When running an ultra marathon or undertaking another long distance adventure, irrespective of your motivation, there is lots to consider. It’s likely that you are already a runner who has progressed beyond the beginner stage and you may have completed at least a half marathon. That said, there is no reason why a beginner cannot complete an ultra marathon as their first event, provided they prepare correctly and follow an appropriate training plan that very gradually increases their weekly mileage.
A Natural Progression From a Marathon
In many instances, the ultra marathon is a natural progression from a marathon. It is likely a test or challenge for you to see what you can achieve. You may have never attempted anything close to this distance before and could be doing so to raise money for charity or to commemorate a lost one. Whatever your reasons, our mission is to help you complete your ultra marathon successfully and in one piece, without too much pain and hopefully with a smile on your face at the finish! More importantly, while the ultra marathon is an event that happens on one day, we want you to enjoy the training process too and get to the start line in one piece.
Choose Your Goal Distance
It all starts with defining your goal. What sort of ultra marathon do you want to run? Perhaps you want to do a shorter ultra (it seems bizarre, but 30 miles is considered as a shorter distance in the world of ultra running). Maybe you want to have a crack at something a lot further. We started with a 30 mile event, then progressed to a 50. If that doesn’t push you far enough then you may want to consider a 100 miler. Defining the distance, and how much work you need to put in to be ready, will be your first consideration.
Ultra Marathon – a long-distance running race that is longer than a marathon (which is strictly 26 miles 385 yards/42.195 km).
To be clear, anything over the marathon distance is classed as an ultra marathon. While there are road ultras, many ultra marathons tend to take place off road.
Choosing Your First Ultra Marathon Race
In 2020, we saw the majority of races cancelled or postponed through no fault of the race organisers. Unfortunately this was often very close to race day when people had completed their training programme and were ready to go.
Ultimately, you need to decide if you are going to spend a race fee and enter an organised event or whether you will choose your own route and complete it under your own steam. 2021 looks to be another uncertain year for ultra marathon events so it may be a good idea to choose a distance, plan your own course and perhaps get a friend involved to train with.
Lots of the trail running companies that put on ultra marathon’s have adapted and currently offer virtual alternatives. Whilst these are not organised in the sense of having marshalls and checkpoints, you do at least get a medal on completion. We, along with many other runners, found ourselves in the position of having trained for an ultra marathon for several months only for it to be postponed and re-scheduled in 2021. With all that training in our legs, we decided to go ahead and run the course anyway rather than let the months of training go to waste. If the ultra marathon that you choose for your first event is postponed, we would recommend that you consider running the distance on the day – obviously you must adhere to any travel restrictions that are in force.
Following an Ultra Marathon Training Plan
If you’ve never run before, it’s not easy to get up one day and run a 5k and expect great results. There are lots of couch to 5k programmes that exist to get runners up to the distance. Equally, if you’ve only ran a half marathon, you may find it a challenge to go out and complete an ultra without additional training – it will probably hurt a lot and take a long time.
Preparing for the Distance
However many road races or marathons you have completed, a trail ultra marathon usually requires some form of training plan. You also need a commitment to put in the work and a fair amount of planning and preparation to get your body ready to endure the distance and the time spent on your feet.
There are multiple ultra marathon plans, but the basic rules are to work back from the intended race date and complete a 4-6 month training block. We tend to work in three week cycles of Easy, Medium and Hard, with the mileage increasing each week, before reducing again to the Easy week of the next three week cycle.
Typical Training Load
We could share our training plans or recommend one for you, but we would be replicating the work of some excellent plans that already exist. Our weekly training programme contains these sessions:
- The long run – This is the most important run of the week and should be at an easy pace. The mileage should increase incrementally through the three week cycle. During these runs you should practice eating and wearing the kit you will use on the ultra marathon race day
- Second longest run – This is usually 10-12 miles and supports the long run – we sometimes ‘back to back’ these with the long run. In other words; we do the two runs across the weekend. This ensures we start the long run with a level of fatigue which helps to simulate the tired legs we will feel during the ultra marathon itself. In other weeks we like to do this run mid-week at a pace closer to half marathon with a section in the middle at 10k pace
- Intervals/speed training – often we alternate a road speed session one week with a hill reps session the following
- Recovery runs – the day after a hard session you should aim for 3 to 5 miles at a slow pace on flat terrain however, if you are feeling particularly fatigued, a walk to get the blood flowing, can be equally as beneficial
Aim for 4-5 Runs Per Week
Personally we aim for 4 runs a week, with our peak weekly mileage for a 50 mile ultra marathon at around 60 miles with the elevation equivalent to the elevation profile of the event. I should also point out that even when we are not training for any particular ultra marathon, we will usually do a long run on a Sunday of between 10 and 20 miles – because we love trail running!
