Saturday, 4 January 2014

How to train for Spartathlon.

How to train for Spartathlon.

In writing this little piece I need to say that it is completely and utterly subjective and written from my own little viewpoint as a middle of the pack, middle aged, of average ability ultra-distance runner. I have started Spartathlon 6 times and finished 3 times and all of the finishes were smack bang in the middle of the pack of finishers. Not the fastest but not the slowest either. To put this in perspective to other measurable distances I have clocked 8:27 in the 100 kms and 190 kms in 24 hours on the track. Not that fast, or great but not that slow either.

What I will describe here is more of a training philosophy rather than a training plan, but I hope it is useful and that it helps at least a few others achieve success in the Spartathlon. I have a couple of friends in mind when I am writing this so if this article actually helps them then I will collect my beer at the next post-race celebration. So these are my recommendations for a 50 something year old amateur athlete who wants to finish the Spartathlon before old age creeps up on them.

John Fodden summarises what it takes to finish Spartathlon in a beautiful, simple quote: “I shan’t wish you luck because if you haven’t trained properly, luck will be of no use. And if you have trained properly then you don’t need luck.” I like to add that “Luck starts at 5 in the morning.”

But just what is training properly for the Spartathlon?


I really don’t like qualifying a race as the hardest or the toughest or baddest or whatever based on a subjective opinion.  So many races claim to be the toughest or the most difficult but the truth is they are only playing to a public that are all just too eager to buy into the image of the event where they imagine themselves as the “toughest in the world”. However, what I will say is that the Spartathlon is the race that I personally have found the most difficult and demanding just to finish. The reason is simple. You must run 246 kms in 36 hours. The Spartathlon is the epitome of an ultra-distance athletics race. It is ultra-distance, it is athletics and it is a race. And there you have it. Most people in the “ultra running” world can understand the distance and the race element without too much explanation but I think it is the “athletics” part that the vast majority of people that present themselves on the start line fail to fully comprehend. The act of fighting in battle for an ancient Greek warrior was incredibly athletic and it should come as no surprise that Milatides chose only the very best athlete to deliver the message to the Spartan king. I repeat; the very best athlete. So when Herodotus documented this original feat of Phiedepides, we are talking about the very best warrior athlete of the day. Not a plodder and certainly not a long distance walker. If you are considering doing the Spartathlon you need to comprehend this little fact. Far too many do not.

Unlike many other ultra-distance races, the Spartathlon forces you to run almost all of the time. The moment you ease up the pace you find yourself against the time barriers and they are brutal. As a result you have to be extremely physically and mentally well prepared to finish. Note that only 33 % actually finish and this against a back drop of having to present a good solid ultra-running CV to enter. And this brings me to the first major point:

The Spartathlon qualifiers: They are far too soft. You can qualify for the Spartathlon by doing a 100k in 10 hours 30 mins, or by doing a 200k race inside the time stated by the organisation. For a start, the 100k distance isn’t really a good indicator for a 246 km race and let’s face it, 10:30 is way too soft. If you can just break 10:30 in the 100k on your best day you will almost certainly not finish the Spartathlon. I hope I don’t sound too cruel, but that is the truth. If you can just break 10:30 don’t waste your time or you money, you will only be disappointed. Most people I have spoken with that have actually finished have the 100k time in at least less than 9:30, most under 9 hours.

A much better qualifier would be the distance covered in a 24 hour track event and the word on the street is that you should be able to clock up at least 175 – 180 kms. The cut off in the Spartathlon is 172 kms in 24:30 so 175 – 180 kms in a 24 hour, flat track race would approximate to this …. Except that you still have 80 kms to go.

Clearly it is a race that is very, very difficult.

For someone who has had success at mountain trail races it is also a very deceptive race, especially if you come with a lot of experience and a strong curriculum in mountain conditions. The main feature of the mountains are the changes in pace and therefore the continuous changes in the muscles used. In the Spartathlon there very few changes of pace and that tends to load certain muscle groups more than others. The road also takes its toll in a way that the mountains do not and the body must be prepared for the pounding of the ​​asphalt. I remember all too well my first attempt after the UTMB in 2007. I finished the Tour very comfortably but the Spartathlon left me with trashed legs after a meagre 70 kms because I was not accustomed to running on the hard road. I was obviously very strong in the mountains and very bad on the asphalt. The mountains did not prepare for the asphalt of the Spartathlon. Running on a hard road surface has nothing to do with running trails and so here is my first major tip:


To succeed in this kind of race you have to know how to run with maximum efficiency. Ie , with the minimum expenditure of energy. And if you want to finish the Sparta that has to be the only goal of the year. Other races are nothing but fun and training sessions in racing conditions. And since it is so difficult I would recommend that at least 70 % of all training is on asphalt.

