UTMB Training Part 1 – Volume + Intensity


I’ve been signed up for the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) for a couple of months now and I realized I haven’t really shared any information about the training and preparation for the race.

The event takes place this coming August 30th with a start in Chamonix, France. Organized by The North Face the UTMB is a 105 miles ultra marathon with 31,500 feet of elevation gain (more than climbing Mt Everest from sea level!) and a cut off time of 46 hours. At 4,810 m (15,782 ft) the Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Western Europe. 2300 athletes will run around the mountain, going through France, Italy, and Switzerland. It’s the first ultra during which I will have to carry my passport.

Being born in France and having spent a fair amount of time in the Alps this is a dream come true. I have been fortunate to be able to qualify and to secure a spot in the race. Going home for what is considered the Olympic Games or the Tour de France of trail running is a very exciting and emotional prospect for me. By the time the race starts, it will have been about a year since my mom passed away not too far from Chamonix. I dedicate this challenge to her and I wish she could be at the finish line. I would not have developed the endurance and resilience necessary to undertake a running adventure at this level without what she taught me and in particular her courage fighting cancer for four years. On my long mountain runs my mind sometimes presents me with a visual of her waiting for me at the finish line, sitting in a wheelchair with a blanket, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of me coming in the chute (which always leads to me breaking down in tears).

Preparing for the race is complex, tedious and fun! There are a couple of dimensions I would like to cover on tri-ops in order perhaps to help future runners but also to keep my sanity in check and reflect on what I’m doing! I will cover training volume/intensity, nutrition, and gear preparation. Let’s start with the training.

Training Volume & Intensity – The 100K I was looking for…

Compared to last year when I was training for the Rio del Lago 100mi  the training volume has increased by about 25% (700 vs 860 miles in the 13 weeks leading up to the race)

For RDL weekly milage was between 45 and 55 miles and for the UTMB milage it is between 60 and 65 miles.

Although this seems like a sizable increase I don’t think the most important part of the UTMB specific training is in the increase in the milage. I was planning on running a 100 miler in June (DRTE100) but downgraded to a 100K (SBRT100) which I downgraded to a 50K (see post here). I wanted to put myself through the rigors of being on the trails for over 12 hours but this hasn’t happened until recently when I ran 60 miles in the backcountry in the Eastern Sierra Nevada (between Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite).

Altitude and Terrain

What has changed is the intensity and the nature of the terrain I train on. A year ago I didn’t train with as many steep hills and mountains. This year for the UTMB I amped up the elevation gain on every run and also trained in the Sierra Nevada, at high altitudes (8,500 to 11,500ft which is actually higher than the altitudes reached the UTMB). I also increased the number of technical trails (ie fewer fire roads) and I’m carrying the same pack I will be carrying at the UTMB (between 7 and 10 lbs depending on how much food and water I’ve consumed). More on the pack when I write about the gear aspect of the UTMB.

Last Friday I ran a 100K (60 miles) in the backcountry in 15 hours – there was about 15,000ft of elevation gain. This was a huge confidence booster and I could test my nutrition and hydration strategy and discipline. A miracle actually as I wasn’t tired at the end or sore the next day. I had run distances of 35 and 45 miles at the same altitude and was more tired after it. Let’s, however, bear in mind that the UTMB is probably going to last 20 hours longer!

This 100K was really important for me and I was really happy it went well and even better than expected. In the first place, I had a lot of fun and I was able to focus on many elements of running long in the wilderness: I am a little wary of mountain lions (they are there – they just don’t care about us), bears and snakes not so much. I also need to bear (ahem) in mind that the weather was very clement which is unlikely to happen at the UTMB. The terrain is similar and as I said I was running at altitudes higher than the UTMB (my starting point and where I sleep in Mammoth is higher than the highest point on the UTMB course).

I was also in heaven for the whole day because for me mountain running is a spiritual experience akin to meditation (albeit different – there is no stillness!). The mountains in the Sierra Nevada are so beautiful I don’t miss the Alps (well a little bit). It might sound corny but more than once I had to stop and take in the immensity,  the beauty and the majesty of the landscape, the perception that we are made of the same stuff and that our planet is truly beautiful and there for us. So happy at times that the music I was listening to added an extra spring in my step and I did indeed danced on some single-file trails! I also encountered a couple of hikers and it was nice to share a moment! I didn’t see much wildlife with the exception of some chipmunks. Here is a link to a photo album of the journey (click here).

Also, it showed that my training periodization was working well.

Periodization & Taper

I have planned my training more meticulously than last year (last year was also very stressful because I was traveling to France a lot and I was running Pikes Peak in August). The chart above shows better periodization (peak in 3 weeks – one week of rest). Within a given week I also only run 4 days. The other three days are for swimming (2 days) and hiking with my son or cycling. I believe this is what keeps me injury-free.

I also have committed to visiting my chiropractor every month for an adjustment (he’s my mechanic!) and making sure everything is aligned properly. The session is followed by a deep tissue massage and stretching the next day (the Thai masseuse I use is brutal but it’s essential).

For both races, I do a 2-week taper. I believe this is enough. For me too long the taper and I lose a certain edge – too short and there is no sufficient recovery. I will get to Chamonix 6 days before the race which should give me enough time to recover from the flight (dehydration, radiation, jetlag) and re-accustom myself to French food (don’t laugh – I actually don’t eat a typical French diet. I’m more on the Californian Paleo side now).

That’s it for now. The training goes on. I haven’t really touched on the mental aspect of preparing for the race. It’s just because there’s not much to say actually. There are some fear and anxiety that everything won’t go as planned but nothing that is impairing or requires special attention.

One last note: during each rest week I schedule a session with my chiropractor Dr. Adam Del Torto – He is a genius at straightening everything out and fine-tuning alignments before anything goes out of whack. If you aren’t too far from Burbank I highly recommend him. The day after I schedule a deep tissue massage at Bahn Sabai (usually quite painful – the masseuse grinds the hell out of every fiber!)

Next week: Nutrition Training

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