Go the distance: Training tips for finishing your first ultra-marathon

February 21st, 2017 by | Posted in Canadian Trails, CRM Training Plans, Runs & Races, Trail Gear, Trail Races, Trail Running, Training | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

ultrarunning on a trail


An ultra-marathon is any event longer than the traditional marathon distance—42.2K. Some are as “short” as 50K while others are 100K, 100 miles (161K) or even more. And while running an ultra may seem a daunting task, with proper training and an emphasis on fueling, you too can become an ultra runner.

RELATED: Canadian Gary Robbins recaps his experience at the epic Barkley Marathon

Training for your first ultra might seem like an impossible feat but with the right approach, it is an attainable goal for most runners. Here are a few things to consider when planning and preparing for your ultra debut:

Start “short”

Signing up for a 100 miler for your first ultra is probably asking for trouble. There are a growing number of events that offer multiple distances including 50K, 50 miles (80K) and 100K which are ideal for a first-timer. Or you could consider joining an ultra relay team and complete a shorter segment of a longer race. By starting with a shorter event, you’ll get valuable experience regarding both how to train as well as how to run the race and you’ll inevitably learn a lot along the way.

Mileage matters

Just like training for a longer road race like a half or marathon, more miles and more time spent on your feet will go far to simulate what it will feel like in an ultra race. There is no magic number you should aim to hit in training but know that the more mileage you run, for consecutive weeks (or months) will go far to ensuring a more positive experience. When building your mileage, be sure to do so safely. Aim to increase by no more than 10-15% of your previous week’s mileage. You could add an extra day or run to your current schedule or try adding 5-10 minutes to your existing runs.

Go long more often

The long run is without a doubt the most important run you will do when training for an ultra. It doesn’t have to be nearly as long as the race/event itself, but the longer you spend on your feet at a time, the better off you’ll inevitably be. Running a three, four or even five hour run as part of training will definitely provide the physical adaptations you’ll need to succeed. They also offer insights on how best to mentally prepare for the demands of an ultra-distance race. You might also consider going long more often–say twice a week rather than once–but do remember that these runs require more rest and recovery.

Insider tip: If the thought of running three, four or more hours at a time seems unfathomable, consider having a friend or family member drive you far from your home, leaving you no choice but to cover the distance to get back. Of course you should consider if, when and where you can stop along the way to fuel, hydrate and rest as needed.

Double up and go back-to-back

One of the best ways to simulate the type of fatigue and stress your body (and mind) will face during an ultra is to double up and run two (or more) times in one day. Try an early morning run and then another (longer) run later in the day after you’ve had a few hours to recover. You could even squeeze a run in the middle of the day to make it three in one day. Another way to get in more mileage in a short period is to run on back-to-back days. Weekends are ideal for this and also allow more time and attention to devote to recovery. Perhaps one of the best approaches to ultra training is to complete back-to-back long runs on two consecutive days. Try running for as much as two-to-three hours on one day, say on Saturday morning, and then follow it up with a further two-to-four hour run the very next day.

RELATED: Double up: When and why you should run twice a day

Simulate the terrain

Most ultra races are run on trails or at least a combination of road and trail. Many feature pronounced elevation change such as grueling climbs and quad-busting descents. It’s important you practice running and training on the type of terrain you will face in your ultra race to prepare both your body and your mind for what’s to come. Some trails are also rather technical so you’ll want to be prepared for that as well.

Trail runner
Trail runner Hilary Matheson. Photo: briceferre.com

Fueling is not only important; it’s essential

Longer runs and races require special attention to fueling and hydration. Ultra running is a prime example of this. You’ll need to ensure you stay adequately hydrated and fueled for the entire length of the run or else you could face some major problems such as dehydration, cramping and even nausea. Finding what works best for you is as much an art as it is a science so be sure to experiment well in advance of the race, practice this often in training and try to find the right types and timing of food/fuel that will allow you to go the distance. Also be sure to research what types of fuel and hydration products will be available at your event so that you can familiarize yourself and test them in advance.

Try a training camp

A great way to accelerate your training is to do a dedicated training block or if possible, attend a training camp. This could be a formal, organized camp run by experts, coaches, athletes or put on by an event, or else could be a more informal, do-it-yourself style camp where you commit to a week (or more) of hard, focused training. Completing a training camp will put you on the path to success, boost your motivation and help teach you the skills and knowledge needed to run your best.

Good gear gets you farther

Considering the amount of time you’ll spend on your feet and exposed to the elements, having appropriate gear is imperative for your comfort and for your success. You’ll want to choose your clothing, shoes (and socks), hydration and fueling aids and other accessories very carefully. You should test these out in training well before the race to ensure they fit and function properly and don’t cause problems such as blisters, chafing, biomechanical issues or others. Plan for the elements including for the wind, sun exposure, rain, snow, extreme heat or cold, or most likely, a combination of them all. Be sure to have extra gear on hand in case you need to switch/change at any point during the race.

Have a support crew

A support crew consists not only of coaches, advisors and fellow running mates/training partners, but also family, friends, pacers, navigators, cooks and more. Many events allow you to have pacers who run with you for sections of the race. You’ll also want a second set of eyes that is good at navigation to make sure you know where you’re going (especially important if running at night). Given the importance of fueling, you’ll want someone to not only remind you to eat and drink, but who forces you to do it (for your own good). Having others provide basic medical aid, other supportive roles and ongoing motivation and encouragement can make a big difference.

Training and racing an ultra is as much about the journey as it is about crossing the finish line. Try to enjoy the process and learn as much as you can along the way.