How (I intend) to train for the Bob Graham Round, and Why...
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
In this post I will endeavour to lay down the various styles of training I will be pulling in to help get me ready for this challenge, and when I'm likely to apply them. We will explore fitness principles such as specificity, progressive overload, overtraining and recovery.
The wisest thing to do with any goal is to break down it's demands. From there you can evaluate what training needs, whether it be technical or physical, you need to put into it. So here goes:
The Bob Graham Round
Mileage - 66 Miles - A good mix of good trails (such as Skiddaw, most of leg 2), open fell (lots of leg 1 and 3) and very rugged bouldery sections (Bowfell, Scafell Pike, Great Gable). Being able to maintain that magical 3mph pace across all terrain types is key.
Ascent Total - 27,000ft (and descent) - A mixture of gradual potentially runnable ascents (if you're fit / keen enough) and some very steep climbs such as that found on Clough Head, Steel Fell and Yewbarrow. This is pretty much an Everest in a day so your legs will have to be bulletproof.
Navigation Requirements - You really don't want to get it wrong and add distance or ascent to the already mammoth task. Knowing where to go, and how to make sure you stay on the right track is key. Support runners and a gpx make life easier.
The Mental Game - this is going to roughly a 24 hour endeavour. Depending on when you start you may be heading off just as you'd usually be going to bed. Either way, at some point you will run through the night and this will be a long day out in the hills. It will no doubt start to suck at some point, but if you're thinking of a BG, you're probably quite keen on some 'type 2' fun anyway.
Nutritional Knowledge - Knowing what to eat and drink and when to do it is no doubt a big part of the success of something like this (as I found out when I failed in 2019). If you keep enough fuel in the engine, it'll no doubt just go and go and go.
Equipment Choices - Knowing your gear and trusting it to perform for you throughout the round.
From this list of identified demands there are three that I will need to focus on developing myself for, and three that I feel I have fairly well dialled. The three to work on are:
With regards to training it is probably easiest for me to break it down into on, and off the hill training. It is worth mentioning, that before throwing yourself into any sort of intense training you should get any lingering injuries addressed. It's better to get them sorted so they don't derail your hard work two months down the line.
On The Hill Training
Building the Engine - This can be referred to as the aerobic base. See your aerobic base as the foundations of cardiovascular fitness. The bigger this is, the more you can stack on top of it, the further you can push and often the faster you can do this. An aerobic base is not built overnight, it takes thousands of hours of steady exercise to build this - that is why in one particular Bob Graham film Jasmin Paris is quoted as saying something along the lines of 'the best way to train for the BGR is long days walking in the hills with a backpack on'. At a first glance, walking in the hills may break the 'specificity' rule of training as the BG is seen as a run, but all but the fittest will spend a good portion of the challenge hiking up the hills.
As you rack up the hours building your aerobic base your body is continually adapting as the training volume increases. Again, the higher the volume of training your body can tolerate, the more training you can perform. If your nutrition and recovery is managed well, the more training you put in the fitter you will be. Simple.
Any form of steady cardio would be the best way to build this base. If thinking heart rate it would be zone 1 and 2. If you don't have a heart rate monitor, then the point at which you can't just breathe through your nose and have to breathe through your mouth is a good marker where you're trying too hard. I am personally lucky as I have spent years building this base through guiding the fells. Granted, this yearly volume has probably been on a decrease in recent times, but I'm sure a decade of mountain walking and running won't just disappear overnight from my aerobic base. Where I do need to improve is getting the consistency in my run frequency and build up my weekly and monthly mileage (or you could look at hours instead), and get to a point where I am comfortable taking on 40+ mile runs again. If you're thinking of a BG yourself, ask yourself how good your base is likely to be from what you've been doing, and then adjust your timeframe to suit. It may be that you bolt an extra year of consistent running on before you really buckle down for the BG. Load up too much too soon and it just isn't sustainable.
When training it is always important to keep on thinking about how you're going to step things up. If you went out and ran a 10km run every week, then you will become a pretty awesome 10km runner, but you're not going to make a good marathon runner if you don't steadily increase this distance.
This is known as progressive overload. As you increase the mileage week on week, your body is forced to adapt to the new levels of work and soon enough that new distance becomes the 'new normal' for what your body can handle. It's of course exactly the same deal when you lift weights. For something like the BG there are few people that will train up to doing 66 mile runs in one go, but having your weekly mileage equal this or more (with a big chunk of this coming from at least one big run a week) isn't a bad target to aim for when you get within 6 weeks of your attempt. I do remember listening to an Ultra Running podcast on which they stated that long training runs shouldn't be longer than 5 hours. The reasoning was that most adaptions within the body have taken place within this time, and beyond that you are only prolonging your recovery period. There are many arguments for training longer still, especially the mental developments that can be made 10-15 hours into some epic. Again, it all depends where you are in your training, as a very well seasoned 100mile runner probably would get away with these relatively short 5 hour sessions.
