There are several areas to consider when preparing for an ultra marathon. First, let’s clarify what an ultra marathon is. It is actually anything over the marathon distance. Most ultra races start at 30 miles, often they are 50 miles or 100. Some are longer but if you are just entering the world of trail running and planning your first ultra marathon, you probably want to look at the 30-50 mile distance. Often these routes are marshalled at intervals of 5-6 miles, possibly more with aid stations and water points. For the most part though, it’s just you and nature, making sure you find your way from A to B without getting lost.
Preparing for an ultra marathon is about more than just preparing for the long miles. It requires research, different forms of training, knowing as much about the course as possible, having an adequate training plan, wearing the right kit and more. We aim to provide you with as much information as possible so forgive the length of this article. To make it a little easier, we have structured into the following areas:
- Following a Training Plan
- Increasing the Weekly Mileage
- Increasing Elevation
- Researching the Course
- Carrying the Right Kit
Following a Training Plan
One of the first steps of preparing for an ultra marathon is to put together a training schedule or plan, of which there are many available online from reliable sources. In fact, as UK Athletics coaches, we have written them for both athletes and ourselves. In coaching terms we would refer to these plans as a Macrocycle, in other words, the overall plan for the event.
Whilst the online plans are usually very good and give you a good starting point, you need to understand that the same plan won’t work for everyone. Work and family commitments may mean you can’t train on certain days, you may not be able to fit everything in or you may need more or less than is in the plan.
Some plans will have more miles than others or will look different in their formatting. However, essentially they should all do the same thing helping you to achieve your ultra-marathon target distance through progressively increasing your overall weekly mileage, while allowing for periods where your mileage drops to allow the impact of your training to take effect.
Increasing the Weekly Mileage
As we have already pointed out, when it comes to preparing for an ultra-marathon, there is no one size fits all approach. Everyone is different. You may be a complete beginner, in which case you could need a longer training plan than someone who has already run a marathon.. Then of course, there are the experienced runners who have spent years running long distances who, unless they have stopped running altogether, can be ready for an ultra with much less training.
Typically, someone who is embarking on their first ultra after finding a love of the trails may have a lower weekly mileage base and a shorter long run than a seasoned athlete who runs regular ultra marathons. The athlete new to ultras will require a lengthier plan than someone who has been running a lot longer, has a few years in their legs and regularly runs long. For total beginners, going straight for an ultra is a challenge, but not beyond the realms of possibility. You should consider entering a 30 mile event and be looking at a plan of between 16-20 weeks (the longer the better to build up your endurance).
Increase the long run gradually
Let’s start with the long run as this forms the biggest part of your training. If your longest run to date is in single figures then you are going to have to look at a longer plan which allows you to gradually increase the mileage of your weekly long run. As you increase those weekly long miles, your average weekly miles will naturally increase too. If you are upping the mileage each week as a beginner, it is recommended that you do not increase by more than 10% on a weekly basis. Therefore, if you’r longest run to date is 8 miles, then you should only increase to 9 miles the following week, then 10 to 11, 12 to 13 and so on. A word of warning – you must beware of doing too much too fast as this can lead to fatigue and injury.
Train in cycles
Don’t just keep on increasing in weekly increments either without taking some time to recover. We tend to work on an Easy, Medium, Hard week rotation – in training terms these are known as a Mesocycles and a series of these of these make up the Macrocycle.
As you can see, we advise that you cut back the mileage after a hard week and reduce the long run to give you a chance of recovery. This lower week is a much needed part of your training and allows the training effect of the harder weeks to take place. What many runners don’t appreciate is just how much damage a series of long runs can do to your body and how those recovery weeks help your body to recover. The rest days and rest weeks actually repair your muscles and make them stronger.
Increasing the Midweek Miles
In our opinion, if the long slow run at the weekend is the most important run, then the midweek run is the second most important run of the training plan. As such, your midweek miles should increase too – it doesn’t have to be by lots, but you should follow the 10% principle. You can also try to include a run of 5 to 6 miles at a comfortably hard pace, this is known as a Tempo or Lactate Threshold run and will help with your speed endurance.
What Should Weekly Mileage Be?
We are often asked what weekly mileage should be. Obviously this varies from person to person and is often dictated by personal circumstance such as family and job. We tend to do anywhere between 40-60 at the height of our training for an ultra. Some do more, some do less. It depends on what your body can handle. Personally, when I get up around the 50 mile weeks, I start to get extremely fatigued and have been known to reduce the mileage irrespective of what the plan says. You need to find a balance of what works for you. While it’s useful to train on tired legs to emulate those race type feelings, you have to listen to your body. As we have already mentioned, rest is just as important as the running. You should never be afraid of ignoring the plan and resting if you need to – it’s really important that you make the plan work for you and not the other way round!
Taking it Easier on the Long Run
If we are doing our mid week run off road, we tend to run all of the hills. However, when it comes to our long slow run, we will nearly always walk the hills as this will be our strategy on race day. When you are running an ultra, you need to conserve your energy for the sheer volume of miles. Pacing yourself for the long miles includes walking the hills to keep your heart rate down.
Back to Back Runs
We are big fans of back to back runs. For us this means running on a Saturday and then running on a Sunday. It may be that we do 10 miles on a Saturday and then 20 on a Sunday. We get the 30 miles in over the weekend, but not all in one go every week. Of course you can try to get 30 miles in at least once and you will actually be an ultra runner before you run your ultra if you can!
