A version of this story appears in the July 4, 2016, edition of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Last July mega-distance runner Scott Jurek set the record for the fastest supported traverse of the Appalachian Trail, completing the 2,189-mile trek in 46 days, eight hours, and seven minutes. For the Boulder, Colo., resident it was the capstone of a career that is perhaps the ultimate in ultramarathoning. Over the last 22 years Jurek, 42, has won seven consecutive Western States Endurance Runs, two Badwater Ultramarathons, three Miwok 100K Trail Races, the 153-mile Spartathalon and the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run.
Now, though, Jurek can relate to the average Joe. After setting the Appalachian Trail record, he took at least six months off, which means that his return to training bore some resemblance to what a typical couch potato experiences when he takes up running—or any sort of fitness routine.
“It takes some time after something like that,” he says. “It’s easy for the body to slip into overtraining mode because of the heightened stress and sleep deprivation. In six months, the body comes back and you feel good on the outside. But on the inside, the body is still recalibrating.”
From his experience running the Appalachian Trail and after his months-long hiatus, Jurek has some training lessons to share. To start, he says, "take baby steps." He recommends three runs per week in the 30- to 45-minute range at 60% to 70% of maximum heart rate and one longer run on the weekend, each preceded by a 15-minute warmup jog at 60% effort.
“It’s great to get joints and tissue used to the loads coming off the couch,” he says. Jurek also mixes in one 40-to 60-minute gym visit per week to strengthen his upper and lower body.
As baby steps go, those are rather large bounds, but even for someone who can't commit that much time, Jurek's larger point holds: Begin slowly and build. He also suggests mixing it up by replacing one or two of the runs with hiking, swimming, cross-country skiing, tennis or even a walk on an inclined treadmill. Regardless of the activity, be sure to reach that 60% to 70% of maximum exertion level three times a week.
Maintaining that program will keep anyone fit, although Jurek uses it as a base program from which he then adds high-effort lactate producing workouts, and eventually interval training, during which he pushes his effort level above 90%.
“Not a full interval workout,” Jurek says of the lactate, or tempo, workouts. “This is one step back from that where you’re building lactic acid in the muscles and never to a point where you’re overwhelmed.”
Try these for one to two weeks, he recommends. He also preaches the benefits of whole foods—the less processed the better—and plenty of water, in addition to massages to help rejuvenate the muscles.
Above all, Jurek believes in taking a relaxed approach.
"Have fun with your workouts," he says, "and listen to your body."