If you do have the luxury of planning your week, think about the intensity of the sessions and where to place them. Grade them low, moderate and hard and try and keep anything but a low or a rest day from following a hard. Granted, as you approach your attempt a couple of back to back hard sessions will be good for pushing your body on.
As highlighted above, the BG covers a range of terrain types. I'm pretty confident in my ability to cover all these terrain types, and can move across bouldery terrain well. Should an out and out trail runner be looking to work towards a BG, they'd certainly want to dedicate some of their training time to being on the fell and rugged terrain - again, this is a specific requirement of this challenge.
Variety is key when it comes to training, not only so you don't get bored, but also so you keep the body guessing on the stimulus that is going to get it fitter. Not all runs have to be steady state or just a case of cranking up some miles. Interval training, which will predominantly have a positive effect on your Vo2 max ('the maximum amount of oxygen the body can utilize during exercise. It’s a combination of how much oxygen-rich blood your heart can pump and the heart’s efficiency in extracting and utilizing oxygen') are good to weave in. This may be one session every week or every other week, running hard for 2-3 minutes followed by a short period of rest / walking or jogging. You can do this on flat terrain or even better, on the hills. Vo2 Max work is generally associated with much, much shorter distances, but the adaptions will support the aerobic work you're doing on the longer runs. Here is a great article on Vo2 Max
Getting in the ascent- the best way to train for the mountains is by going up mountains (the law of specificity). A runner could execute all the mileage they want, but when faced with 8,000m of ascent then a big chunk of training time must be spent going up (and down) hills. Again, my job makes getting a half decent ascent tally fairly easy, but I will of course be ensuring most of my runs include a good chunk of ascent. I also intend to build in some days with a heavy pack (15-20kg or so) hiking up and down some steep slopes. This is a brilliant way to build leg strength and stability and get some good cardio in too. With winter inbound, my guiding pack loaded up with crampons, ice axe and rope etc will be a perfect dose.
If I was someone looking at doing a BG and I lived a few hours away from the mountains or any sort of ascent I would have to look to stair climbing with a heavy pack on to simulate the same thing. This is where convenience arguably trumps specificity as a 10 minute walk to a big flight of stairs could be more sensible than a 4 hour round-trip drive to get in some ascent on the hills.
Building Mental Resilience - As mentioned in my previous blog about my 2019 attempt, my mental resilience was low. I have had some big days out since then and endured some rough weather too. My previous failure has given me a thirst to complete this I just didn't have before, even though I wanted it, I didn't want it as much as I do now. I hope a solid 6 months of dedicated training, teamed up with this desire will make my mental game bulletproof compared to last time. Ironically, I see surviving a BGR a big part of my resilience training towards ascending Manaslu (8,163m) in a few years time.
Off the Hill
Resistance training - Here comes the Personal Trainer spiel, but it is this knowledge that I now have that gives me the confidence to execute BG 2.0. A lot of people just get fit for their sport by doing their sport, and yes it does work. However, there are numerous benefits to adding some strength training into a programme. These include:
Reduction in the risk of injury through correcting muscle imbalances
Improved muscle activation and movement efficiency.
Stronger, more resilient muscles, tendons and ligaments
A greater 'strength reserve', essentially making everything easier for longer.
And you can gain all the benefits listed above in just two sessions a week! The key to success is picking the right exercises and plotting them into your weekly workload sensibly. This training all adds into your total training volume, and as such it is all exercise your body needs to recover from. Furthermore, you'd ideally do a heavy strength session the day before a run day, and preferably not before a big run day. If worked correctly, a strength session will cause lots of damage to the muscles, forcing them to repair and adapt to the stimulus (get stronger, more efficient). Remember to think about the Low-Hard scale with these sessions too and place them into your week accordingly.
With any ultra training plan, there will come a point when you're just running so much in a week you probably won't have the opportunity to put in strength training, but this is where some endurance (lower weight, higher reps) or stability work (really low weight, bodyweight, or banded work) steps in nicely. You can fine tune forgotten muscles rather than trying to increase the power of your quads.
If I am to go for the BG in say June 2022, I will likely continue strength training until Feb / March. After which I will dial it down and move to endurance work and spend more time out on the hill running. I'll be sure to post more on this in the future.
Key strength exercises that will help a runner are anything that taxes the lower body - quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, soleus. Squats, Split Squats, Deadlifts, Weighted Step ups, Romanian Deadlifts, Bulgarian Split Squats, Lunges, Back Lunges, Weighted Glute Bridges and Calf Raises are all ace.
