(7 min read)
Once upon a time, if you told people you’d run a marathon you’d be met by gasps of awe and exclamations of ‘how far?!’. Now, as marathon running has become more mainstream, it seems every person and their gran has covered the 26.2 mile distance and the question you’re most likely to be asked is, ‘oh, but have you done an ultra?’
In our quest for ever more extreme challenges and epic experiences, ultra-running has exploded in recent years. According to Adharanand Finn, the author of The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance, ultra-running is one of the fastest growing sports in the world with the number of races over marathon distance increasing by around 1,000 percent in the past decade.
If you’re a runner, you’ve probably been tempted to go longer – you may already have done it. But whether you’re considering signing up for your first ultra-marathon or tackling your next long-distance event, you’re going to need to train, and train well.
Here’s everything you need to know to create a successful ultra-marathon training plan, so you can push your mind and body to the limits, without blowing up.
What is an ultra-marathon?
An ultra-marathon is any race that exceeds the normal 26.2-mile marathon distance. An ultra can be anything from 26.3 miles (although most start at 30 miles) to multi-day races through the mountains covering hundreds of miles.
As humans we tend to like round figures so some of the more common distances are 50k, 100k, 50 and 100 miles, or races which tackle a journey such as running the length of a river from its source or circumnavigating a mountain. While ultra-marathons can be run on roads or involve 24-hours circling a running track, most tend to be on trails, taking you through the stunning scenery of national parks, mountain ranges, deserts and coastal paths – undoubtedly one of the reasons they’re so popular, just think of the Instagram pics.
What makes people want to run an ultra?
That amazing scenery we mentioned is one draw but the reasons people run ultras are as many and varied as the runners themselves. For some it’s about seeing just what your body can achieve, for others it’s the joy of being out in nature and exploring new places.
For Veloforte-powered elite ultra-runner and Performance Coach at Reach For More Coaching, Anna-Marie Watson – whose impressive ultra CV includes: 1st place at the UTMB Oman 2018; 2nd lady at the Marathon des Sables 2015 & 7th lady at the World Cup of ultra, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2017 – it’s also about escape.
“I love being away from civilisation,” she says. “I’m in my own little world where it’s all about the rhythm and dialling into my pace. And I I find running when it’s dark absolutely magical.”
Is running an ultra-marathon easier than running a marathon?
You may have heard some people say that ultras are easier than marathons. That’s a matter of perspective but there are some ways that ultras can be less taxing on the body.
- Less stress: When you’re running on the trails there’s less impact on your joints than repeating the same movement over and over on hard tarmac. You’re also going up and down hills so you’re using different movement patterns and muscles throughout.
- Lower intensity: During a road race you’re usually pushing at a fast pace. During an ultra you’ll need to slow it down and walking is definitely ok, in fact it’s encouraged. You’ll want to walk up hills to conserve energy, you may walk through aid stations as you eat, some people even adopt a “Run-Walk” strategy throughout, taking time to chat to other runners and take in the views.
Are you ready to start training for your first ultra-marathon?
While some schools of thought advocate running at least one full marathon before you tackle your first ultra, others disagree.
“I firmly believe that everybody has an ultra in them if they put their mind to it,” says Anna-Marie. “For some people working up through the distances from 10k to marathon can be a great confidence builder but if you want to dive straight in go for it. Although I’d strongly recommend putting in the correct amount of physical preparation otherwise you risk putting yourself and other people in danger.”
It’s definitely worth having some experience of trail races or running on trails (such as e.g. fell running) if you’re signing up for an off-road race, however. “It’s the difference in terrain which can be a real challenge,” says Anna-Marie.
“While you will need to put in the mileage during ultra-marathon training; mindset, nutrition, testing kit and pacing are just as important.”
The 10 steps to train for an ultra-marathon
So you’ve signed up for your race, you’ve paid the money and bought the t-shirt but where do you start with training? Follow these 10 steps for ultra-running success.
