The Complete Marathon Training Guide

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Photo: Raphael Weber for adidas TERREX

Introduction

Welcome to the Complete Ultramarathon Guide by TrainingPeaks! This guide will walk you through the elements of training for an ultra, and provide a rough framework to help you structure your season. While we highly recommend working with a personal coach to tackle any ultra-endurance event, this is a great place to start! Here we’ll give you an idea of what you’ll be getting into, with helpful hints from TrainingPeaks coaches to help you reach your goals.

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Getting Started

Photo: Raphael Weber for adidas TERREX

Getting Started

Chapter One

10 Minute Read

Ultra runners spend six months to a year preparing for a target event, which can take up to two days to complete. Courses can offer significant elevation, altitude and technical terrain, and runners often enlist a crew to help pace and support them through the race. These elements of teamwork and adventure could be the reason ultras have gained popularity as an alternative to the hyper-competitive world of traditional marathon running; while racing an ultra isn’t easy, it’s accessible to anyone with the time and commitment to train. Here we’ll go over some of the things you need to know before signing up for an ultra.

Photo: Raphael Weber for adidas TERREX

What is an Ultramarathon?

  • An ultramarathon is any run exceeding the marathon distance of 26.2 miles, or 42 kilometers.
  • Competition distances can range from 50 kilometers to 100 miles or more, covered in one push.
  • Courses can feature singletrack, dirt roads, pavement, or a combination of all three.
  • Ultramarathons can be self-supported, or may include aid-stations, crews, and volunteers.
  • Courses may be point-to-point, loops, or multiple laps of the same loop.

Trail vs. Pavement

If you’ve trained for a road marathon or other distance before, you know that a big part of planning your runs and measuring your performance has to do with pacing. This isn’t always the case when it comes to trails. Because terrain can vary wildly in terms of elevation and technicality, an eight-minute mile effort on the road might net you 15 minutes for one mile of trail, or seven minutes if you’ve got a big descent. This can have some serious implications for your training in terms of attitude, planning, and performance.

The best way to set yourself up for success is to plan your training runs around time rather than distance. This can feel counterintuitive if you’re used to logging mile totals each week, but it will be more productive for your performance on the trail. The key when training this way is to make sure you’re working up to total training times that approach the total race duration of your target event This can mean planning some back-to-back long runs in the more advanced stages of your training.

Prerequisites

As on the road, many of the more famous and/or popular ultramarathons require qualification through results at other events; and some are invite-only. This is an important consideration because of the time required to recover from an ultra event. Experienced ultra runners may need only a month or so to get back to training after a big race, but newer runners may only be able to tolerate one ultramarathon a year (even if they do smaller races to prepare).

If your goal event requires a qualifier, be honest with yourself about the recovery you’ll need after a qualifying event, and plan your timeline accordingly. For newer runners or those new to ultra distances, participation in a big ultramarathon event can be a multi-year process.

Other Considerations When Choosing an Ultramarathon

Course Characteristics

Part of the beauty of ultra running is that you’ll be spending some serious quality time with the landscape. With that in mind, consider whether your available training environment will give you the specificity you need to race well in your chosen event. Factors like altitude, elevation change, the technicality of the trail, and typical weather can spell success or disaster on race day. Is it possible to train for Hardrock or Leadville if you live in Kansas? Absolutely, but it will take more effort to prepare for the altitude and elevation change you’ll encounter.

Ultramarathon Distance & Elevation Comparison

Ultramarathon Distance & Elevation Comparison Ultramarathon Distance & Elevation Comparison

Location

Many runners like to target a “destination” race, which allows them to enjoy some travel around their event. While it’s great to see new places and cultures through running, it can also be expensive as well as challenging in terms of disrupted sleep and dietary routines. While it’s quite possible to thrive at a destination race, participants should be aware of the potential stressors before signing up. If your only goal is to complete an ultramarathon, or if you’re new to the sport, finding a local event can help eliminate some of the unknowns and let you focus on the experience.

Size

Popular ultras can attract thousands of participants, while others might consist of a handful of friends. Some folks will simply find a route and run an ultra by themselves! Again, the size of the event you choose will be dictated by the experience you’re looking for. Consider whether having lots of fellow participants sounds exciting and motivating, or hectic, and make your decision accordingly.

Timing

An ultramarathon can take a year or more to prepare for, and many races are so popular that participants need to sign up a full year in advance, enter a lottery, or join a waitlist. Find out what the registration protocol is for your target race, and make sure that you’ll have at least six months to train; or a full year if you’re less experienced.

