast that with ‘Competitor’ and you’d more likely get a Train Hard Race Easy. So the broad answer to how to bridge for one to the other? Train hard(er)…

Still intrigued? Ah, you’ll be needing that detail, then…

What This Actually Means

Some Stuff Increases

Effort goes up, number of variables increase, stakes are higher, goals are scarier and expectations of yourself (and from others) go up.

Some Stuff Decreases

  • You carry a lighter racing load (‘cos you need less kit).
  • You are out for less time (‘cos you’re faster).
  • You have less time to think (‘cos you’re working harder, juggling more variables).
  • You have less margin for error (‘cos you’re at the edge of your comfort zone).
  • You have less room for excuses (‘cos people think you ought to have this s*** nailed by now).

I’ve taken what I think are five characteristics, features, mindset or skills of what I define as a ‘Finisher’ and then a contrasting five of a ‘Competitor.’ Then I’ve taken a typical training session that would help make the transition, and THEN I’ve given you some progressions for each of those sessions that you can play with over 5-10 weeks.

Still with me? Here we go…

Complete To Compete

As a ‘Completer’ your focus is typically on yourself: Your progress, your goals, your needs, your pace, your experience – in other words, just the stuff YOU can control.

As a ‘Competer’ you need to be good at this AND be able to put your focus on others, on stuff out of your control, and to process this information in order to think tactically and strategically – proactively and reactively – and in a way that is consistent with your goals.

Whoa. And you thought it was just about the running, huh?

Key Training Session: Run faster with others.

Social To Solo

At one end there is quite happily having a chat and looking after folks, taking selfies, posting on FB and taking all the time in the world at aid stations, while at the other it all gets increasingly selfish and you deliberately make choices that mean you are happy (and hard enough) to spend more time flying solo.

Key Training Session: Run solo to tough targets.

Naïve To Knowledgeable

At its heart, ultra running is a simple sport and it’s easy to over-think it and tie yourself in knots. Certainly many of the experienced competitor folks who find their way to my coaching services have fallen into that trap. This means there is benefit in not knowing what you don’t know, so for the inexperienced ‘Finisher’ mindset it’s quite often enough just to be inspired by the challenge of the event and to believe that you can. If you really believe you can, odds are you probably will find a way.

One of the ways of staying sane with the accumulation of knowledge through experience is adopting a learning mindset. That means you adopt a belief in everything you do that you’ll only ever get two outcomes: You achieve what you want on your first choice timescale, or you miss and you simply learn something that will help you achieve next time. Read that again if you have to.

You will find this is a feature of people who have stayed near the top of their game for a long time be that in sport, business, education or everyday life: They do success or learning -  they don’t do failure.

Key Training Session: Keep a diary and use it as a means of structured reflection and learning.

In The Present To Present Plus Future

As a ‘Finisher’ it’s enough to be out there doing it and enjoying it. And ironically for many who stay successfully in endurance sport for years, they come full circle. From enjoying the ‘wow!’ of the experience in the early days to death-or-glory competitor mindset and back to ‘I’m just glad to be out and being the best I can be’ mentality.

The transition to competitor will require you to be able to switch off and enjoy the experience and switch on and look ahead AND think clearly and tactically and change pace under pressure. And switch back again. And again. And keep doing that until the end.

Key Training Session: Variable pace runs Easy-Steady-Hard.

Picnic-Fest To Fat For Fuel

You want to finish, right? So you’ll eat anything and everything on offer at the aid stations and you’ll pack the world’s supply of personal scoff to eat on the move and a special stash ‘just in case’. Hell, you don’t care if you gain a few pounds if that means you keep the energy supply flowing. And if you’ve existed on a diet of mainly sugar and carbohydrate that’s just what you’ll need to do.

As a competitor, that all slows you down and weighs you down and makes you prone to energy spikes and crashes if you get it wrong.

The transition you are after is to trade your turbo-petrol gas-guzzler engine into a wonderfully efficient diesel that will tick over all day with barely a top-up. That means you can travel further and more consistently on less and that means more energy for the brain and less time on picnic duty. Making the change is a combination of lifestyle choices and specific training.

Key Training Session: Depletion Time On Feet.

What This Means In Practice

Run Faster With Others


  1. 20-30 minutes on a flattish route at a steady-sustained effort (80%) with people a little faster than you.
  2. 30-50 minutes on a flattish route…
  3. 40-60 minutes on a variable route…
  4. 15-20 minutes interval efforts on a variable route with a group mostly faster than you.
  5. 20-30 minutes interval efforts on a hilly route with a group mostly faster than you.

Run Solo To Tough Targets

These are your standard ‘I need to know where I am’ sessions: Runs that you re-visit periodically and use to benchmark your progress.

Listed below are 5 examples that will test your qualities and skills progressively as you make the transition to Competitor.

  1. 20-30 minute off-road loop against the clock. Note time, heart rate, how you felt, weather, time of day.
  2. 20-40 minutes at fixed HR (80% +/- 5 beats) on a loop course road or off-road. Note where you finish once your choice duration is up (e.g. 20 minutes) HR, how you felt, time of day, weather.
  3. Timed ascent 15-60 minutes (depending on your local hills – road or trail) building to max effort. Note, time, HR etc
  4. Timed descent from your climb above – your choice whether you rest or turn straight round. Record as above.
  5. Long intervals with short recovery e.g. 6-10 minutes / 1-2 minutes recovery. I suggest a road and trail version. Start with two reps and build to six. You can have a loop or an out and back format. A key goal is to keep the time you run for the intervals more or less the same as the effort goes up through the session. Record as previous.

