Are you a trail runner, an ultra runner or both? There may be some, new to the sport that are wondering what defines an ultra runner? What is the difference between trail running and ultra running and when do the two meet? How do you go from being a trail runner to being an ultra runner? We take a look at the differences between the two.

Defining Trail Running

now we know that many of you will know the difference between trail running and ultra running but this is intended for those that are new to the sport. Generally speaking, trail running refers to running on dirt tracks and not on roads. While researching this article to add more than my one experience, I happened across another article that stated that trail running was a popular sport for the summer season. Sharp intake of breath and indignant pause… what do they mean ‘summer season?’. Why not autumn, spring, winter? Is trail running a summer sport? OK, so there are those that are fair weather runners, that don’t like to run off road during the autumn or winter for fear of slipping, tripping to because they just don’t enjoy being off road in winter and that’s fair enough. We just know that the trails can offer something all year round. In fact, we can safely say we have run through hail, storms, gales, driving rain, blistering sunshine and more,. 

Trail Running in All Seasons

It has to be said that some of the best trail runs we have done have been when its lashing down with rain or even snowing. Granted it’s more hazardous and you are going to get wet and cold. That aside, feeling the fresh wind and rain in your face as you reach the top of a hill and take in the view is nothing short of therapeutic, in my world anyway. Then there’s the coffee and inevitable cake after and that warm glow as you turn on what I call the ‘bum seats’ (heated seats) in the car and drive home. 

While trail running may be safer and more sociable in the summer, show me a dedicated trail runner that only runs for 3-4 months per year!!!!!!!

Anyway – back to trail running. Running on the road generally means long sections of tarmac, smooth pavements and at worst a gravel track or two. Running on the trails involves different type of terrain – dirt tracks, muddy paths, grassy fields, rocky paths and so on. Breaking it down further – trail running also involves spectacular views, all manner of wildlife, no cars (maybe the odd tractor) and fresh air. Only this morning while running on the local trails, and after a 3 month block of road marathon training (let’s not discuss that right now), I remarked at how liberating trail running is when compared to road running. You find a kind of peace that you really can’t find crossing busy roads and running along cycle paths. 

But When Does Trail Running Become Ultra Running?

There are marathons and then there are ultra marathons. A marathon is 26.2 miles, or, for those that work in kms, 42k. Anything over this is classed as an ultra. However, there are various schools of thought on this. Is it an ultra if you run 27 miles or is it a marathon that you happened to run slightly over on? Most races that are categorised as ultras begin at 50k and this is the most popular entry distance. 50k is 31 miles. Now for those that work in miles, there are also 30 mile events which is less than 50k. Confused much?

If you consider yourself to be a hardened ultra marathon runner, you may feel that anything less than 50 or 100 miles is not an ultra. But let’s not diminish those that battle it out for 30 hard miles to complete their first attempt at an ‘ultra’. Tell anyone you run a marathon and they will look at you with a certain sense of admiration. Tell them you run ultras and they will either be more impressed or feel you are a little mad – aren’t we all?

The Different Types of Ultra Marathons

There are 50 mile trail ultras and then there are 50 mile hardcore trail ultras. No two races are the same. If you ran 50 miles on the road, you would almost certainly become extremely bored, not to mention the constant pounding of the tarmac on your feet and what that would do to you. The beauty of trail ultras is that often they are so different to one another. The elevation varies, the profile of the course, the scenery, the views. There are so many factors that differentiate the races. You could run 50 miles and cover 7,500 feet of elevation or you could cover 50 miles and 15,000 feet of elevation. The latter will take you much longer and feel harder than the first.

Popular Ultramarathons Around the World

One of the toughest ultra marathons, and coveted by many is the UTMB or Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. Entrants have to actually collect points to be able to enter by running in UTMB qualifying events. It’s a tough race that not many are lucky enough to get the chance to run. Another ultra that is very popular with runners from across the world is the Western States 100. This is a lottery event and not one that many will qualify for. There are many ultras across the globe, some are renowned and on the bucket list of many ultra athletes, and other are locally organised runs that take in beautiful parts of the country. We particularly love the local Mendips Butcombe Trail run. 56 miles and 7,500 feet of elevation. It’s right on our doorstep and it’s a beautiful part of the world.


Defining the difference between trail running and ultra running is one thing but what actually makes constitutes and ultra among the professionals? Some believe that 100 miles is a true ultra or that running multi-day events defines and ultra runner. Courtney Duwalter is arguably the world’s best female ultra runner. Most her races are at least 100 miles long. That said, you don’t have to run 100 miles to be an ultra runner. Many of us just don’t have the time or capacity to run that far. We’ve done 30 miles, 45 miles, 50 miles (not yet found time for 100 miles but there is talk of it). Everyone has their own idea of what they want to achieve, their own goals and ambitions. We would love to run a 100 mile hundred however, with children and full time jobs, it’s hard to fit it all in. We manage to get our long runs in back to back over the weekends but we are generally out and back before the kids get up.

It’s safe to say though that if you have run over 27 miles, you can call yourself an ultra runner. What’s the furthest you have run? have you managed a half, a full or more than that? Do you have plans to achieve a certain distance? We’d love to hear from you.