The Comrades remains a feat of endurance, despite improvements in training, running gear and nutrition. The appeal of completing 89km lies in the fact that it is not only a notable achievement, but is also doable for those who are reasonably fit and who are prepared to do the training.
The next two months from mid-March to mid-May are the key months and even if your training has suffered setbacks, there is still time to build up a great Comrades. In 1986, Comrades king, Bruce Fordyce, missed most of February due to a calf strain. He started training again in March and went on to win in a new record time.
Two key things to plan for are the weekly mileages and the long runs. Weekly mileages will now be much higher, but in order to cope with this it is important that you stop all speed work. All runs are now done at an easy relaxed pace. By doing this you will be surprised at how much mileage you can actually do. Many of us are worried we may lose our speed if we stop our speed sessions. I was one such runner back in the 1980s and 1990s when I was doing my big mileage phase of 180-200km/week. Fearing I would lose my speed, I tried to do both mileage and speed and invariably after about six weeks I would crash badly and not recover in time for a good Comrades. I have since found that my runners do better with just slow high mileage in this phase, and then once the four week taper begins with a reduction in mileage, we start the speed sessions again. The speed quickly returns and the runner peaks for the Comrades.
A key session is a mid-week run of between 20-32km, depending on how strong a runner you are. There will be times when you are tired and sore and then it is wise to cut back on your mileage or add rest days. However some runners will be unable to do long mid-week runs due to their work and family commitments. And while a single long run is preferable, a good option is to then break it up into two runs. A runner doing a 24km midweek run for example, could then do 16km in the morning and 8km in the afternoon.
One of the most important challenges facing the Comrades runner is the long run as it takes some planning to ensure that you can fit them in and that they are done at the right time.
It is important to realise from the outset that only a small minority of runners – maybe 50 runners in a field of perhaps 18 000 – do sufficient training to be able to race the Comrades. Those at the sharp end of the field will hit peak weekly mileages of over 180km/week for about 8 to 12 weeks to be able to race the full 89km.
But the reality for the rest of us is that the mileage we do in training is only sufficient for us to race up to about 60 or 65km. After that we hang in until the finish.
The Golden Rule
Many runners have probably heard from fellow club runners that long runs are no longer considered important. This is a dangerous fallacy as it only applies to elite runners who are hammering out high mileages every day, which makes their long runs less important. But since we do significantly lower mileages than the elite runners, the long runs become proportionately more important for us as it provides the bulk of our endurance and helps us to get further down the road on Comrades day. The golden rule in training for long distance events is: the lower your weekly mileage, the more important your long runs become.
The build-up to these ultras
The trick to planning a good Comrades lies in working back from the race date to ensure that you can do the necessary long runs at the right time so that you do the last ultra 5 or 6 weeks before the Comrades.
The magic numbers
The aspirant Comrades runner aiming for times between 8hrs and 12 hours should complete a minimum of three long runs, a 50km, 56km and 60km before the race. Silver medallists would aim for four long runs, structured as 50km, 56km, 60km, 65km. Sub 7hr runners would do all of them as 60km runs with perhaps the last one being a 65km run. Those aiming for sub 6.30 would do 65km runs. These runs should be done at an easy pace as the aim is to spend as much time as possible on the road. The long runs should be spaced two to three weeks apart, which means some careful planning to ensure that you don’t do your first long run too late and find that you can only do two long runs.
The long run plan for most of my runners in Gauteng is to do either 50km Om die Dam or my 50km high altitude training run for my runners near Dullstroom on March 16. Then they do the Irene 48km ultra on April 7 and add on some kays before and after. This is followed by either the Oceans 56km or on Easter Friday they do the Randburg Harriers 48km and add on kays before and after (They don’t do the entire 100km over three days, and instead rest after this run and enjoy the Easter weekend). The final long run is a club 60km run such as RAC 60 on May 5, or one of the other clubs runs.
The biggest mistake
I’ve done it, but hopefully you won’t. Running a long run too fast is probably the single biggest mistake a Comrades runner can make. This is due to several reasons. You will be doing your high mileage phase and running on tired legs, which means greater chance of injury or falling sick. It also means huge leg damage which can take weeks to recover from. Races such as the Loskop are very tempting to run hard and improve seeding as by then runners are very fit. But this is risky and can backfire on the runner at Comrades.
The trick is to be clear in your mind as to the purpose of these long runs. The aim is to spend time on your legs, but at the same time keeping leg damage to a minimum. Save your racing for the Comrades!