Updated: Jul 2, 2022
Whether you are preparing for a road or trail ultramarathon, there are a number of different things to take into account. The top 10 tips that are listed below are to assist those who maybe preparing for their first ultramarathon. However, they can also be really useful things to remember if you are looking to do your next ultramarathon but over a greater distance or want to prepare more effectively perhaps.
Disclaimer! In all honesty, I could write loads about the many in’s and out’s of ultrarunning and how to train and prepare for an ultramarathon. This blog post is just scratching the surface of the volume of what I could write, so at this point I draw your attention to the ‘key facts’ and the ‘Top 10 Tips’, but please note that there a lot of other things to consider too - they are just not written here!
Let’s start with a couple of key ‘facts’ to get it straight about what an ultramarathon is and what it is definitely not!
WHAT IS AN ‘ULTRAMARATHON’?
An ultramarathon is a long-distance foot race that traditionally takes place on countryside footpaths and trails and is occasionally run on the roads. The more recognised distances are 50K, 50 miles, 100K and 100 miles. Some ultramarathons also go way beyond the 100 mile distance such as GB Ultras ‘Race Across Scotland’ and the Moab 240 in the US to name but two.
For many years, the marathon distance was thought of as the pinnacle of human running endurance. However, due to the inquisitive mind of human beings and their desire to test the limits of what might be possible, the ‘ultramarathon’ was born.
In recent years, there has been a significant boom in the number of participants who enter and take on an ultramarathon and this number continues to grow exponentially. ‘In the last 23 years, ultrarunning participation has grown a whopping 1676%’ (UESCA, 2021).
The bottom line is that ultrarunning has really grown in popularity from it’s sparse and humble beginnings and is definitely now not the outlandish pastime of the few, but is now the participatory right of the many and the varied. You only have to look at the vast array of finishers at an ‘ultra’ event to realise that pretty much anyone can train to complete an ultra and many do just that!
Key Fact: Ultramarathons are HARD.
They are not supposed to be easy and definitely NOT to be taken lightly. It requires and should require a specific and well-structured training programme, ideally prescribed by a qualified coach, that considers many different aspects of your life and lifestyle, including your health and amongst many other factors, should NOT be undertaken unless you have put in the many hours it take to train appropriately for one.
Just because many ordinary folk (who are amazing by the way!) complete them week in, week out, doesn’t mean it is for everyone. Completing one is an extraordinary achievement and not a ‘given’ and should also be celebrated as such too.
ISN’T IT JUST LIKE A MARATHON BUT A BIT LONGER?
It would be really easy to concur with the above question, as on paper the jump from 26.2 miles to say 31 miles or 50K is a mere 5 miles…but the mistake would be to make the assumption that just because someone can run a marathon, they can complete an ultramarathon.
Let’s look at a quick comparison between typical road marathons and typical trail 50K ultramarathons.
Typical Road Marathon
Tend to be fairly flat and on roads;
Lots of other runners and supporters around you to give you the boost you need when things get a bit tough;
More often than not they are held in local towns and cities with access to all of the ‘luxuries’ that you could need during a race of this distance eg. water stations every 3-4 miles and ample toilet facilities;
All of the marathons I have heard of allow you to complete them in whatever elapsed time you choose and the larger city marathons also have ‘time-pacers’ to keep you on track for your goal time;
Typical Trail 50K Ultramarathon
On trail - this could be on countryside paths, towpaths, coastal paths and mountain tracks depending on where in the UK or the world you are;
Tend to have significantly more elevation than a road marathon eg. Salomon Serpent Trail 50K has an elevation gain of 2250ft across the race distance;
Most of the time (apart from at the start and in aid stations) you could be running on your own with maybe the odd fellow runner with you and very few supporters along the way;
‘Aid’ stations can be as far as 6-7 miles or more apart and you will be required to carry enough nutrition and hydration with you to sustain you in between each aid station;
Cut-off times to complete the race are applied both in terms of overall finish time and ‘time-out’s at aid stations, if it is felt that due to the time elapsed since the start, it is felt that you will be unable to complete the race in the allotted cut-off time;
Key Fact: There is FAR MORE to an ultramarathon than just an extra 5+ miles.
So, in theory and in practice the 50K distance itself may only be 5 miles longer than a road marathon, but the experience and required approach to training and racing is somewhat different!
My advice would always be to seek out someone who understands the training process for an ultramarathon and work closely with them to ensure you are fully prepared to undertake an ultramarathon of ANY distance. You wouldn’t try and fix your car’s brakes with little or no knowledge of how to do it - you would seek a professional mechanic to do the job to ensure your health and safety! Ultramarathons are no different - your health and safety is just as important.
TOP 10 TIPS
1. Get in touch/work with a qualified ultrarunning coach.
“Of course, you would say that!!” Ok, yes I would! I am a UESCA-Certified Ultrarunning Coach after all. Due to the nature of training, preparation and running an ultramarathon, it is imperative that you involve someone, ideally a qualified coach who knows how to ensure this is done correctly.
Many ultrarunners choose not to involve anyone else and do just fine on their own, but employing a coach to take all the guesswork out of it and prepare you fully for whatever ultra distance you decide to take on is definitely the right way to go.
2. Know your ‘why’.
What is my ‘why’? A strange question perhaps, but one which is so important to your chances of completing an ultramarathon. ‘Why’ are you training for and running an ultramarathon? Is it for personal satisfaction? To prove to yourself (and maybe others) that you can do it? Is it for a charity or in memory of a loved one or close friend? Whatever the ‘why’ of ‘why’ you are doing this will, without a doubt, drive you to succeed in your quest to complete your race.
