Ultramarathons, although officially having begun back in 1926, have become ever more popular in our current day with more than 70,000 people participating in ultra races each year and internationally on all 7 continents. When a runner has successfully completed race goals throughout their running career, thriving in achieving some of the more popular distances such as 5-kilometers, 10km, half marathon and full marathons, it would not be unseemly for the next extreme goal to possibly be in completing an ultramarathon distance. An ultramarathon, or ultra, is any race greater in length than 42km or that of a full marathon, but many will argue that an ultra-distance begins at 50km. While the jury is still out on the actual distance, at this moment one can find a multitude of different ultra races, each varying in distance, duration, finish time, environment and technicality difficulties of the course. Distances can go from 50km to 1000km while covering a day up to 10 days. Some races are in the mountains, some are in the desert. Some provide aide stations, some require you to run and carry your own supplies. So with the many options that are out there, how does one even train for an ultra?
Challenges are to be expected with such extreme sports, such as ultramarathons, but the pride that emulates from finishing such a difficult task should exceed all fears, as long as one is well prepared. To be honest, there is no one right way to train for an ultra but the main goals of most training regimes are to be safe and gradually and consistently build your mileage. Speedwork may get put to the side for the beginner ultrarunner and recovery days may be as many in a week as the days that involve running, but the main focus throughout the preparation will always be the long runs.
We break down training for an ultra into 3 disciplines: having a vision, doing the physical work, and relying on the strength of your mind.
The first step towards striving, pursuing and accomplishing your ultra dreams start with finding the right race for you. While there are thousands to choose from internationally, the best ways to choose your right ultra is determining your long-distance running experience and what distance you want to strive for next, your work and life balance and how much it allows for your training, the price physically, mentally, and from your wallet that you are willing to pay, and the distance you are willing to travel to get to your race, even prior to actually running your race.
After you have figured out your running ambitions balanced with the rest of life, the next thing is to register for your desired race with appropriate preparation time. Ideally, this means at least 3 months are needed if you have prior marathon training experience, otherwise you may need more preparation time.
Next, get involved in ultrarunner groups on social media or with your local running clubs. Get the know the ultra community language by speaking with veteran ultrarunners. Early communication can help you to mentally and physically prepare for your race based on the experience of those who have actually gone out there and done ultras. It is one of the simplest and cheapest ways you can learn about training, gear, and ultimately you might even be able to find some new running partners.
While it should be reiterated that no one program is right for each ultrarunner, it is commonly recognized amongst experienced ultrarunners that beginners should focus their attention on slower and longer distances over speed.
A typical weekly program will include 3 rest days with a one-hour easy run varied with a tempo run, a one-hour hill workout run involving both ascending and descending hills, and two long runs, back to back, ranging from 1-5 hours long. The most commonly given advice is to get back to back long runs in weekly. Based on your expected finish times in the ultra, the build-up of these back to back runs should ultimately cover the total hours you will run during your race. Prior to race day, you will want to have covered the distance of the ultra within these back to back runs at least one time or up to three times.
Outside of running distances, you will want to also want to train specifically. This meaning, practice many of your long runs on the terrain you will be racing on. Prior race research will tell you the technical difficulties, elevation, and weather that may be expected on the course to help you plan your long runs. Also, test your kits, hydration and fueling during your training runs. You will want to know what works for you, and your body during these lengthy test runs and not have any uncomfortable moments come race day.
The best piece of advice when training for an ultra is to definitely listen to your body and don’t overdo it. Take your rest and recovery days as seriously as your running days. Be proactive in reducing overuse injuries by performing recovery practices like icing, stretching, foam rolling, and massage. Listen and be aware of signs of stress like fatigue and irritability, and if you are feeling miserable, simply take some time to recoup, even during peak week. Save that energy for race day.
Ultra running is certainly an extreme sport and it is also a sport that few are brave, or crazy, enough to attempt. With that in mind, once you have created your vision and put in the dedicated work, the final discipline is to put all you have learned prior to race day and put it to fruition. Your body will do more than you think with the strength of your willpower and mind.
Be sure to get plenty of rest and focus on your hydration leading up to the last few days prior to race day. You are about to exert a tremendous amount of energy all at once and the more you go in with a rested and hydrated body and mind, the further it will take you in the long run. Layout your race gear the night before to make sure you have everything you need plus to get you mentally ready for what you will need and when going forward. Arrive at the race with a clear and precise direction but remember to keep calm and enjoy the experience.
Start the race slow, and by slow, we mean really, really slow. Walk the steep hills, walk some of the down hills, learn to appreciate the act of walking in ultras during very technically difficult parts. It is said that the strategy of pacing in an ultra will dictate the finish. You should run by effort. You should also split the run up into sections, rather than agonizing over the finish line distance. There will be times you feel you are running effortlessly, sometimes when it will be a struggle and those last moments when you will feel you won't be able to finish. This is when your mind matters most, so during those most challenging moments remember to take long deep breaths and practice a mantra, one that is encouraging in trying times. Whether you run, walk, or crawl over that ultra finish line, know that your goal and hard work will feel better than any temporary pain you experience on the course.
Being an ultra finisher is quite the feat. You will feel proud, your family, friends, and colleagues will be proud of you and you can attribute those wonderful feelings by having followed the three disciplines while training for your ultra. With your vision and physical and mental preparation you can look forward to finishing an ultra, hopefully, injury-free and while have fun at the same time!