Setting Goals

Every successful endeavor begins with a goal, and how you go about setting that goal can play a big part in whether or not you reach it. Below you’ll find some strategies for deciding what will make your ultra successful to you.

Coach Carrie McCusker recommends visualizing how success will feel, then setting both externally and internally measurable goals. External goals are the quantifiable, outcome-oriented goals most of us are familiar with, and might look like a specific finishing time or place in your category.

Internal goals are a little less glamorous but no less important—McCusker calls them “process” goals, and they have more to do with your mental and emotional state en-route to your external goals. Examples of internal goals could be to stay positive through the race, to be more resilient when the unexpected occurs, or to listen more carefully to your nutritional needs.

Once you’ve set your goals in both categories (and ideally written them down somewhere!), you’ll need a road map to reach them. This guide is a good start, but it’s likely you’ll want more detail for your day-to-day training. Many athletes will reach out to a coach at this point to guide them through the process and hold them accountable. There are also marathon training plans offered online (including in the TrainingPeaks store) for runners of all levels.

Ultramarathon Training Gear

Many of us love the simplicity and inexpensive nature of running, but training for and running an ultra will require more gear than a standard marathon.

Required Gear

Due to the duration, variable weather and terrain, most races have a required gear list. Usually this includes things like rain and insulation layers, spare batteries for your headlamp, and a certain number of emergency calories. It’s a good idea to train with this gear for at least some of your runs, so you can get used to the extra weight.

Training Essentials

Training year round also requires special gear. You’ll need to invest in some good layers including wind protection and insulation; a comfortable high-capacity running pack; and some lightweight spikes if you’ll be training where it snows in the winter. Similarly, you’ll need a reliable hydration system and sun protection for the hotter months of summer.

Shoes

If you’re reading this guide, there’s a good chance you’ve already got a go-to brand and model when it comes to running shoes. However if you’re stepping up to ultra mileage, you’ll want to start truly cycling your shoes so you won’t be stuck with a worn out or un-broken-in pair on race day. Conventional wisdom is to replace your shoes every 200 to 400 miles, and this can go faster than you think when you’re logging big weeks!

Hydration Options

As you get into multi-hour runs with extended mileage, you’ll need a system to bring fuel and water with you. A hydration waist belt can store one to two standard bottles, but can bounce while running, especially when fully loaded. A handheld bottle is another option for your shorter runs, and some handles include a pouch for nutrition or a credit card as well. A well-fitted hydration vest is a good, low-bounce option for when you need to carry food, extra water, and even layers with you, but it can be somewhat bulky depending on the design and brand you choose. Whichever system you go with, make sure you spend some quality time together before race day.

Fitness Tracker

It’s your choice how you and your coach use data, but we recommend at least training with heart rate. You’ll be able to use this single metric to gauge your training stress, measure progress, and even figure out when you’re getting sick before the first symptoms hit. Some wrist-based heart rate monitors don’t even require a chest strap, but keep in mind these are generally less accurate than strap-based systems.

Ultramaraton Poles or Not?

Poles or Not?

The use of poles in ultrarunning can be a somewhat divisive issue. Some runners love them for the stability they offer, while others hate them for adding another layer of complexity to a simple sport. Here we’ll list out the pros and cons and let you make your own choice:

Pros

  • They’re lighter than ever before.
  • They give you four points of contact with the ground, rather than two, increasing stability over varied terrain.
  • They can help you maintain an upright posture while climbing.
  • They can distribute the propulsive load between your upper and lower body.
  • They can help you modulate your speed with more confidence on descents.

Cons

  • Not all races allow them, so it’s not ideal to depend on them for training.
  • They can be hectic/dangerous in mass starts.
  • Even the lightest collapsible poles are something else to carry/keep track of during a race.
  • Heavy trekking-pole use can damage the trail by increasing erosion and marking rocks.
  • Though they distribute the load while climbing, they may not actually increase your efficiency.
  • The lightest ones are expensive and can be broken fairly easily.

Got your gear and your goals? Head to the next section to dive into training fundamentals.

Training for an Ultramarathon

Training for an Ultramarathon

Chapter Two

22 Minute Read

Training for an ultramarathon involves a steady increase of sub-threshold base miles while incorporating hill work and continuous interval workouts. You’ll also need to find or replicate terrain similar to your target course in order to gain the adaptations you’ll need to succeed on race day. Here we’ll cover Ultramarathon training fundamentals, with insight from top runners and coaches to guide you along the way.

Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Endurance

Why: Increase aerobic capacity, gradually building to 15-20 hours/week over the first six months of training.

When: Heavy emphasis in the first six months of training, with significant base workouts continuing until race day.

How: Consistently add 5-10 percent distance or time to your weekly total, focusing on running in your aerobic zones.

Goal: Work up to being able to run comfortably for three to four hours.

“At first these runs felt painfully, embarrassingly slow, but I was able to recover better after every workout. As a result I was able to start racking up greater training volumes, because I wasn't thrashing myself during every session.”

Matt Pearce, Real Fitness UK Amsterdam, NL Learn More

I came to ultra running from fell running and trail running, so I understood that my average pace on training runs would be determined by the terrain. Still, for some reason when training for my first 100 I got caught up in trying to maintain an arbitrary pace of around 8-minute miles. That meant that, even on a 30-mile training run, I would try to average that pace, whatever the terrain, whatever the weather and no matter how fatigued I was.

As a result, I spent much of my time training above my aerobic threshold, in “Zone 3” when I should have been training at lower intensities. However, slowing down would have involved running at a pace that my ego would not allow, so I didn’t. The result of that was that I felt continually fatigued throughout the entire six months I spent training for the race, and I was really just bullying my body into shape than nurturing it to a race-ready state. I dug so deep a hole for myself that my recovery after the race took far longer than it should have.

For the Lakeland 100, I ran around 90 to 95 percent of my training volume comfortably under my aerobic threshold. At first these runs felt painfully, embarrassingly slow, but I was able to recover better after every workout. As a result I became more aerobically efficient and I generally felt far less drained and exhausted. I was also able to start racking up greater training volumes because I wasn't thrashing myself during every session.

Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Intensity

Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Intensity

When: 3-4 months before your event

Why: Create healthy neuromuscular patterns, increase lactic threshold and lactic clearing, enhance recovery.

How: Short, hard efforts done repeatedly during a workout. These should only be done 2-3 times/week.

Goal: Be able to go comfortably above lactic threshold for a period and recover quickly.

“Building an ultramarathon-specific machine still requires the athlete to be in great shape to optimally perform.”

Andrew Simmons, Peak Performance Running Denver, CO Learn More

One of the biggest differences you will see when switching to ultras is that “race pace” is more about moving with intention rather than hitting a specific pace to make a time or speed goal. That said, training for an ultramarathon requires more than just increasing your time on your feet; like marathoners, ultramarathoners should still do workouts as a part of their training.


Ultramarathon workouts should include some of the high-intensity efforts one would use to train for a variety of distances—from a 5k up to a marathon. This spectrum of workouts covers high intensity anaerobic efforts to threshold workouts, and even some race-pace specific workouts. Keep in mind that these workouts encompass a small fraction of what can be done with an athlete preparing for an ultramarathon, and athletes should always seek out a coach or plan that will help them achieve fitness specific to their event.

Introductory Hills

Hills are a great way to build early fitness. Focus on running form and mechanics as well building up your ability to physically and mentally manage high intensity efforts. Depending on the demands of your event and available training grounds, you may end up doing these workouts on a treadmill. For hills using a 6 to 10 percent grade, run at a 5K to 10K intensity or pace. If you are an advanced athlete, these can be added to the tail end of workout, or can be completed at a steeper grade, or with decreased rest.

  • 10 x 30 seconds, walk down recovery
    10 x 30 seconds, walk down recovery
  • 8 x 40 seconds, walk down recovery
    8 x 40 seconds, walk down recovery
  • 8 x 60 seconds, walk down recovery
    8 x 60 seconds, walk down recovery

Threshold Intervals

These workouts are a jump from hill intervals and can be preceded by one-minute and two-minute intervals with equal recovery as you build into these more challenging sets. Threshold is a challenging place to put your body so work into these reps gradually if you’re new to doing high intensity workouts. It’s always good to look at the total ‘time under stress’ of a workout but you can also see that the first two workouts here have the same amount of time under stress and total time but are completely different in terms of energy expenditure. If you are an advanced athlete you can diminish the amount of recovery or increase the number of reps to increase the load. If you’re training for a mountain ultra, this could be seen as a hill training workout with active recovery.

