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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.