Keep A Diary

No progressions here but I will give you some examples of what to record and how to develop it.

Simple To Start: What you did, what went well, what you learned/were reminded of.

Add Context: Your running does not happen in a vacuum.
Everything else that is going on in your life will impact your running one way or the other. Sleep patterns, food and drink choices, what’s happening at work / with the family, how supported/isolated/fulfilled you feel…recording these other aspects allows you to trace patterns and trends over time.

Had a great run? That’s great – and you also want to know WHY that happened. The clues will be in what is happening around your running –  that stuff is the stuff that is happening continually and therefore has a greater cumulative impact on your results.

Traffic Lights: Become your own early warning system.
I’m a big fan of this tool from US ultra runner and physical therapist Joe Uhan. Take three highlighter pens – red, yellow, green – and turn your diary back four or six weeks. Highlight each day or training session as follows:

  • GREEN: You achieved your goals and it all went well.
  • YELLOW: Average – going through the motions – nothing special.
  • RED: Session aborted, cut short, felt like dragging through treacle.

The first time I did this I was shocked to record two thirds of my sessions were yellow or red. That meant only ONE THIRD of what I was doing was fun and productive. And I’m supposed to do this s*** for fun – nobody pays me! A serious overhaul was the result and next time there was a damn sight more green in evidence…

Easy-Steady-Hard Variable Pace Runs

Progressions (as minute duration)

  1. 30-25-5
  2. 25-20-10
  3. 20-25-15
  4. 20-20-20
  5. 10-20-30

Depletion Time On Feet

What This Is
Time On Feet (TOF) during which you deliberately and progressively limit the amount you eat and drink in order to train the body to become more internally economical: think diesel engine instead of turbo petrol.

The aim is to build over three to six months to be out for half a day as a hike-run combination and only need <750ml water to sustain you.

Flat/rolling to start with progressing to hilly/mountain.

VERY comfortable – if you are using heart rate then you will find this is down at the 50-60% level. You may find even your normal ‘steady’ is too fast in the early stages and you get a hunger knock. Dial it right back and walk any uphills.

Practical Considerations
Take a supply of food/drink with you. The discipline is to stick to what you plan to use – it’s just sensible to have something in reserve if you are wobbling and still far from home. As you’ll be moving slower then you’ll need more layers. Have something prepared in advance at home so you can eat quickly if needed. Two great DIY replacement drinks:

  1. Your own mix of 30-50% juice / 70-50% water with a pinch of salt
  2. Milk

Session Examples
This can be done very effectively as a second session of a back-to-back day especially if you limit your fuel intake b/w sessions so you start this already somewhat depleted.

Build up to this arrangement – it maybe enough in the early stages to use this type of outing as a stand-alone session.

Duration (hours) progression over five to six sessions – not weekly – can look like this: 2 - 2.5 - 3 - 3 - 3.5 - 4

And Finally
I do not think that ‘Finisher’ or ‘Competitor’ can be defined as discrete points on the running continuum. I think we are all different shades of both and make our own progress in our own time. Some of us do ‘driven’ better than others, some do ‘content’ very well.

What I do know is that our boundaries will shift however we choose to define ourselves.  What was extraordinary last season becomes much more normal one year on. And while some people appear to be more pre-disposed to challenge and competition, I do believe that being competitive is overwhelmingly a function of skills that can be learned and helpful beliefs that can be adopted.

Have fun experimenting out there…

Andy is a record-setting triathlete turned ultra runner, coach and author of ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra’. If you want to get more from Andy he is on [email protected]

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12:47 25-09-17

So...deliberately limiting fluid intake in the tropics without dying? In my opinion the general principle still applies - less means less demand on a system that already has it's hands full and that's a helpful thing - and clearly any 'minimum' requirement is different to that which can be tolerated in a temperate environment. What exactly that is is outside of my scope - maybe better putting this question to one of the nutritional / physiological contributors here. What you need re fluid volume on a training run is dependant on many things: How hydrated you are generally / pre-start, exertion levels, air temp and humidity, how comfortable/stressed you are for instance. If effective coaching is about individual calibration - and I think it is - then an answer for you will come through experimentation with these variables. So...what happens to fluid demands if you slow down? How is performance affected if you drink more / different? What about if you improve your day to day hydration? I don't have a black-white answer - others may - and I do think you could affect your own formula by tweaking a variable or two. Progress - not perfection is what we're after here. Enjoy!

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11:51 23-09-17

That's super interesting. The bit about limiting fluid intake though is tough. The reason is that I live, train and race in SE Asia. On a typical day it's about 90 and very high humidity. Today I did 35k and 3000m on 4 litres and was drenched in sweat most of the time. By the end of the run I was suffering from thirst. Surviving on 750ml would put me in hospital if I managed to get out safely. Is it just temperate climate advice or can it apply to the tropics as well?

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12:52 12-03-17

Great read. I feel like I am at the point of "competitive finisher". Not quite ultra competitor, yet. This is a good framework to add challenge to my workouts.