  • 5 x 3:00 @ Threshold, 3:00 of Zone 2 Running
    5 x 3:00 @ Threshold, 3:00 of Zone 2 Running
  • 3 x 5:00 @ Threshold, 3:00 of Zone 2 Running
    3 x 5:00 @ Threshold, 3:00 of Zone 2 Running
  • 3 x 10:00@ Threshold, 3:00 of Zone 2 Running
    3 x 10:00@ Threshold, 3:00 of Zone 2 Running

Continuous Intervals

Tempo intervals are a great way to build fitness and confidence. Simple and to the point, you’re going out with the intention of holding an effort equal to your marathon or half marathon pace. These efforts should be used sparingly because they tend to fall in the “grey zone” of training, between Zone 4 high aerobic work and Zone 2 aerobic. If you’re fit, keep these tempos on the edge of Zone 4. This is a fun way to tackle a trail and set a few section PR’s with a purpose. Advanced athletes can push upwards of 60 minutes as long as you’re staying efficient (pa:hr under 5 percent)

  • 15:00 Continuous Effort
    15:00 Continuous Effort
  • 20:00 Continuous Effort
    20:00 Continuous Effort
  • 30:00 Continuous Effort
    30:00 Continuous Effort

Race-Specific Reproduction

Reproducing late-race fatigue is nearly impossible for races longer than 50 miles because the stress of running 30 to 40 miles in one stretch would be unsustainable week-to-week. However, building fatigue through back-to-back long runs will help you gain confidence in your ability to run on tired legs. Once you're feeling strong on these back-to-back long days, you can begin to test your fitness and nutrition plan and refine it until you have a confident approach on a course similar to what you plan to race. Integrating race pace or harder than race pace efforts into your long run is a great opportunity to build your confidence. Start with continuous intervals and work towards longer efforts. For advanced athletes, utilize terrain to replicate long climbs or technical ascents.

Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Specificity

Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Specificity

When: Throughout your ultramarathon training

Why: Increase your proprioceptive skills, core stability, and ability to run over varied terrain.

How: Challenge yourself to run in over awkward, irregular terrain. Practice for extended power hiking using a weighted vest.

Goal: Move more efficiently over steep climbs and technical trails.

“I often say trail running is like a whole different sport than road running—I will never forget how sore my lower leg muscles and tendons were after my first trail run!”

Lindsay Zemba Leigh, No Limits Endurance Coaching Harrisburg, PA Learn More

Ultramarathons almost always include some technically challenging trails, dirt road, and even some pavement. It’s crucial to prepare the muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissues for everything you’ll encounter on race day by training on terrain with similar technicality and elevation change.

If you have access to trails, you can simply focus on good running technique, like quick, light footfalls, holding your arms a little wider for better balance, and looking ahead a few feet to plan out your next steps. This is especially important when descending.

If you don’t have access to lots of trails and mountains near where you live, you can still prepare for trails by doing your normal road run and trying the following add-ons:

  • Do 30-50 plyometric jumps or lunges in the middle of your run.
  • If you’re running on a sidewalk, shift to the curb and run with one foot on the curb and one on the road for 3-5 steps, focusing on quick and light foot falls.
  • Run in the grass to get some uneven terrain and softer surface.

If your race has a lot of elevation gain, be sure to practice efficient, quick uphill power hiking, which uses different muscles than running. You can do this outdoors or on a treadmill, and once proficient, you can add a weighted vest to increase the intensity.

Example Treadmill Set:

Start with a weight in the vest that you can manage without needing to bend over at the waist. You should be able to maintain perfect posture when climbing, engaging glutes and core.

10 minutes warm up easy run 6 x10 minutes done as: 5 minutes, with weighted vest, power-hiking @ 10-12% grade. Speed may be anywhere from 3.0-4.0 mph. 5 minutes easy run 15 minutes easy run cool down

Example Treadmill Set
Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Ultramarathon Nutrition

Photo: Gregory Brouillette

Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Nutrition

In ultra-endurance events, one of the biggest challenges is getting your body enough fuel for the duration of your event. In events of two to four hours, nutrition becomes a challenge as your stomach begins to divert blood to your muscles and away from digestion—and over four hours you’ll be facing a whole host of gastrointestinal challenges. While an entire book could be written on the topic of ultra-endurance fueling (and even the pros struggle to get it right every time), we’ll offer a few key guidelines here to get you on your way:

  • Test, test, test. Stock up on foods that have worked for you in training, and make a deliberate effort to test foods you wouldn’t normally try.Try a range of liquids, solids, and gels for your calories.
  • Over a long race, the standard sugary carbohydrate-rich foods often become inedible, so you’ll need some salty alternatives like pickles, chips, or broth.
  • Keep a written log of what you ate and how it made you feel, to help you zero in on the types of each macronutrient (carbohydrates, fats, and protein) that work for you.
  • Aim to fit lots of high-quality fats into your daily diet. Long, sub-threshold endurance efforts will cause your body to recruit more fat for fuel, so the more available, the less you’ll have to tap into your precious carbohydrate stores.
  • Don’t neglect your hydration. This is as important as nutrition, and you’ll need to have a plan for how you’ll meter out your water between aid stations.
How to Make the Most of Crosstraining

How to Make the Most of Crosstraining

“Whether you’re targeting injury prevention or modifying your training to meet the demands of the environment (hello, winter), cross-training can be a beneficial addition to any ultrarunning plan.”

Corrine Malcolm, CTS Ultrarunning San Francisco, CA Learn More

Strength Training

When it comes to injury prevention for ultrarunners, the first thing that likely comes to mind is strength training. Aside from increasing skeletal support and neuromuscular coordination, strength training has also been shown to increase the circulating levels of testosterone and human growth hormone. These hormoneshelp the body repair muscular damage and have been linked to a decrease in injury.

Strength training can mean lots of different things to different people, but for cross-training, you’ll want to choose weights that you can only lift for 8 to 12 reps (70-80 percent of one rep max). Ideally, this style of lifting should be done two to three times a week, or one strength session for every three running sessions. This frequency has been shown to improve running economy, delay the onset of muscular fatigue, improve maximal speed, and increase anaerobic capacity without causing runners to “bulk up.”

When putting together a strength program, it’s important to focus on multi-joint exercises, which require greater coordination and activate synergistic muscle groups. Try to pick four to five exercises and do three sets of 8 to 12 of each exercise (building up in weight and down in reps over a couple of weeks). Some key exercises to activate the muscles used in trail running include:

  • Split squats
  • Romanian Deadlifts
  • Back squats
  • Push press
  • Weighted step-ups
  • Kettlebell carries

Cycling

Another great cross-training activity for both injury prevention and recovering from injury is cycling. For runners, cycling provides a much lower-impact modality for training that allows them to maintain and build fitness they can take to the trails.

Moving one of your longer sessions or a second interval session to the bike can also help you add volume or intensity that you might not be able to handle on foot. On the bike, you can safely increase the volume by approximately 30 to 50 percent. In other words, you could replace your shorter weekend run (let’s say a 60 to 75 minute easy run) with an 80 to 100 minute easy ride instead. I’ve often referred to this type of cross-training as “free training!” because it can allow an athlete to do more physical work than they could have done otherwise.

Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiing is great for runners for two reasons. First, like cycling, cross-country skiing is low weight-bearing, which is great for managing and preventing injuries. Second, both skate and classic techniques utilize most of the muscles in your trunk and upper body. You’ll create different movement patterns than you do on the run, helping balance out your core and supporting muscles.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of cross-country skiing is that it will keep you outside and away from the treadmill during cold winter months. It’s a great tool for preventing mental burnout—and can give you an incredibly demanding workout.

Try subbing out two to three of your easy endurance runs a week with cross country skiing this winter. This means you’ll still be getting in three to four high-quality runs a week while you do more of your aerobic “base” work sliding on snow.

Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Tapering

Ultramarathon Training Fundamental: Tapering

Race day is two weeks away, and your hardest training is behind you! Now it’s time to taper, or rest, and it’s a deceptively difficult part of the training process. As counterintuitive as it might be to ease up on your training before race day, tapering is a critical step in fully adapting to the training stress you’ve put your body through. Nail your taper and you’ll feel magical on race day—fail, and you’ll fall flat. Here’s how to do it:

When: Seven to 14 days before your ultramarathon

Why: Allow your body to absorb training stress while maintaining neuromuscular adaptations.

How: Decrease volume 20 to 25 percent while maintaining some intensity.

Goal: Allow your body to recover; find ways to occupy your mind with decreased training.

Tapering is highly personal, so it will look different for every athlete. Some runners race best carrying a little fatigue, while others perform better when fully rested. Still, the basic principle is the same—you’ll want to decrease your training load 20 to 25 percent in the seven to 14 days leading up to race day, with your long runs decreasing to the low teens (10 to 13 miles maximum).

