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Ultra training from the mind of Coach Koop

Jason Koop has coached ultra runners long before the niche sport grabbed the foothold it currently has. In those days, gear options were sparse, nutrition options were minimal and training was whatever the individual prescribed.

In time, however, Koop has developed a niche and has created an environment where science and research gel with high performance ultra runners. As the head coach for Carmichael Training System, his stable of athletes includes Kaci Lickteig and Dakota Jones.

Koop has shared his knowledge in the book titled, “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning: How to Train Smarter, Race Faster, and Maximize Your Ultramarathon Performance.” In this interview, we go deeper into some concepts he details in the book.

Understanding the process

Question: First of all, walk me through your thought process of seeing the opportunity to coach ultra runners at a time when it was really a niche sport.

Jason Koop: In the early 2000s or so, I made an effort to reach out to a lot of the top ultra runners at the time and basically got laughed at. It took a while for that sentiment to gradually turn around and now it's a more accepted practice within the sport to get coaching advice from people who are doing it professionally. So much so that there's now a number of people who are earning a living or doing it as a side gig in terms of being able to coach specifically trail and ultra marathon athletes.

Question: In the book, Dakota Jones talks about training — and you address this as well — and starting workouts from the least like your race and then gravitating toward race-specific training. Tell me a little bit more about that philosophy and how you came about using it.

Jason Koop: I grew up in the collegiate system and some of my very first coach training was with USA Track and Field. Whether it was USA Track and Field coach education or any of the books that you read for distance running, marathon running or for track and field events, they have this very stereotypical setup. You do your base mileage first and then you'd do some sort of moderate intensity second and then you'd do some sort of higher intensity third. The theory was that the lower intensity somehow prepared you for the medium intensity and the medium intensity somehow prepared you for the higher intensity. We’ve since figured out that at least from a cardiovascular standpoint, that whole strategy is nonsense. You don't build things that support other things that then support other things. There is a certain degree to which that's true from a musculoskeletal standpoint. But your body doesn't adapt to stress in that fashion.

Question: How has that been modified to what is practiced now?

Koop: We’ve since taken that paradigm — not only in trail and ultra running but also in cycling and triathlon, both of which I have a coaching background in — to where we look at what the demands of the event are from a physiological standpoint, from a tactical standpoint, from a stress on the athlete standpoint, all of these different angles. We gradually tailor the training as it progresses chronologically from a situation where they're slowly inching more toward the things that are the most specific for the race. In a trail ultra marathon situation, normally that's very low intensity, very aerobic type of cardiovascular outcomes.

Rest and recovery

Question: Let's talk about rest and recovery. There are different philosophies but I think overall coaches and athletes are starting to understand the value of real recovery better. Tell me how you see recovery. Is that a weekly rest day? Is that more of a biking or yoga?

Koop: As the old adage goes, you only get better when you rest and that's very true. The purpose of training is to impose stress on the body and once you've then removed that stress and allow for adequate time, that's when your body kind of literally builds the structures and the things that it needs in order to improve. I don't think anybody can say definitively whether an easy day is better than a recovery day, or a cross training day is better than doing yoga or cycling. All those rest and/or recovery modalities are within a very small hair split of the difference in terms of their impact that they actually have on the athlete’s rest and recovery process.

So what I always steer toward is just kind of two principles in order to make sure that the athlete is properly rested and recovered. One, what makes them feel better? Literally, what type of activity, which at the end of the day they're just going to say, ‘Yup, I feel better after doing this activity than I do before this activity.’ So, that very much focuses on a little bit of the physical, but obviously much more of the psychological component of recovery. And that could be a day off. That could be short recovery run, or a bike ride, or a number of activities. And the second thing I'd focus on is the intensity of, or really lack thereof, of the actual recovery modality. Sometimes I prefer my athletes actually take a hike or a walk as opposed to actually do a run. But the point of all that is you're just trying to do the absolute bare minimum amount of intensity, just get out and move.

Question: Does that differ for a masters athlete compared to someone younger and maybe even more competitive in bigger races?