As we don’t tend to enter events that are much over 50 miles, this is the maximum we ever do, with between 20-30 mile runs featuring approximately 4-6 times in our plan. If Saturday and Sunday doesn’t work for you, you can try a Friday night and Saturday morning. Having two runs so close together will help you to get used to running on tired legs and hopefully make you stronger and more able to deal with that feeling during the race.
We have discussed in detail how to increase the miles as part of an ultra-marathon training plan but what about the elevation? Often, these ultra races have in excess of 5,000 feet of elevation which can be difficult to train for but we have lots of advice on this subject which can be found here.
As you increase your miles, it’s highly likely that your elevation will increase too, if you live in a hilly area. Try to pick lumpy routes for your weekly long run. You will also need to include elevation in your other runs too. We like to practise hill reps as our speed and strength sessions. We pick a hill that is not too steep and run up or over and over again. A favourite session of ours is 14 x 1 minutes. The recovery is the run back down. Have a ten minute warm up and cool down and the session should take you less than an hour. There are a number of hills rep sessions here.
Spread the Elevation Over the Week
Consider a tempo run that includes some undulation. We tend to do a Thursday night run of approximately 8-10 miles that includes 1,000-1,500ft of elevation. Add this to the 500-1000ft that we get from hill reps and the 2,500 ft that we get on a weekend and we can find 5,000 ft. That’s perfect for a 5,000ft race and you don’t need to do this every week. If you are going to be tackling a lumpier course, you will need to ensure that your longest week equates to the same elevation as the race course.
Researching the Course
Our biggest challenge to date has been the 56 mile Butcombe Ultra (the next challenge is significantly longer but more on that to follow). The race has 7 checkpoints in total and is well signposted as a recognised trail route. That said, this particular race is self navigation so there are not bits of tape, markers or other such signals to help you take the right turn.
In fact, as we discovered in training, it’s easy to take a wrong turn between sections. There was some colourful language used when, at the end of a 20 mile training run in the wet and windy weather, we would find ourselves in the wrong place! Being able to recce the course meant that on race day, we knew where we were going, we didn’t need a map or a phone and we had one less thing to worry about. Focusing on going the right way can be quite mentally draining, especially when added to the physical exertion of a distance like this.
Run Sections of the Course
If this is an event that’s within easy reaching distance of where you live then we strongly recommend trail training on the course. The recent Butcombe Ultra actually passed through some of our regular stomping grounds however there were sections of it that were a good 20 miles from home that we weren’t familiar with.
We trained as a pair so we would take one car to one point, drive to our starting point and then run 20 or so miles (whatever was in the plan for that day) back to the other car. It was time consuming and added half an hour to our run but it was worth it for the complete peace of mind on the day that we absolutely knew where we were going.
By the time we got to the start line we had covered every inch of the course at least twice, as well as finding some new routes in the process. We knew every checkpoint, every hill, every blade of grass after 6 months of training.
Check Out the Course Profile, Terrain etc.
Running the course is not always going to be possible. If you’re entering a race that’s over an hour or more away from home, carrying out training runs on the terrain is going to be tricky. You may be able to get there a couple of times over the course of your ultra marathon off road training but on the whole you are going to be training on familiar territory and not the actual course. We would thoroughly recommend the following:
- Find out everything you can about the course online. Check out the elevation profile, the times it takes others to complete the course, the checkpoints and the terrain. Read what others have said about the course.
- Find similar terrain to train on. It’s no good training on relatively flat ground when you are going to be covering several thousand feet of elevation on the day.
- Download the route on your Strava or Garmin Connect and upload to your Garmin Fenix or other nav watch if you have one. Failing that, get your hands on an OS map and discover whatever you can about the course.
For any race, of any length and description, an athlete should always train for that race. It’s called specificity of training. Train at the pace you are going to run, practise walking the hills and eating (that’s an entirely different subject), practise the elevation, the distance and the terrain. Being able to cope with the profile of the ultra marathon race that you have entered is going to go a long way towards preparing you for the real thing.
Carrying the Right Kit
Another key element of successfully completing your challenge and preparing for an ultra marathon is to have the right kit. How much do you need for the race, what can you find at aid stations, what should you carry kit in?
Not only do you need to carry the right kit, you also need to test it all before the big day. You don’t want to get 10 miles into an ultra to discover that your vest rubs or that your new shoes are squeezing your toes. Practise carrying the kit you will use on the day during your long runs when preparing for an ultra marathon.
Training for an ultra marathon can be exhausting and you need to rest and recover after your macrocycle, let the training take effect, and get your body ready for that start line. Tapering will ensure that your reach the start of the race fresh and ready to take on the challenge.
When Should I Start to Taper?
Be sure to include a taper as part of the programme. The last 3 weeks should be about reducing both the weekly and the long run mileage and giving your legs chance to repair and recover from the training cycle. On the week of the race we often run 5 miles early in the week – strangely, our legs often feel terrible on these runs, which leads to concerned conversations about being under trained – fortunately we have done enough of these to know this is not the case – yet!
Remember the aim of the Taper is for you to arrive at the start line with fresh, rested legs and ready to go – but not too fast for the first few miles!
Preparing for an ultra marathon is critical to the success of your goal. It’s like anything, the more you plan and practise, the better you are going to be. Not only will you be physically prepared but you will also be mentally prepared.
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