Training for your first ultramarathon can seem daunting. You’ve done a half-marathon, maybe a couple trail 30km races and likely a road marathon or two. But there’s something about the words ‘ultra’ and ‘marathon’ combined that take the thought of actually completing one to an incomprehensible level for most of us.
From a pure distance standpoint, a 50km ultramarathon is actually just under five miles longer than a traditional marathon (31.07 vs 26.2 miles), but most ultras are anything but flat or in a straight line and on smooth paved roads. They often times require navigating treacherous rocks and roots, with steep descents and quad-busting trails climbs from mountain peak to peak. There are normally very few spectators on course to cheer you on or lift your spirits when you’re down, just a few friendly souls at the remote aid stations dotted along the course every 5-8 miles. At most ultramarathons you find yourself running along solo for what seems like hours end at some point.
With the constantly changing terrain, finding a rhythm during the endless miles is one of the most difficult aspects of running an ultramarathon. Developing your own “infinity” pace, a speed that’s just hard enough, but doesn’t take you into the red, that you can hold for 4, 5 or 6 hours is no easy task. It takes practice and lots of it.
Combined with a myriad of hydration, nutrition, gear options, and successfully developing a training plan to get you to the start line for first ultramarathon healthy and ready to rip is an accomplishment in itself.
How can you make the most of the training experience to set you up for success come race day? We’ve got our top seven tips to help you enjoy and push yourself in your first trail ultramarathon.
1. Find a good group - Long runs are a necessity for building a strong running foundation and endurance base. The weekend is the perfect time to plan a group run to hold you accountable for starting early, getting in progressively more time on your feet during the lead-up (15, 20, 25 miles, etc.) and having fun. Nothing passes the miles like laughs with friends.
2. Practice your hydration and nutrition routines - Figure out what your body likes for breakfast before a hard, long run. A solid mix of carbohydrates, fats, proteins and sugars will set your body up for success later in the day. Oatmeal, granola, nut butters, yogurt, bananas and blueberries are all great options that you can build off of to your personal palate preferences. The same goes for race day fueling and hydration; practice listening to your body’s desires and eating different types of real food, gels and hydrations mixes so you know what works for you and what doesn’t. Avoid what doesn’t at all costs. A safety food, that you can always eat, is good to carry a few extra of come race day.
3. Emulate course conditions - Find similar length climbs, technical trails or rolling hills to recreate the course as best you can. An even better option is to get out to train on the course a couple times. If that’s not possible, study the course maps, elevation profile, aid station locations, historical weather conditions and more to prepare yourself as much as possible. However, nothing compares to learning course features pre-race to prepare you mentally for what’s to come on race day.
4. Gear choices are key - Similar to hydration and nutrition, all of our bodies require slightly different styles of shoes, socks, shorts, tops, hats, hydration devices and more. You will go through a couple of pairs of shoes just training for an ultramarathon. Make shoe choices based on typical course conditions and what your feet are telling you as you run more. When in doubt, visit your local running store and enlist the help of a shoe fit specialist. They can analyze your stride and make suggestions for different types of shoes based on their knowledge and your feedback. The same goes for you hydration devices. Do you like handheld bottles, a vest with a bladder or a fuel belt? Try a couple and settle on the one that is most comfortable and makes hydrating easiest on you. Remember: you’re going to go through a lot of liquids come race day, so you better find the delivery method that is simplest for you and pain free.
5. Take rest days as seriously as hard training days - This is beyond important and often gets overlooked. If you never give your body a break from the increased mileage and tough workouts, when will it ever adapt to all the training stress? Take at least one day, or two if you’re just getting started, off each week to allow your body to recover fully as you build up the mileage.
6. Stretch and foam roll, a lot - Once you’re done with your run, get some quick calories in you and then hit the floor. Develop a quick stretching and foam rolling routine that you can bang out in 10-15 minutes. Make this a critical part of every run and your body will thank you. Staying limber, flexible and noticing any early signs of injury by stretching and rolling on a regular basis is a key element to the longevity of not only your ultrarunning career, but life as any type of runner.
7. Ask yourself why - Why am I doing this? If it’s to prove yourself to other people, maybe it’s not the right time to run an ultramarathon. If you’re looking for a new challenge and want to see how far and long you can run for, an ultra may just be the thing for you. There are a multitude of reasons why someone would choose to run an ultramarathon, find yours and the motivation to train will come naturally.
Following these seven tips won’t guarantee success in your first ultramarathon, but they will make you feel physically, mentally and emotionally invested in your attempt. You’ll experience a few scraped knees, a couple bonks when you’re still three miles from your car during and your fair share of aches and pains during training, but that’s what it’s all about. Embrace the process, have fun and remember that running is an opportunity, not an obligation. You don’t have to run, you get to run. Approach your miles with gratitude and striving for that new challenge won’t be such a chore.