Koop: I don't put people into age categories — 40-year-old athletes do this, the 30-year-old athletes do that. It really is in terms of how much intensity of training they can handle. So they are doing two hard workouts a week or one hard workout every 10 days or three hard workouts a week or whatever. It has to do with a number of different factors. Age is certainly one of them. But also life stress. And what phase of training that they’re in and what their goals are.

That constellation of variables really determines what those rest and recovery cycles look like. It's not solely dependent upon age or masters athletes or non-masters athletes because I have 40-, 50-, 60-year-old athletes who train with a very similar training density to a 20- or 30-year-old. They can do that because they take care of themselves.

Question: I was really interested in the five components of training. Tell me a little bit about how you manipulate those based on factors such as an athlete's goals, experience, those kind of things.

(Photo at left, Koop with ccoaching client Katie Graff. Learn about Katie's journey in this blog post.)

Koop: Well, first off those aren't unique to me, right? Those are classic variables to manipulate. And that's a really, really broad question. You can take any single one of those components and look at an athlete and say, ‘OK, I got to do more volume here, less volume there, more intensity here, more intensity there.’ It’s a really difficult kind of brushstroke to make in order to answer how I manipulate those across all athletes. But I think the easiest way to paint it is to really look at what's going to be required of the athlete come race day. How much climbing and descending is there? What are their environmental conditions? Is the course hot? Is it at high altitude? What intensity can they run at?

And that's not just the gross intensity, that's looking at the climbs and descents and how steep it is, how long it is and how capable the athlete is. And then taking those event demands and really reverse engineering the training from that standpoint. So how much volume do they need to train in? How much intensity? What’s the volume of intensity? The frequency? I’ll reverse engineer from the event as a corollary to who the athlete is and what they're coming to the table with in terms of experience and what their goals are.

Nutrition, fat adaptation and calories

Question: I’d like to segue to nutrition now. You wrote about fat adaptation not being the best for runners because you want them to build the best cardiovascular system. Let’s go deeper on that point.

Koop: Sure. The first caveat I'll start out with is that there's a range of scenarios to which athletes try to metabolize more fat and that starts with simply periodizing their nutrition. So taking a different macronutrient composition, depending upon what phase of training they're in and how intense or the lack of intensity that they actually have, all the way to a ketogenic diet, which is very low-carbohydrate, very high-fat diet.

The fundamental compromise that you're making whenever you're doing that in order to burn more fat is that it takes more oxygen to liberate energy. Think about the amount of energy that it takes you to go one mile. Let's say 100 calories. The more fat that you're liberating, the more fat that you're utilizing in that 100 calories to locomote from point A to point B, the more oxygen that it's going to take you to do that. And that's very well established in the literature. That's kind of simple biology or bio-chemistry, not necessarily even physiology at that point. So when you look at a fat adaptation strategy, fundamentally you are compromising running economy.

They're quite literally having to consume more oxygen at any given intensity because they’re utilizing more fat stores. Sometimes that compromise is OK. Sometimes the fact that you're running economy is worse because you are liberating more energy from fat, it's not a big consequence in certain situations. For example, when you are at rest, the fact that your dominant energy source is fat, that's not a big consequence. But at higher intensities, making this fundamental compromise whereas you're sparing carbohydrates, the compromise is sparing the carbohydrates, you're essentially at a higher percentage of your VO2 max or you're at a higher intensity across any given speed.

Question: Another aspect of the fat-adapted concept is calorie restriction. That can’t be good, especially for those training at high intensities.

Answer: Absolutely. Fundamentally most of those fat-adapted strategies involve some type of caloric restriction. So you're either running well fasted without breakfast, or you're intentionally manipulating the amount of carbohydrates that you're taking in so that you're constantly running in a reduced carbohydrates state. You're training twice a day and that second run is done in a ‘depleted’ state and all of those strategies worked to burn more fat. They're extremely stressful on the body because of that caloric restriction that you're inducing.

