With more and more people signing up for ultramarathons—are you starting to get the itch too? These guidelines will show you how to make the jump from marathons to ultras and give you some key tips for having the best race possible.
It All Starts With a Plan
Longer distances will require more time in lots of aspects, make sure you have the time to commit to training. Starting with a good training plan or a coach and an idea of how many hours you can train each week is key. Take some time to find the right plan and the right coach to suit your needs and your training availability.
Know Your Time Frame
If you’re currently in good shape you can prepare for a 50K (which is about 31 miles) in roughly 12 weeks. However, if you’re starting from scratch give yourself plenty of time, up to 24 weeks to prepare for your event. Add an additional eight to 10 weeks of training for events that are between 50K and 100 miles in length.
5 Tips For Your Best Race
1. Run where you race (or as close as you can!).
It can be hard to find trail access in urban areas, however it’s a pretty safe bet most ultras will take you off road and onto a trail. For some, finding a trail or technical section can require some creativity, but it is worth the extra effort and possible drive time.
Getting onto a trail and off the roads can beneficial in multiple ways; it helps break up training by taking you out of your comfort zone, gets you into new training situations, and will require you to think on your feet. Thinking on your feet and even getting a little lost is a crucial part of long-distance run training, and developing a strong sense of direction and the ability to cope in the event of a mistake is a necessary skill.
Take to trails in small doses if you’re not a regular trail runner. If you’re totally lost, remember that trail running offers the bonus of less impact on you and your body. Less impact and more time on feet will help increase your durability both mentally and physically. It won’t always be easy!
2. Throw away your ego.
The first thing you’ll notice is that mile splits and hitting very specific times go out of the window at first. If you think you’re going to run a consistent pace front to back in an ultra, you will come to a harsh realization at your first hill or technical section.
Ultramarathons require a “manage it as it happens” approach. While a road marathon requires supreme fitness, an ultra requires similar fitness with the added challenge of solving problems as you run. Running down a steep technical hill with rocks and roots, and then quickly back up a wet culvert requires good fitness and the ability to control yourself so you can get to the finish line in one piece.
3. Time on your feet is king.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use fitness markers to your advantage in a race. A majority of my ultra marathon plans are based on heart rate (HR), and require you to find a comfortable zone that you can run in, and then endure for four to seven hours to complete the course.
Keeping yourself in an aerobic zone allows you to utilize onboard energy more efficiently and will keep you feeling fresh longer. Tip over your HR threshold a few too many times, and you may find your race a lot tougher during those last 10 miles.
Mileage is not always the best marker when going off road; time on your feet matters more than the weekly mileage totals. You’ll find that if a majority of your work is truly aerobic, you’ll be running slower than you may have been in previous training build ups. This will require you to reframe what’s important in your ultra training. Looking at your total weekly hours and building up to more consecutive hours will be key to building yourself into an ultramarathon runner.
4. Pressure test the system.
Ultramarathon training on the surface simply requires you to run longer, pushing you out of your comfort zone mentally and physically. One of the biggest roadblocks for a successful first ultra is not having tested yourself at your race effort. You may find that you need to adjust for electrolytes after two to three hours, that you do better with solid food the first half of a race, or that you need to change shoes because your feet swell in warm temperatures. These small nuances can have a huge impact on your race—especially once you start looking at 50 mile, 100K, and 100-mile races.
hydration and fueling strategies should be tested on your long runs, and you should start to note what it feels like when you’re dehydrated or low on fuel. Your long runs are your chance to try out new fuels. Learning how to work through a bad stretch in a long run is a vital learning experience in many ways!
A key component to your success is getting in the training but also replicating what you’re going to expect to see on race day; think about the terrain, major elements like long hills, extended descents or race day conditions like extreme heat or cold.
5. You’re stronger and more capable than you think.
It’s hard to imagine what running 30 miles or more will feel like, and I can’t even tell you what you will personally experience. To some that extra five miles is an eternity, and to others it’s a natural and more comfortable progression. Pacing yourself and taking the race aid station to aid station is going to help you break the race into manageable chunks. Give yourself a boost at each aid station as a reward, or imbibe in an aid station treat (believe me they have some amazing things at these trail races!).
An ultra requires mental persistence, self-affirmation and a belief that you can complete it. Many professionals utilize mantras to keep them focused and “in the zone.” Others like to use music, podcasts or other tactics to push the little monster out from inside their head. Using a motivational tool or pacer can be a huge help toward ensuring your success on race day.
First and foremost, ultras are longer than you’ve ever gone before. In both training and racing, you’ll be pushing your body into new territories. This can come with its own aches and pains; post-race you’ll want to give yourself an extra seven to 10 days of low mileage on top of your normal marathon recovery protocol.
Following your first ultra you should allow yourself five days of low impact activity directly following and roughly 10 to 14 days before you return to your normal training or start to focus on your next event. Remember, the first one always takes the longest to recover from! In rare cases there can be minimal soreness; don’t let this fool you. Long distance racing takes a larger and more impactful metabolic, mental and physiological toll that can put you down for longer than you think.
Take this time to enjoy activities you missed out on during peak training, and maybe sleep in a little, and slowly introduce yourself back to training. After all, recovery is the second best part after the race itself!