Having a stable core will also go a very long way, especially when you start to get tired on the trail. A lot of people automatically think of sit ups when you mention core work, but I propose prioritising stabilising movements such as Planks (and variations of) and Deadbugs.
Working the upper body also has its place for a runner. Developing your chest, back, shoulders and arms can all aid your posture and in turn have a positive impact on your running performance. We're not looking at gaining bulk (as you'll only have to lug this around the fells too) so keep the weight moderate and the reps high. Bodyweight training is ideal, and a suspension trainer is a great add on. Push ups, pull ups, presses and rows are all good movements to consider.
I have been training my entire body with weights for over two years now and as a whole feel the fittest I have ever felt. I will likely run off some of the muscle but I do intend to keep training my upper body as I head towards my BGR. Two thoughts of consideration on this:
Your energy level at the start of a workout is like a bag of sand. When you start the workout it's like putting a hole in the bottom of the bag. The sand will drain out until you have little left. Make sure you prioritise the exercises most specific to the BG toward the front so you can put maximum effort into these. If you end up doing some lacklustre overhead presses towards the end then at least you know you've got the lunges in the bag.
Every part of your body that you work will need to repair and recover. This requires calories, time and effort from your body - (more on recovery in a bit). Putting too much load onto your body will cause Overtraining, and this can actually prevent any adaptions from occurring at all. You will learn to understand your body and how much you can work it.
On this point above, there is Overtraining, and then there is the idea of Over Reaching. These are similar, but different. Overtraining is more of a compounded issue where for a few weeks you've been slamming your body and not allowing sufficient recovery. Over Reaching is encouraged in a training cycle. This is where you for a day, or a week, really push your body. You're looking at shocking the body into this need to get much fitter in preparation for whatever may come next. The chances are you'll leave yourself pretty tired, but that's all good. A prime example for this might be heading out and running 40 miles with 5,000m ascent when the weekly mileage is only hitting 40miles.
When looking at your training, try and have a 'Deload' week. The frequency of this can depend on how hard you're training and how fit you are. Every 6-8 weeks is an average. A 'Deload' week is simply a week of lighter duties and you'll cut the training volume by at least 25%. This allows some breathing space for physical and mental recovery and quite importantly breaks up the training regime.
Stretching and body care - I neglected this for years and year and I'm now paying the price. Back in 2020 I made it my NY resolution to stretch after every run or hike and I'm happy to say it's now a pretty solid habit. I do feel much better in my movements and certainly recover faster. I'm also a massive fan of a sports massage and I'll be lacing my training with these. They really help identify any issues that need addressing and once again, promote recovery.
Recovery & Nutrition- 'You don't get fitter when you workout, you get fitter when you rest'
Without recovery and the correct fuel, you may as well just call the whole thing off. No amount of enthusiasm will replace the need for your body to just stop. Even if you're training hard, have at least one day a week when you do no exercise. As you increase your training volume and your body becomes fitter, you will likely find your body's ability to recover improves, but ultimately you need to listen to your body and this is where following a prescribed day to day training plan can become tricky. Often it is good to have an idea as to what you want to do in a week, and see how your body feels - but don't forget, training will be hard so there is a difference between really not feeling it and just being lazy! Remember, we do want to Over Reach and maybe getting that planned 10km trail run will do just the job. Continued tiredness and lethargy could well mean it's time for a deload week, and then more productive training can occur afterwards.
Sleep is one of the biggest considerations when it comes to recovery. Whilst sleeping your body will make the most amount of developments thanks to the increased secretion of Human Growth Hormones. Getting 7-8 hours sleep should be considered part of your training plan. Much less than this regularly and you're missing out on hard fought gains.
Getting your nutrition right is as critical as sleep. What you eat and drink will fuel you through these sessions, so it is paramount you are putting in the right things and enough of it. Working in a calorie deficit regularly will impede performance, but likewise this doesn't mean you can smash fast food after every run and expect all to be well.
Eat whole foods and get a balanced diet
Eat enough calories - work out your daily needs, and then replenish the amount you work off during your session
Protein! This is the food of repair and recovery so make sure you're getting enough
To reiterate, as you increase your training load, your recovery and nutrition has to adapt and go with it too. Factor this in to your life to get the best out of your training.
Personally, my diet is pretty good and I certainly get a good amount of protein. I tend to average 7-7.5 hours sleep most nights, so I'm right in the sweet-spot there.
I hope you've enjoyed an insight into what my overall training plan will consist of. As I move through the following weeks and months I will continue to update you on what has or hasn't been working for me. If I can provide an ounce of useful information to anyone out there taking on a Bob Graham or similar on what to consider when training then for me it's a worthwhile blog series.