How many miles you do will depend on where you are in the training cycle and the distance of your ultra marathon. You may decide to do 2 recovery runs in a week and find yourself running 5 times a week.
Be Flexible with Your Training
While you do need to complete the training miles before running an ultra marathon, it is important to be sensible. There will be weeks when you are really tired and I mean really tired! I remember one particular training week where I literally could have cried I was so tired. The constant build up of miles and the effort required for all the elevation we had to cover had taken its toll.
We had a choice to carry on regardless and put up with the pain, or to change things around for that week – we chose the latter.
If you carry on when your body is that fatigued, you risk an injury. If you push yourself when your mind isn’t in it, you just won’t enjoy it. You don’t want your ultra marathon training to become a chore. So don’t be afraid to move your weeks around – swap your current week to a rest week and make the plan work for you.
Listen to Your Body
Don’t let running get in the way of life – we’re not professional athletes. If you can’t run on a particular day or at a certain time, altering morning runs for evening runs or changing your long run day is fine. These minor adjustments won’t hurt your plan. As you get more experienced, you will be more relaxed and find this easier to do.
Getting close to achieving the overall mileage, and running the longer miles is what matters, but this should never be at the expense of an injury risk. A day off here and there won’t hurt. Should you find that you are experiencing niggles, starting to feel a pull, or feeling mentally tired take heed. Don’t just keep building the intensity of your runs without listening to your body.
Preparing for an Ultra
Preparing for your event is not the same as training for an ultra marathon. The planning and preparation involved in running an ultra marathon is far beyond running enough miles. Here are a list of things you need to consider as part of your preparation:
- Researching the course – find out as much as you can about the race course in advance – where are the big hills, are the first/last few miles uphill or downhill? What sort of terrain will you cover, is it a mixture of road and trails?
- Choose the trail gear you will wear – trail shoes, hydration vest, shorts etc – make sure that you test everything at least once. Nothing worse than discovering something chafes or rubs when 15 miles in.
- Nutrition! You are going to need to consume a lot of calories during your ultra. Find out what works for you – again, make sure that you have tested all your nutrition on several long runs leading up to the big day.
- Choose your support crew – you may need people along the way, especially during a longer, self-nav ultra – confirm estimated arrival times, make sure that the right bag is at the right checkpoint at the right time
- Don’t overdo it and make sure you get rest/recovery days – the rest days are vital, these are the days when your body takes account of the effect of all the training you have done. Many athletes have the tendency to overtrain. Listen to your body when you are feeling tired and fatigued.
- Enjoy it – much of the fun in is the training and the build up to the race. It is a challenge but the training is just as much about getting you mentally prepared as getting physically ready.
The more prepared you are, the better equipped you are to handle the event. Being confident that you are wearing the right kit, that you have enough of the right food and that you know the course will help you mentally and give you less things to worry about.
The taper is the time when you have done all your hard miles and you need to rest your legs so that you are fresh to run on the day. Usually you start to wind down 3 weeks before an event. This means you reduce your mileage tapering down until the final few days. Then, you might just do a couple of short runs to tick over. Running an ultra marathon will be much less challenging if you reach the start line with fresh legs.
Let Your Body Repair and Recover
During the taper all the muscles that have done so much work will start to repair themselves, the fatigue will leave your body and you will get a well deserved rest. Beware of taper anxiety though! Every little twinge will convince you that you’re injured. Every time you cough you will swear you are coming down with something.
Don’t Let the Maranoia Set in
An absolute sure sign for me that I am ready for an ultra marathon is the last couple of runs before the big day. My legs feel so heavy that I am convinced I will never be able to cover the distance. Having competed in dozens of half marathons and marathons as well as my fair share of ultras, this has never gone away. Of course, the taper anxiety is different for everyone. Keep reminding yourself that it’s all in the mind though. Follow the plan – if you do, you can be confident that you have done everything right.