The more stress that's induced from that caloric restriction, the riskier the training proposition becomes. So they run the risk of becoming injured or nutrient deficient or the nutrient deficiency. It kind of spirals into an injury and the whole, the entirety of training becomes compromised because of this caloric restriction that you're intentionally inducing in order to have a more optimized fat metabolism.

And then the final point I always make when I'm kind of discussing this with our colleagues is, you still don't know how transient these adaptations are. So if you put an athlete through some sort of optimized fat metabolism protocol and it doesn't really matter what types of tools and tricks you're using, whether it's manipulating the content of the diet or manipulating the carbohydrate availability during the individual sessions or some combination of all of those, we still don't know how transient those adaptations are, we don't know how quickly they come and go away.

To a certain degree we know how long it takes to shift the metabolic curve initially. And we know a lot of this from the research that's been done on athletes who are trying to undertake a ketogenic diet. But once you start to introduce exogenous carbohydrates in a race setting, like a 100-miler, and you take a gel or you try to eat some sort of high carbohydrate meal in advance of the race, we don't know if those metabolic adaptations stick and if the past is any sort of learning lesson with that, it takes a whole lot more to create the adaptation than it does to actually unwind it. The fact that we just don't know how long those changes stick around, definitely dampens any of the compelling arguments that actually undergo those adaptations.

Question: What about for a runner who simply wants to run long races? I'm talking 100 miles or even more. Since that runner does not have any desire for speed, would fat adaptation in your viewpoint work for that type of athlete?

Koop: When you have an athlete who's not training for speed, it's a perfectly plausible strategy to try to do some of these adaptations. But you're still stuck with a lot of those fundamental compromises irrespective of whether running faster is the goal or not. You're still stuck with the compromise of your running economy is worse as you manipulate your body to burn more fat, you're still stuck with the compromise of the training is risky because you're at times kind of restricting the caloric intake that you can have. And in cases when athletes are trying to undergo a ketogenetic diet, it's a very difficult diet to really stick to.

And I've always viewed that for any athlete and even in an ultra marathon setting is that when you go up to the 200-mile distance, there's a whole lot more complicating factors than there are positive ones whenever you're trying to create these dietary training manipulations to intentionally metabolize more fat because fundamentally training itself, aerobic training itself, enhances ones capabilities to metabolize fat, just training. And so when you try to do it to a further extent, via diet or manipulate carbohydrate availability or whatever, it tends to have a much marketless effect than it does in a sedentary population simply because the athlete is training so much. Because of that training they're essentially conditioning their bodies to metabolize food stuffs and predominantly fat aerobically a lot more effectively.

Question: In the book, you went pretty deep into recommendations for an ultra runner in terms of carbs, fats and proteins. Do you see any difference in the training cycle about when athletes should emphasize one of those more over the other? Or do you recommend keeping that consistent from the base building through to race day?

Koop: The first thing that we focused on is just to make sure that they're meeting their macronutrient demand. That's tricky. So the total caloric count, right? Most athletes who we work with live in a First World country. We have good food availability. They're educated consumers so they are not eating junk food all the time.

So when I work with athletes, I take a very pragmatic approach to this. First, let's make sure that your total caloric needs are covered. So if you have a day where you go out on a really long run and you need 6,000 calories to replace, you need to make sure that she eats 6,000 calories. And I'm far less concerned with the macronutrient and carbohydrates, the fat and the protein composition of that, I just want to meet the caloric requirements first. That is the, by far, the biggest thing that I focus on.

And then secondarily, if you do have athletes who are really into it, we can do what we call a periodized nutrition approach. And that quite simply means that during periods of high intensity, or even days where there's high intensity, they consume more carbohydrates. And days that are lower intensity, they do less carbohydrates.

That is a very nuanced strategy and you can get benefits from that strategy, absolutely. But it takes time and effort and there's a lot of detail that goes into that plan. And for most athletes it becomes impractical to try to focus on that too much. So as long as the athlete is consuming at least 50 percent carbohydrate, and the balance of their macronutrient composition comes from equal proportion of fat and protein. I really don't mess with it too much as long as they have their kind of total caloric intake really dialed in, which is honestly hard enough.

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