1. Set goals for motivation but forget about time
If you’re training for a road race it’s often all about the time, breaking that four-hour barrier in a marathon or smashing out a 45-minute 10k for example. While having goals is a great motivator, Anna-Marie advises not focusing on your watch too much and instead soaking up the atmosphere, connecting with other ultra-runners along the way, enjoying the whole experience and finishing with a smile
“It’s fine to have a ballpark figure but if you get too fixated on a time goal it can cloud everything else,” she says. “There are so many things that are uncontrollable in an ultra such as the terrain, the weather conditions and how your body reacts. It’s very hard to predict how long it will take. My goal is always to have fun, to enjoy running and being outdoors, I don’t think too much about time or finishing position. I’ve found it’s often the races you enjoy the most that you perform best in.”
2. Give yourself enough time to prepare
How long do you need to train for an ultra? How long’s a piece of string? There are a number of variables such as how regularly you run at the moment, your base level of fitness, how long you’ve been running, the distance of the ultra and the difficulty of the terrain you’ll be tackling. These will all affect how long you need to train for.
For distances up to around 50 miles, you’ll need a similar time to a marathon, so around 16 weeks with a couple of months base building beforehand if you’re starting from scratch. However, each ultra is so different and comes with its own unique challenges that it’s hard to find many off-the peg plans.
Anna-Marie advises contacting a coach who has experience of ultra-running distance events to work on a personalised plan that fits around your life and commitments. While it is possible to complete an ultra with only a few months training, the longer you leave yourself to prepare, the better.
3. Do your race research
Ultras come with many different challenges such as differing terrains, varying weather conditions at different points of the course. If you’re running in the mountains you might be running through the night and there could be a number of large ascents and descents.
Make sure you thoroughly research the route, and read blogs and reviews from others who have done the race before. This will help you decide on the kit you’re going to need and allow you to practice for the specific challenges ahead.
If your race has a lot of elevation you’ll want to include plenty of hill training – both up and down. If you’re running on chalky surfaces you might want to spend a weekend somewhere such as the South Downs to practice that specific terrain and if you’re going to be running through the night you’ll want to include a few runs with your head torch to get a feel for what it’s like.
If your ultra is somewhere hot and humid you may even want to take a holiday somewhere warm to get used to the conditions – you could also spend some time in a sauna or practicing hot yoga to emulate the heat but it’s not as much fun.
4. Build an aerobic base
Many people who sign up for an ultra will be running regularly already. If your training has been a bit sporadic however, make sure you include at least eight weeks of base building before you start on your training schedule.
Consistency is key to building a base so try and include around four runs a week, gradually increasing the mileage every couple of weeks. These runs should be run at a conversational, easy pace and will help your body get used to running regularly by building muscular and cardiovascular endurance and increasing aerobic fitness – your body’s ability to use and transport oxygen to meet your energy demands.
5. Include a variety of runs
“The exact structure of your training programme is going to depend on the challenges of your race,” says Anna-Marie, “but for the meat of your training I would suggest aiming for four to five runs a week alongside strength training, and cross-training if you have time”.
She suggests including the following runs alongside easy recovery runs and advises keeping an eye on your heart rate to ensure you’re not at risk of over training or pushing too hard:
Weekly long run
Even though you may be running 100 miles on race day, your long runs don’t need to take you up to that distance. Many coaches advise that for runs over three hours the benefits are outweighed by the risk of injury and time needed to recover.
Instead, to emulate the feeling of running long distances on tired legs Anna-Marie suggests back-to-back runs. “By doing an afternoon or evening run and then one early the following morning you’re getting in the volume but breaking it up slightly,” she says. “This works around work and life schedules and is less harsh on the body so reduces the chance of injury.”
“When you do hill reps, make sure you’re working hard on the descents too,” says Anna-Marie. “During an ultra you’ll often power walk up the hills to conserve energy – at a certain gradient there’s no point in doing that weird out of breath joggy bounce walk/run as you’ll just tire yourself out."
“But it’s on the descents that your quads really get battered. Practicing running downhill means your muscles will get used to the demands being placed on them and you can work on your technique and confidence. I’m a massive fan of using poles too and it’s essential to test these out during your hill sessions.”