The Final Few Days Before Running an Ultra Marathon
In the final week before race day, you should think about eating eating food that is high in carbohydrates, this is known as carb loading. Personally, this is my favourite part of training because I get a pass to eat loads for a few days. But all jokes aside, make sure you eat the right foods. Carb loading from 3-4 days before your race will ensure that your body has enough glycogen in the muscles to cope with the demands of the race. Eat healthy carbs – not just packets of crisps. Jacket potatoes and pasta are a good source of carbohydrates.
Hydration is Key
Hydration is critical. We tend to start upping our fluid intake and including Zero tabs or similar from the Wednesday before a Sunday race. The salts and electrolytes in these drinks are important. Without them you run the risk of drinking too much water and diluting your body’s own salts etc. the key is to drink until your urine is straw coloured and not clear.
Prepare Your Ultra Marathon Kit
This is also a great time to make sure all your kit is ready and you have everything you need. The night before, lay it all out and make those final checks. Pack your race vest, charge your running watch, lay out your kit and double check your list! Then, try to get a good night’s sleep!
Race Day Has Arrived
The day has arrived. You have spent weeks/months training, covering 100s of miles and now you are ready. Have a good breakfast (porridge and a banana for us) an hour or so before the start. As you are running an ultra marathon, you are going to be eating at regular intervals too. Make sure you have all your kit ready – some race organisers will want to see everything.
Top tip – go to the toilet before you start and take extra toilet paper with you!
Keep hydrated, don’t stand around outside getting cold and wasting valuable energy either. Stay warm until the last minute. Then, when the start gun goes off, off you go. Enjoy it, take it all in, pace yourself and don’t go off too fast – you have a long way to go! It’s always good, if running solo, to find some company early on to make the miles go quicker.
Eat and Drink Regularly
Don’t leave it too long before you take a drink or have food. We tend to eat and take on fluids at approx. 3-5 mile intervals. There will be lots of factors that affect this including how far apart the aid stations are and whether it’s a really hot day. If running further than 30 miles, perhaps arrange to have some spare kit at the half way point, especially if it’s a wet and miserable day. Some events will allow you to collect your head torch rather than carrying it the whole way. It’s also just really nice to see a friendly face to give you some encouragement.
Have Distraction Techniques
Many elite athletes have tips to dealing with that mental battle when you feel like you can’t go on. The thing is, these dark moments don’t last for long. One minute you can be in the worst place on earth feeling like you can’t complete the distance but it will subside. Try counting your steps or giving yourself little goals. Look for a point you will run to. I have a really great technique that works for me. I count ten then start again. It never seems too bad if I can get to ten. It may just work long enough to get you out of the pain cave and into a more positive head space. Remember, you have trained for this and you are strong enough to complete it. Positive mental attitude is often most of the battle – a battle between your body and your mind.
Once you get to the finish line you may think you are done. You have completed the distance and the long miles are over. Now you can just sit down (or lie down in a dark room) but the next hour or so is very important. Make sure that you drink plenty as you have a lot of lost fluids to replace. Eat something immediately after too. We like a banana and an electrolyte drink. Keep snacking if you can’t face too much. Carry on drinking regularly.
Stretch Your Muscles
Remember to stretch as it will help to prevent muscle soreness over the next few days. Keep on your feet if you can so you don’t stiffen up. The more you can stay on your feet, and the better you stretch, the better your body will recover. Stretch at regular intervals making sure to pay attention the calves, the quads and the hamstrings. You may find you are stiff in the back area. Just give everything a good stretch and carry on for the next few days.
Now, give yourself a big pat on the back and feel very proud of what you have accomplished.
Some people find that a recovery run the following day helps to loosen everything up. After all those miles this may be the last thing you feel like doing. Try a walk if you can’t face a run. You should be able to get the blood pumping around the muscles to help flush the legs.
Booking the Next Ultra Marathon
If like us, you are absolutely buzzing after your event, you may want to look for the next one. Be sure to give yourself enough time to recover between races. Do not underestimate how much 50-100 miles will take out of you. We find that for a good 4-8 weeks after, we can still feel the effects of a hard run ultra. Resting for the first week after and just doing very short, easy runs is recommended. Don’t go out and try and hit the trails a few days later for a hard run. Keep it short and keep it slow. Think of it like a reverse taper. Maybe give your interval training a miss for a couple of weeks and build back up again slowly.
You will find much more information on the various points mentioned in this article throughout our website. If you have a specific question about training and running an ultra marathon, we are happy to help. Just drop us a message on our contact page.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links which may provide a small commission to me at no cost to you. The products we recommend are either those that we’ve used or that our fellow runners have used.