On short runs, you can do some basic tempo work to maintain neuromuscular activation, but remember, the main goal is to give your body adequate time to recover. There’s a saying about tapering: “You can only do too much, never too little.” If you were to simply sit on your couch for the week before your race, you’d be better off than if you tried to run too much.

For many athletes, tapering is the biggest challenge of the training process. It’s easy to feel like you’re losing your “edge” when your training load decreases. These feelings can be compounded by the physiological processes taking place—the feeling of fatigue in your muscles can be replaced with springy energy, lethargy, or just generally feeling “out of it.” Some athletes might even get sick during their taper, or niggling injuries might come to the surface.

If you find yourself feeling anxious, remember you can gain no significant fitness in the two weeks before your race, and extra recovery will only benefit you. To keep your mind off training, spend some time fine-tuning your hydration and nutrition, working on your race day logistics, or reviewing the course to plan your pacing strategy.

Taper Nutrition

It’s important to remember during your taper that your caloric expenditures won’t be the same as when you were revving up your metabolism with long runs and speedwork. Don’t fall into the trap of eating as you habitually would during hard training (i.e. a lot). Instead, focus on lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those with anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties, which will help optimize your recovery. Think of this period as a time to be gentle with your body and digestive system.

Continue reading to find out more about race specific logistics and tactics.

Race Logistics and Tactics

Photo: Raphael Weber for adidas TERREX

Race Logistics and Tactics

Chapter Three

5 Minute Read

You’ve chosen a race and you know how to train, now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of racing an ultramarathon. Here we’ll address how to assemble a good crew (if you want one), how to tackle night running, and how to stay mentally strong when things don’t go your way.

Photo: Raphael Weber for adidas TERREX

Crewing 101

Adapted from Training Essentials for Ultarunning

“Your crew or pacer can only catalyze the process; they should never be the lynchpin in the operation. Success will ultimately be up to you, your training, and the determination you put forth on race day.”

Jason Koop, Head Coach CTS Ultrarunning Colorado Springs, CO Learn More

While it is certainly not necessary to have a crew in most ultras, at times it is nice to see a familiar face to give you (just a little bit) of sympathy or a kick in the pants. Choosing your crew for an ultramarathon is not a decision to take lightly. A good crew will push you to greater heights, and an outstanding crew can predict what you will need next. Choose the wrong crew, however, and they can feel like a weight on your feet. While nearly all crews are well-intentioned, they still can drag you down or even cause a DNF if the members are not aligned with your goals and personality.

Do You Want a Crew?

Before choosing a crew, first off, determine if you want a crew at all. New and experienced ultrarunners alike often choose to forgo crews entirely. Almost all races have enough support from aid stations and volunteers; having a crew is a nicety, not a necessity.

Who Should Be in Your Ultramarathon Crew?

If you do decide you want a crew, your next move is to determine who exactly you want on it. Significant others, kids, friends, high school mates and running partners all can make for a good crew. However, just because your friends and loved ones can be part of your crew does not mean that they should be part of your crew. The best crews consist of the people who know you well as both a runner and person, and only have a small amount of sympathy. After all, it’s going to be tough out there, and it’s better to have someone in your corner who doesn’t mind telling you to suck it up.

How to Align Your Crew With Your Goals

Align your crew with your goals first, then instruct them on tactics second. I constantly see crews with folders, spreadsheets and labeled ziplocks in the aid stations of ultramarathon events, and while I applaud their organization, a crew should be able to do more than follow instructions. Typically, lost in that logistical jungle are the overall goals for the crew and their runner at the event. When a team knows the plan but doesn’t necessarily know your big-picture goals, it can make it more difficult for them to adapt to change or anticipate your needs.

If you have properly instructed your crew on your goals, all you should need to do is give them an index card with simple instructions, a duffle bag full of your gear and nutrition, and some driving directions. You’ll both have a more enjoyable race experience if you’re on the same page with your goals and expectations.

Do You Want a Pacer?

Many ultramarathons, particularly at the 100K and 100-mile distance, allow the use of pacers to accompany the runner. Sometimes dubbed “safety runners,” pacers can provide motivational support as well as a level of safety to their runner. As an added benefit, serving as a pacer is a great way to get a low-risk introduction into the sport.

Again, while most pacers have the best intentions, some end up negatively affecting their runner’s races. Personality conflicts, goal misalignments and a lack of preparation have undone many an ultrarunner’s best-laid plans. Using a pacer or choosing to go solo is entirely a personal preference. The decision ultimately lies with the runner.