Doing the long training miles, getting out there when it is pouring with rain, blowing a gale and is freezing cold, the hard training session after a full day’s work - just reminding yourself of your ‘why’ will spur you on and help you to keep going.
3. Identify a goal or ‘A’ race and work backwards from there.
This ought to be the starting point of any athlete when deciding how training is going to be structured. You should decide what this is first and then work backwards from there. This will determine if you have enough time/frequency to train, what that training looks like and how your training phases or blocks will look.
This would be a good place to start when it comes to deciding this and in working out the many factors that will need to be considered in training and also the other ‘B’ and ‘C’ races that you will run as part of your preparation for your goal race.
4. Do your research about EVERYTHING to do with training, preparing and running an ultramarathon.
If you are considering taking on an ultramarathon, you should be wholly invested in everything to do with running an ultramarathon, whether it is your first or 8th ultra and research everything you can about it in general. Other than the ‘standard’ distances, every ultramarathon is somewhat different in relation to its own individual parts - terrain, elevation profile, format, time of year, weather etc. So researching about the races individuality is imperative to ensure that you are preparing for it specifically.
5. Recce as much of the race route as you can.
Although not always possible due to location, it is really advantageous to ‘recce’ the route in sections to understand how the different sections of the route may play out on race day. Many ultrarunners will head to the race route throughout their training and run different sections of it for a variety of purposes - individual parts of the route, when to eat, the time it takes on the different climbs, navigation etc.
If you are unable to ‘recce’ parts of the route, then have a look at the GPS files that exist, look at the elevation plot that goes with it, use social media to look at what others say about it. Basically, continue to research it so you limit the surprises come race day.
6. Dial in your nutrition, hydration, kit, shoes and equipment in training and in ‘b’ races.
This can be the ‘make or break’ of any and all ultramarathons. The knock on effect of not ‘dialling-in’ all of these things can derail your race very quickly, so it’s imperative that you know what works for you in terms of what to drink and eat and when to do so throughout a race and what kit, shoes and equipment works best for that situation or what is going to be comfortable over the time you are racing. You don’t want to find out on race day that something makes you sick or rubs you raw!
Something else to work on is creating a ‘nutrition strategy’ to ensure that you have this nailed and in place to take the guess work out of it. This can be done based upon what you have tried and tested in training. One of the biggest causes of DNF’s in ultramarathons is GI (gastrointestinal) issues, so it is worth spending the time in training getting it right.
Working on all of these things 3-4 months ahead of race day will give you a solid window of opportunity to work out what works for you and when.
7. Mental preparation can be as important as physical preparation.
“90% of ultra running is mental and the rest is in your head” (Ray Zahab). This is a great quote and pretty much sums up in it’s very simplest form, the psychology of running an ultramarathon! Obviously, there is a little bit more to it than that, but should identify that beyond the physiological aspect of training and preparing for an ultra, the mental side of your prep should also be a factor to consider too.
Much of the mental side of ultrarunning comes from the confidence built in training and knowing all about what it will take to complete an ultra. However, there are also things that you can do as part of your training to work on the mental side of running an ultra - some of which has already been discussed above. There are also other aspects that you can work on to prepare you mentally too.
8. Have a clear race strategy.
This is something that is so important and should be figured out well in advance of the race and potentially amended depending on particular circumstances that may crop up, eg. environmental changes, course changes (including venue changes).
A clear race strategy encompasses a number of variables, including training data, nutrition/hydration needs, location of aid stations/checkpoints, environment, course route, profile/elevation, terrain, expected weather, length of race, crew points, pacers, day/night, etc.
Knowing the approach to all of these and maybe some more individual needs will mitigate/eliminate likely issues (although nothing is certain in ultrarunning!) and leave you with a clear approach to how you will execute your race.
It is always worth working through some likely scenarios, to get a sense of what you would do if things don’t go to plan, prior to the race as this will hopefully stick with you if they were likely to happen when you are fatigued, to ensure the best value-judgement during the race. These can be worked through and prepared for, possibly using the A.D.A.P.T strategy.
9. Prepare to suffer.
‘Suffer’ is a bit of a harsh word, but it will invariably get ‘uncomfortable’ at some point during an ultramarathon. It kind of goes with the territory really. As stated right at the beginning of this blog, ultramarathons are HARD! It is going to be uncomfortable for different reasons, so you need to prepare yourself for that both from a physiological perspective as well as a psychological one. There is a slight caveat to this though. You must know the difference between just being in some discomfort for a few hours and applying appropriate methodologies to solve or manage this, to something more serious like an injury or other physical distress.
Chat with someone who has been through this before and get a sense of their experiences, but remember everyones experience is different and unique. It can help to have an understanding of what to expect, which is generally encountered through long blocks of training and some of the ‘B’ races you put in place.
10. It’s just a race - your health and wellbeing comes first.
Ok, so this is the pragmatic view of running a race and links very much to number ‘9’ of the top tips, but is a statement that only you can wrestle with and make the right call whether pre-race or during a race.
There will always be other days to race/run and ultramarathon or any other race come to that, but there is only one of YOU! Always put your health and wellbeing above ANY race (this includes training too) however disappointing it might be. Others will understand your decision and you will also come around to the reason/s why you 'pulled the plug'.
There is absolutely no shame in not running a race or having to DNF - make it about YOU and what is right for YOU in the first instance. Your time will come…again and again.
So that’s it! My ‘top 10 tips’ when preparing for an ultramarathon.
I hope that this will serve you well and that you have got something from what has been discussed, but if you have read this and have more questions, want to know more about certain aspects (as I have been decidedly brief in some areas!) or want to discuss coaching possibilities, then please do get in touch!
Have fun and enjoy your running!