For the year that I first had success, I trained with a GPS heart rate monitor . I set the speed to 10 kms per hour and I experimented with different positions, postures, stride length, arm positions etc. , etc . in order to find the most effective and efficient way to maintain this speed. I started with 125 pulses per minute to keep 10 kms per hour and got to 106 just by polishing running technique alone. Clearly this already gave me a huge advantage over my previous technique with no actual gain in fitness. The moment you discover the technique it then takes lots of practice until it becomes firmly engrained in the subconscious and it becomes the most natural thing to do. Basically there are almost no foot lifts and the foot almost glides over the surface of the road, which cannot be done in the mountains without a face plant into the rocks. The arms are kept low and the torso kept straight and leaning ever so slightly forwards with your head facing forward. I also learned a lot watching the runners in 24 hours races. Think of efficiency when training, not speed.

As far as the amount of training involved I have a very simple philosophy. You train when and however you can, but for an ultra-distance runner you must maintain a very high volume. Why no set plan? Well, because I work and have a family and they have to come first. In my case this means I have to get up at 5 every morning to train but if I do not, I know that I will not finish the Spartathlon. As a general rule I will train 2 hours a day in 2 sessions during the week, one before and one after work with long runs of  5 or 6 hours during the weekends. 
I will do some 160 to 200 kms a week, week after week, for at least 4 – 5 months before doing the race. I will take a full day off every 7 – 10 days where I will do nothing. But be aware, most of this is at a slow relaxed pace. Only slightly faster than the speed I will use to run the Spartathlon. That is about 11 to 12 kms / hour, no more. These are not junk miles, as some often mistakenly assume. You are not just training your body, you are training your mind just to keep going…and going … and going. You will need that in the race and this last point cannot be stressed enough. However, I will still put in a couple of speed sessions a week just in case I want to do a fast race like a 100k. The vast majority are slow sessions that allow me to be fully recovered for the next session.

And a major factor that is often overlooked in preparing for the Spartathlon is the psychological preparation. This is where the relentless high volume really gives major benefits. With so much running your mind will eventually adapt to a state where running at 10 kms an hour is the normal state for it to be. This means that your new comfort zone is running and when those demons at 3 in the morning come out to haunt you can happily revert to your comfort zone which is running. If you can get up at 5 in the morning and get out on the road without even thinking about it, and then again every evening when you finish work, again without thinking about it you are probably well on the way to a Spartathlon finish.

So, if you do need a bit of luck, remember that luck starts at 5 in the morning, every morning for months upon months before the Spartathlon.

Good luck!!



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. brilliant, inspiring, very good, thanks

  3. i like the philosophy on luck... simple yet strong content

  4. Gracias Mark, me ha gustado mucho y te animo a seguir escribiendo sobre el mismo tema, los que soñamos con alguna vez acudir a Spartathlon, agradeceremos tus consejos. PD: donde yo vivo a las cinco de la mañana los quioscos de loteria estan cerrados, jajajaja-

  5. Mark what a great point of view and description of your personal experience! Looking forward to meeting you at the start line!

  6. Great article Mark, it really puts into perspective the focus, determination and drive required to put in the right training to complete an event like this one. I'd love to do it one day but with my first 50-miler in February to look forward to I'm a long way from the start line...but every journey starts with a single step they say...

  7. Great tips Mark! I will be running across the U.S. in a few months and even I learned a thing or two from you. Wish you the best in this!

  8. Very good tips Mark! If I just can beat the "getting up at 5 in the morning troll", this might actually be doable Before I turn 50 :)

  9. Just ran a qualifier in a 24 hour. Now need to beat the ballot. All going well I'm looking at 2016. I shall read and reread your wise words many times. You pull no punches. Great stuff.

  10. I am really glad I read this, it has given me the belief that I can complete The Spartathlon. Recently ran 125 miles in 24 hours off road at 24hr event, looking to run this next year.......if I get in of course.

  11. Thank you so much for your words of experience. As a middle aged, average speed runner was wondering if there was any hope of me completing this race... it seems it might just be possible :o) Thanks for the inspiration.

  12. Thank you so much for your words of experience. As a middle aged, average speed runner was wondering if there was any hope of me completing this race... it seems it might just be possible :o) Thanks for the inspiration.

  13. Hi, running spartathlon is my ultimate dream for me. I started running two years ago. Have been wondering how to find a way to achieve my goal and dream and here I am, venture into your blog today... Thanks for the sharing. Now, I know given myself a few more years to train, my dream is achievable.

  14. Thanks for wonderful blog post. I am enjoy your article to read.
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