Success is Always the Runner’s Responsibility

Crew or no crew; pacer or no pacer, the responsibility of finishing the race is yours alone. Your crew or pacer can only catalyze the process; they should never be the lynchpin in the operation. Success will ultimately be up to you, your training, and the determination you put forth on race day. Remember that when choosing a crew and a pacer, it’s always your responsibility as a runner to succeed.

Ultramarathon Night Running

Photo: Sho Fujimaki

Night Running

For many runners, the prospect of night running is a really intimidating aspect of racing an ultramarathon. However, with practice, some nutritional adjustments, and the right gear, you can learn to love running in the dark.

Gear

The key element to running at night is a good light. Modern headlamps are lightweight, powerful, and can have a pretty impressive battery life if you’re willing to spend a little extra money. Rechargeable headlamps are great for training, but for race day you may want to have a light that uses batteries instead—a spare set of AA batteries is lighter than a charger! It’s also a good idea to have a super-light backup headlamp stashed in your pack as well. You can carry this in your hand while running if you like—sometimes two sources of light will help decrease shadows and increase depth perception.

Practice

It sounds obvious, but the key to successful night running on race day is to practice night running in training. This may take some planning, but it’s easy enough to pull off on a weekend. Running by the light of a headlamp will make the trail look really different, so it will take some time to get used to your surroundings and the sensation of shifting shadows.

Nutrition

In addition to practicing your night running technique, you’ll want to practice your night-running nutrition. It can be really difficult to fuel when your body-clock says you should be asleep (or when it’s really cold out), so bring a variety of foods and find out what works for you. Time your night runs for dawn, dusk, and the middle of the night to practice your transitions and see how different phases affect your appetite and mental state.

Banking Sleep

No matter how prepared you are to run at night, running through an entire night and into the next day will put you in a serious deficit when it comes to sleep. When you’re sleep deprived, you make strange decisions, suffer from decreased coordination (putting you at risk of injury,) and can even begin to hallucinate. Some studies suggest that increasing your sleep hours, or “banking” sleep, in the two weeks leading up to your race can help actually counteract these effects.

Mental Tactics

In ultrarunning, it’s not a matter of if things will go wrong, but when—cultivating your ability to deal with the inevitable challenges is (hopefully!) part of the reason you signed up. If you’re struggling to wrap your head around all the things that might happen out there, follow these steps to help calm your nerves and prepare yourself mentally for the task at hand:

Set A, B, and C Goals

If your only goal is to finish in a certain time, or place in a certain percentage of your field, then you’ll feel instantly adrift the minute that goal, for whatever reason, slips out of reach. To keep yourself motivated even if external factors force you to adjust course, give yourself a contingency goal, as well as a process goal, which you can accomplish whether you finish or not. An example of these could be:

  • Goal A: Finish in 30 hours.
  • Goal B: Maintain consistent splits through the second half of the race.
  • Goal C: Stick to my nutrition and hydration plan and stay mentally engaged.

Isolate Variables

When something goes wrong, it’s easy to let other issues compound it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to isolate the issues and deal with them one at a time.

Revisit Your Goal

When coach Doug Stewart found himself in a worst-case scenario at UTMB, he called on his reasons for being at the race to help regain his motivation. He even suggests keeping a written version of your “why” in your pack, to help remind yourself when things get dark. (You can see his full article in the further reading below).

Focus on What You Can Control

Rather than focusing on what happened to you or how unlucky you are, take a deep breath and focus on what you can control. Coach Jason Koop created the ADAPT strategy for dealing with catastrophe in a race. (You can see his full article in the further reading below).

  • Accepting the situation.
  • Diagnosing the problem.
  • Analyzing your resources.
  • Planning what can be done.
  • Taking action.

Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Remember that every athlete is on a continual journey of improvement. Whether or not you have the race of your dreams, you will gain valuable lessons as you become a stronger, more resilient runner. Aim for longevity in the sport, and you’ll continue to gain beneficial experiences no matter what the results sheet says.

Race Day

Each race will have its own stipulations for required gear, but here is a general list of items (compiled from the race materials of Leadville, Hardrock100, and UTMB) that you’ll most likely need for yourself and your support crew/drop bags. Be sure to read the race materials so you’ll know what to have in your pack for safety, where each aid station will be (and when you expect to reach it), as well as what will be supplied at aid stations.