If your race is mainly flat and relatively short (in ultra terms) you may want to swap some hill sessions for tempo runs to get used to running at a faster pace for a sustained distance.
“Speed is one area that many ultra runners neglect,” says Anna-Marie, “but for me it’s an essential part of training. If you’re only doing steady-state runs then you’re in danger of getting stuck at a certain pace, not getting faster and not building strength.
Speed training offers a load of benefits. It allows you to work on your technique and improve efficiency otherwise known as running economy. It also avoids repetitive stress injuries, increases your maximal aerobic capacity and aerobic pace and improves your ability to manage lactate as well as other metabolic advantages. If you’re not sure where to start join a running club, most offer structured speed sessions.”
6. Don’t forget the strength and conditioning
“A lot of running comes from the core”, says Anna-Marie. “You need strength from your core, back and glutes to get the correct high-hipped and tall running position. As soon as your shoulders, chest and core start to slump it makes breathing difficult. You can’t drive the arms backwards and forwards, which impacts on leg cadence and foot placement. This affects your speed, energy efficiency and increases the potential for injury."
“I’d recommend a minimum of two 20-minute strength and conditioning sessions a week – if you can do three or more even better – working on the core, legs, glutes and stabilising muscles around the knees and ankles, the muscles you’re going to use most running off road.”
7. Include cross training
Running large volumes can take its toll on the body so you may want to include some cross training in place of one of your runs. “I run four times a week and then do a couple of other cardiovascular sessions like cycling or swimming,” says Anna-Marie. “You’re still getting that aerobic effect but with less impact on the body."
“Long hikes are also good. The divide between some of the long-distance walking and ultra events is a very fine line and you’ll probably spend some of your race walking so it’s a great form of training and a good way to get time on your feet."
“Yoga is also a good way to add additional flexibility, breathwork and coordination into your programme. There are many different types of yoga to try, although I’d recommend finding an instructor who understands running.”
8. Build mental toughness
“Mindset is a massive part of ultra-running”, says Anna-Marie, “you can talk yourself in and out of anything so it’s important to have various strategies to get you through when your body is screaming at you to stop.”
Many ultra runners rely on chunking – breaking the race down into smaller segments, such as the next five miles or until the next aid station so the distance doesn’t seem too overwhelming – some have mantras or motivational quotes written on their hands, for Anna-Marie it’s about positivity.
“I spend a lot of time checking in with how I’m feeling and making sure I’m being kind to myself. I think about when I last ate, when I drank and encouraging myself. I also draw a lot of motivation from my support network, knowing my husband, family and coach are all rooting for me and the time and energy – both I and they – have invested in this race. You want to do yourself proud and do everyone else proud too.”
9. Taper time
It’s important to go into your race feeling rested so two-to-four weeks before your race you should gradually ease back the running volume – this is not the time to add in that long run you missed.
Tapering allows your muscle glycogen stores to return to their optimum level, gives your muscles and connective tissues chance to repair and gives any hormones and metabolic enzymes that have been depleted during heavy training, time to return to normal levels.
Studies show those who include a taper period before a race have a three per cent performance improvement – it might not sound much but that’s around five to 10 minutes over the marathon distance.
Anna-Marie also suggests this is the time to really dial into your hydration and nutrition to ensure you go into your race fully fuelled (more about that later).
10. Take time for recovery
You’ve done your race, so you head to the pub have a few pints to celebrate and then go straight back to work the following day, right? Nope. Recovery is one of the most overlooked parts of ultra-running but you’ve just put your body under massive strain. Recovery is vitally important if you want to get back out training sooner rather than later.
“Recovery after an ultra-marathon can take longer than you think,” says Anna-Marie. “And it’s not just a physical tiredness it can be a mental and an emotional tiredness too – you can feel completely and utterly drained. Give yourself a bit of down time, take a few days off work if you can, and try to ensure you don’t have too many big commitments in the following days."
“Ultra-running can become all-encompassing so I use the time in recovery to look after myself, chill out, sleep, relax and eat well. I then have some time catching up with people who I might have neglected during heavier training periods.
