Ultramarathon. It has nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Nothing inspires oohs and aahs quite like mentioning that you run them. The odds are that once you’ve got a couple of marathons under your belt, the thought will — at some point — cross your mind to try stepping up to the next distance. Wanna know how I know? I’ve done six ultras in the past three years.
Ultramarathons typically start at the 50k distance — or 31(ish) miles. Now, it’s really tempting to think of it as “just a few miles longer than a marathon” but ultras — which are typically done on trails — are a completely different animal than a road marathon. Unless your goal is to hate the experience of running your first ultra, don’t assume that your standard marathon training will do.
Here’s what you need to know.
- Training is the hardest part. I mean, sure, it’s tough to run 31+ miles, but it’s the grinding it out day after day after day that’s the toughest part. Staying motivated and positive through months of training through all sorts of conditions is hard — especially if you’re training alone. Honestly, if you can get through training, you’ve got the chops to get through the race.
- Have a training plan. You may have been able to get away with willy-nilly training for other distances, but it’s a supremely bad idea to do an ultra without a clear plan. There are free plans online (be sure they are from reputable coaches) for first-timers which you could adapt to your own schedule or — better yet — hire a coach with ultramarathon training experience to write one for you.
- Back-to-back “long” runs are where ultrarunners are made. This is the bread and butter of ultra training — a weekly long run that increases (similar to the way a marathon long run would increase with a mileage cutback every couple of weeks) and a second shorter “long” run the next day. The object of this second “long” run is really just to be on your feet for 60-90 minutes to learn what it feels like to have “dead legs” while still keeping your running form together.
- Train for your course. Research the course you’ll be running and spend some time training in similar conditions. For example, if you know that your course has a huge climb at mile 20, pick routes that have uphills toward the end of the course and/or include more hills in your second “long” run. Also, be sure to put in as many miles as possible on a similar surface to what you’ll encounter on race day.
- Be okay with walking. This goes double if you’ll be on trails. Road hills are built to accommodate cars so they’re never as steep as what you’ll see out there on the trails. Often, it’s far more energy efficient to walk up certain hills than it would be to run them. Also, some downhills can be steep and dangerous — especially if it’s wet out there or if you’re on loose rocks. But even in general, walking is totally acceptable on ultra courses. We all do it — seriously. Don’t try to be a hero; walk when you need to.
- Be ready to make sacrifices. Ultra training is a big, time-consuming commitment. No doubt somewhere along the line, you’ll get an invite for a happy hour the night before your long run. And you’ll want to go and you’ll really want a drink. I’ve totally been there — but trust me, you’ll pay for it in your run the next day. Be ready to make sacrifices for the sake of training.
- Recovery rituals become critical. Stretching overused muscles, foam rolling, restorative yoga, epsom salt baths, etc. become more important than ever. You can’t train if you’re too sore (or mentally burnt out) to run. Stress-relieving activities throughout your week will help your body and your mind gain resilience rather than breaking down. Be proactive with your recovery. Above all else, keep your rest/easy days sacred.
- Your fueling has to be on point. This is a biggie. You need to fuel and hydrate appropriately while training — it’s non-negotiable. Just because you’re running all the miles doesn’t mean can eat all the crap. On your runs, always take more fuel with you than you think you’ll need because trail conditions can vary widely. Also, consider using electrolyte tabs during your long runs to help keep muscle cramping at bay. Replenish after every run.
- Practice your race day strategies with your race day gear. Use the hydration pack you plan to wear on race day, consume the same energy gels/gummies, etc. Everything down to your socks should be thoroughly tested during training.
- Expect to have tough runs. Like any other distance, some runs will be inexplicably tough. Get through them and know that this is the mental side of training well. You have to struggle a little to become tough enough to endure whatever gets thrown at you on race day.
- Aid stations on the course are like mini parties. Unlike other race distances, runners actually stop at aid stations in ultras — they eat something, refill a hydration pack, have a conversation, take a seat, fix a shoelace, or put some petroleum jelly on the spots that are chaffing. Know where the aid stations are on your course and allow yourself the time to stop — it could be an hour (or more) before you see the next one.
- Run your own race. I mean it, eyes on your own paper! Stick with the pace and fueling that you’ve tested throughout training. Going out too fast in a half-marathon makes the last six miles suck. Going out too fast in a 50k makes the last 16 miles suck … badly. Aim to be comfortable for most of the race, moving at a pace that you feel confident you can sustain. As the final miles approach, you can always take it up a notch — but you can’t get back the energy you blow in the first 10-12 miles.
- Smile. It’s an adventure and an amazing accomplishment. It requires dedication and mental toughness. But it’s totally doable. And if you take the time and energy to do it right, you’ll be really glad you did it.
There are as many ways to train for an ultra as there are ultra runners. As with any distance, don’t expect that you’ll get it right your first time. Every time you complete an ultra, you gain a ton of experience — you come back next time stronger and wiser.
Be honest: did I talk you into (or out of) training for your first ultra? —Alison