Interactive Checklist

Raceday Gear Checklist

The equipment needs for an ultramarathon can be as simple or complex as you make them. If this is your first ultramarathon, this list gives you a good idea of the basics you’ll need on race day.

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Good luck out there! Read on to find out how to optimize your recovery after race day.

Ultramarathon Recovery

Photo: Gregory Brouillette

Ultramarathon Recovery

Chapter Four

5 Minute Read

Congratulations! You’re done with your ultramarathon. Whether you had the race of your life or a challenging day, just making it to that start line is a huge accomplishment. Now it’s time to put your feet up, enjoy some recovery, and start thinking about what’s next.

Photo: Gregory Brouillette

Race Hard, Recover Harder

After your ultramarathon, you will need to recover before you start training again. It’s important to give your body this time to repair itself after what was most likely a very challenging effort! Most ultramarathoners take it easy for about a month before getting back into running consistently, but more experienced runners may feel ready more quickly.

You may or may not want to hear this — recovery doesn’t just mean laying around in bed! Here are some steps you can take to make your post-ultra recovery more effective (and interesting!)

Get on a Bike:

Increasing blood flow will help move the byproducts from your ultra out of your muscles, and cycling is a great way to do it in a low-impact way. If you’re feeling stiff and sore after your race, try a 30-minute spin on a stationary bike, or head outdoors for some fresh air.

Sign up for a Yoga Class:

Yin yoga is a great choice for recovery, because it involves more passive stretching than the strength-intensive poses you’ll find in a Vinyasa flow class. It’s also a great way to check in with any pain points or imbalances in your body after your race.

Treat Yo’self:

A massage, acupuncture, or a pedicure never feels better than after you’ve tortured yourself for 50 miles. Other than a nice indulgence, a treat like this for your body is a way to mentally acknowledge the hard work you’ve done and to reward yourself before you get back to work!

Eat Well:

After going through the ordeal of an ultramarathon, chances are you’ll want to reach for the saltiest, fattiest burger (or veggie burger) you can get your hands on. And while there’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with a satisfying post-race meal, you’ll be better served in your long-term recovery if you focus on inflammation-reducing foods. Load up on antioxidant-rich options like blueberries, dark-green vegetables, nuts, and fish for the nutrients your body needs to recover faster.

Prioritize Sleep:

Often neglected in favor of more active recovery tools like self-massage and diet, sleeping is actually one of the most effective things you can do to help your body recover. So take a nap, hit snooze, and try to get to bed early. Sleep is a powerful regenerative force for your entire body, and the more you get, the faster you’ll feel recovered.

You Finished Your Ultramarathon, So What’s Next?

After you’ve recovered from your ultramarathon (or maybe while you’re recovering), the final step is to take some time to unpack what went well and what didn’t on race day. If you had a great run, what would you repeat? And if you didn’t have the race of your dreams, what went wrong?

Nutrition, pacing strategy, logistics, and training are some basic areas to examine, but you can add any others that you think are relevant. Give yourself a letter grade or a rating from one to 10 in each one, and start thinking about how you can improve for next time. We suggest the following strategies if you’re interested in seeing some real gains before your next big race:

Track Your Metrics

We assume you’re already compiling your training data, and we hope you’re using TrainingPeaks to do it. If you don’t know, the TrainingPeaks app syncs wirelessly with most leading fitness trackers to streamline the data-gathering process, and it gives you real-time insights into your performance. Simply run, sync, and watch metrics like lactic threshold, pace, and more, improve over time. Start a free trial to see what we’re all about.

Find a Training Plan

If you’re already tracking your metrics but aren’t sure how they should be trending, or aren’t sure if you’re doing the right things to see improvement, a training plan should be your next step. A simple Google search for “ultramarathon training plans” will give you hundreds of plans of varying levels of commitment and detail.

Choose a plan from the TrainingPeaks store and you’ll be able to apply it automatically to your TrainingPeaks calendar. This lets you use your fitness metrics to track workout compliance and see whether your training is having its desired effect.

Hire A Coach

As they get more serious about their training and performance, most runners will eventually turn to a coach for perspective, wisdom, and accountability. TrainingPeaks offers our free CoachMatch service (which includes a detailed questionnaire and direct contact with our team) to help you find a coach who will align with your training style and help you achieve your goals. If you’re looking for a more personalized training plan and adaptable approach, getting a coach is the perfect place to start.