“As for running again, that depends on the distance and challenges of the race but a lot of it comes down to listening to your body. Sometimes after a 100 miler or multi-stage event I won’t run for three or four weeks and I won’t want to. If you do go for a gentle jog and you feel like it’s too soon, don’t push through, you’ll just get an even deeper fatigue, which takes even longer to recover from.”
How to eat for an ultra-marathon
You’ve put all the training in don’t ruin it with poor nutrition. When covering longer distances it’s not just what you put in your body during the race that counts but how you fuel for energy before and recovery after. And in our world that means getting plenty of good quality, real food into your everyday diet and the foods you eat to power your training.
Two weeks before your race
In the days and weeks leading up to your race, think carefully about what you eat and drink. Try and eat real, nutritious foods including fruit and vegetables which are full of antioxidants to help protect your cells from damage and tissue trauma caused by excessive exercise. Also eat plenty of protein found in lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds and legumes to help your muscles repair from the training load you’ve put them under.
In the days before ensure you’re taking on carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores for energy during the race – wholegrains, fruit, vegetable and legumes are all good sources.
Veloforte bars make good healthy snacks as they’re 100% natural and contain both performance-enhancing carbs from nutrient-rich sources and essential proteins. They taste fantastic too.
- Wake up and go long: The Veloforte Zenzero bars are high in gingerol with powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These bars have the perfect mix of carbs and a taste that’s fresh, lively and warming, great for early mornings or during races when you want to wake up the senses and run without the dreaded nausea.
- Beat taste fatigue and get hydration support: Veloforte Avanti bars deliver 60mg of sodium. That’s not only a great treat for taste buds that might want a change from the sweet stuff, it’s also a great way to replace lost sodium, an essential electrolyte that’s crucial for hydration.
- Get a kick when the fatigue starts to hit: Each Veloforte Pronto bar is designed specifically to improve alertness & concentration, enhancing your ability to work hard for longer. Each bar contains 80mg of natural caffeine, the equivalent of a double espresso and is excellent deep into longer ultras and training runs where you need a lift.
This is also the time to think about hydration. In the days leading up to the race ensure you’re drinking plenty of fluids so you’re fully hydrated on the start line – your wee should be a pale straw colour. Chugging down a couple of litres the morning before is too late as it’ll just be flushed out by your kidneys.
The night before your race eat something you know agrees with you and isn’t going to cause any unwanted gastro issues (such as the dreaded runners' trots) on race day. Try and avoid anything overly spicy or too high in fibre if you want to avoid multiple loo stops.
On race morning
To give your body time to digest, aim to eat your main meal two to four hours before the start – too close and you could be on the start line feeling heavy and sluggish.
When you eat and what you find easy to digest is something to practice before those long training runs. Many runners find porridge, which is a relatively low-fibre high-carb option, ideal but now is not the time to try something new. Drink little and often but try and avoid that sloshy over full feeling.
During the race
One of the beauties of ultra runs is that you get to eat all day! But what you can stomach varies greatly from runner to runner. Aid stations will have food available but it’s best to stick to what you know and have practiced during your long runs. Some runners favour real food, while others take on gels.
If you prefer something more solid, Anna-Marie uses Veloforte bars for energy but warns that your taste buds may change during the race so have a variety of sweet and savoury foods.
The Veloforte Mixed Bites packs can be a great way to ensure you’re eating little and often and adding variety at the same time.
You’ll also want to be replacing lost fluids and salts so ensure you’re drinking a mix of water and hydration powder with caffeine for added energy.
You may well not feel like eating anything immediately after crossing the finish line but many experts advise trying to get some carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores and protein to repair muscles into your body in the 30 minutes post exercise, as this is when your body is most receptive to glycogen.
In the days following you’re probably going to feel hungry – very hungry! While it’s tempting to eat anything and everything in sight make sure you include plenty of healthy, nutritious foods alongside the treats to replenish your glycogen stores and help your muscles repair and recover. You want to be ready to run your next ultra after all.