One of the inherent problems of being a coach to both normal and elite athletes is that the former group always wants to copy the latter. Particularly in today’s world of Strava and publicly available training information, it’s relatively easy for an athlete to look at almost any elite athlete’s training program and want to copy and paste it into their own training. So, with a mountain of hesitancy, I took this month’s theme of “Legends of Ultrarunning” and pondered chronicling the training of a legendary athlete. But it just didn’t seem relatable for this readership. Plus, the last thing I would want to happen is someone blindly copying the style and strategy of some elite athlete based on the words that follow.

Enter Karl Meltzer, who unequivocally is the every-man’s elite athlete and someone who has found a training style that is relatable and applicable to all. Fancy and flashy he is not. I guarantee that you will not find a Whoop strap, compression boots, massage gun or any clothing item with colors other than earth tones in his humble home near Alta, Utah. I will bet my entire 401k that he’s never set foot in a cryogenic chamber, had routine bloodwork done or even entertained the idea of such advanced interventions. If you do have the opportunity to sit down and talk running with “the winningest 100-mile runner on earth,” what you will find is someone who is humble, brutally honest and found a training formula that worked for him. That combination, in conjunction with Meltzer’s longevity which encapsulates over three decades of competitive running from his 20s to 50s, equates to a lesson for everyone in this readership young, old, experienced and new, alike.

20s & 30s: A little running, most of it hard

Early in Meltzer’s career, running shorter, harder workouts and races were a staple. “I did these not so much because I wanted to, but because I could, because I could recover,” he told me emphatically. “Eighty percent of my volume was pretty hard.” By all accounts, this is the polar opposite of what nearly all elite endurance athletes do today, who predominately utilize an 80/20 structure where 80% of their miles are easy and 20% are hard, not the other way around. As for the structure of that intensity, it was dictated by the terrain, not the stopwatch or a heart rate monitor. “Every uphill was hard. So hard I couldn’t hold a conversation.”

To continue the contrarian thread, the volume that Meltzer was speaking of in his 20s and 30s was a meager (by today’s standards) 35-50 miles per week, which is easily half or even a third of the weekly volume seen in today’s elite athletes. “And, I could continue to progress in my 20s and 30s by simply increasing my volume by about 10 percent per year,” which puts him at a maximum of about 65 miles per week and 15,000 feet of vertical for a standard week of training. “That did the trick until I was about 45.”

So, this is what I take away from my conversation with Karl Meltzer that everyone can learn from. You can start simply. You don’t need copious mileage or overstructured intensity in order to see results.  A simple plan, where the intensity comes from the terrain and the volume increases come at a rate of 10% per year can yield improvements for over a decade.


Mid-40s:  A change in strategy

“Until I was 45, mileage did the trick. Past that, I had to make some changes.” During Meltzer’s mid-40s and beyond, his mileage and intensity dropped, with more of a decrease in the latter. Fueled by a combination of age, physiology and a reduction in competitive pressure, Meltzer’s strategy shifted to one of opportunistic training. “Everyone has about 50,000 miles on their legs. I tried to make the most of mine.” Efficient training that is hyper-specific is the best way to describe Karl’s training during these years. “I always trained for the mountains, never on flats. Some of my training now is getting out and hiking, see how I feel, then I might run after that or just turn around and run back down.” Because he had trained so hard for so long, he could get away with less. “I knew how to race and that the race never starts until mile 70. So, I never had to be that fast. I just had to slow down the least.” On top of this was an acute realization that, although he could still be competitive, his best years were behind him. “I can’t top what I did in the past. I realized that and it helped with letting go of some of the training.”

The lesson here for the seasoned veterans reading this is that all of your training matters. It’s not just the last three months or six months, or even the last year of training that will determine how well you run ultramarathons. Provided that your training is reasonable in the short timeframe leading up to an event, you can lean on a lifetime of experience and training and be successful. You don’t have to be fast (particularly at the longer distances), you just have to slow down the least.

“Rest is important.”

I know what you are thinking: everybody says this. But few people embrace this aspect of running like Meltzer has done over the course of his career. His old friend and original training partner, Jim Hopkins, gave him these three important words in his 20s and they have stuck with him ever since. In fact, after interviewing Meltzer both on my podcast and for this article, it is clear to me that this advice permeates the entirety of his training from his overall mileage, to how he treats injuries and even how to handle multiple 100-milers in a season (he won six 100-milers in 2006). “I get injured too, and as I’ve gotten older it’s harder to stay healthy and get over any injuries that I do get. So, I try to avoid them altogether with rest.” If you want to know if he does any preventive maintenance, prehab or anything of the like, the answer is, “Nope, besides maybe drinking a beer.”

What would you do differently?

Elite athletes are always the reflective type. They are always looking for an edge to gain percentage here, add some mileage there and shave off a few grams from their pack for good measure. And even when they are successful, they can always find a hole in their training program where they can improve. When I asked Meltzer what he would have done differently, even after several years of reflection, ever the contrarian, he answered simply, “I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. Sure, I made some mistakes and I learned the hard way from them. I accomplished a lot, and it’s hard to look back and say that I would have done better if I would have done more of this or less of that. I was very successful, and it’s hard to criticize that.” And I think he’s right. Above all else, Meltzer found a winning formula. One that consisted of low volume, high specificity and intuitively adapting to his needs over the years. He’s won a 100-mile race for 19 years in a row (and counting), a record that I firmly believe will never be broken. So, say what you will about mega mileage and abundant vertical. Meltzer needed none of it. “Maybe a few less beers, that might have helped,” he jokingly concluded, proving that we all have our vices.