Everything to Know About Ultra-Marathons

Considering trying your first ultra? Here’s what to expect and how to adjust your training for success.

Marathons are the “giants” of all running races, the ultimate goal for many who venture into the sport of running. Some runners, however, set their sights higher still and consider tackling an ultra-marathon.

Marathons are the “giants” of all running races, the ultimate goal for many who venture into the sport of running. Some runners, however, set their sights higher still and consider tackling an ultra-marathon.

An ultra-marathon is any race distance greater than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. It can be anywhere from thirty miles, to 100km, to 100 miles, or even farther. Ultra-marathons are commonly planned along trail routes, but some are pavement races and others are timed track events.

As more and more runners give thought to trying their hand at an ultra-marathon, they are asking what changes they need to make to their training strategies. Some of these questions are addressed and answered in this article.

Should I Just Increase My Weekly Long Run?

One of the key differences between marathon and ultra-marathon training is the long run. When training for an ultra, runners must learn to get comfortable running on tired legs, so instead of running just one long run a week as they typically would in marathon training, they will run two back-to-back long runs with rest days either side. This strategy seems to work well for a lot of ultra-runners, but there are plans out there that include just one long run a week, and if that’s your preference, then go for it.

Also, the distance of long runs is less relevant for the ultra-marathon runner. Marathoners typically aim to achieve specific distances each week, but a key focus of ultra-marathon training is not so much mileage as it is “time on feet.” Hence many ultra-marathon plans prepare runners for their race by giving them weekly long run goals that progressively increase by time versus distance.

What About Speed Work?

While speed work is not emphasized in ultra-marathon training, it’s also not something that should be completely neglected. Your long runs will obviously be done at an easy (and sometimes very slow) pace, but you don’t want to get too comfortable running slow.

A good idea to ensure you maintain some speed is to add a mid-distance run during the week where you run part of the distance at marathon pace. For example, a nine-mile run could be broken up as follows:

  1. First three miles at easy pace
  2. Next three miles at marathon pace
  3. Final three miles at easy pace

What About Hill Workouts?

Speed workouts may not be a priority when it coms to ultra-marathon training, but hill workouts most definitely are, even when training for an race that takes place over a flat course. Hill workouts challenge the heart and lungs, increase leg strength and speed, and improve stamina. Doing intervals on hills versus flat ground also helps to reduce the risk of injury, since there is less impact on the joints and tendons.

This article by training 4 endurance provides a thorough explanation of the benefits of hill training, as well as examples of different types of hill workouts.

Should I Take Walk Breaks on My Long Runs?

This might be a difficult concept for marathon runners to grasp, but yes – learning to walk during long runs is not only okay in ultra-marathon training, but also recommended (at least for those new to ultra-marathons).

A lot of ultra-marathons take place over mountainous and technical terrain, at times forcing runners to slow to a walk in order to safely move forward. Alternatively, ultra-runners tend to take frequent walk breaks anyway, due to sheer exhaustion. It’s necessary therefore to train your body to recover quickly from walk breaks by comfortably transitioning back to running. The best way to do this is to practice on your long runs.

Are My Usual Sports Drinks and Gels Enough?

Sports drinks and gels mayget you through an ultra, but a much more sustainable option is to consume solid foods. Ultra-marathoners are out running for several hours at a time and calories are expended at a rapid rate. If calories are not adequately replenished, you will stand little chance of making it to the finish line. Worse still, it’s possible that you’ll also experience some physical discomfort resulting from stomach distress and/or dehydration.

The best way to conserve your glycogen stores is to start consuming carbohydrates as soon as you start running. Some carbohydrate-rich food and drinks to experiment with on long runs include energy bars, dried fruits, pretzels, bagels, sandwiches, boiled potatoes and sweet potatoes, candies, and your choice of sports drink. Don’t break the golden rule though of trying a new food on race day; it’s best to eat and drink what you know your body is already accustomed to.

I’m sure some of you may be thinking at this point that it must be difficult eating solid foods while running, but remember – walking is okay! Take advantage of your walk breaks by choosing those moments as opportunities to also eat and drink.

How Am I Going to Carry the Extra Foods and Drinks?

A support crew often assists elite ultra-marathoners by providing pacing assistance and transporting foods, drinks, and gear. The average competitor on the other hand, is responsible for getting him- or herself to the finish line with no help at all. As such, a good-quality hydration pack will enable a runner to carry a decent amount of food, liquid, and other essential items. It’s best to practice running with your pack (fully loaded) on most of your long runs, and to resist asking family members or friends to meet you at designated locations with food and drinks.

Am I Fit Enough?

If you’ve already run a few marathons, then you’re certainly fit enough to run an ultra. A more important question to ask yourself is if you have enough mental strength? Most ultra-marathoners will tell you that it’s not physical strength that carries them through the final stages of a race, but pure grit and a strong mind.

One of my ultra-runner friends shared with me a strategy that she employs when training for races. She sets out on hours-long mountain climbs by herself. The point of these solo mountain climbs is not so much the physical challenge, but the challenge of being out in the wilderness alone. Unlike marathon races where you almost always have runners beside you, in front of you, and behind you, ultra-marathon races are so long that runners eventually spread out and often end up running alone. It’s good to get comfortable running for long periods of time without anyone else around.

Remember, there are no hard and fast or right and wrong rules when it comes to ultra-marathon training. Just like marathon races, you’ll learn from each experience and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. One thing you can be sure of though, is that you’ll have a much greater chance of accomplishing your goals if you are consistent in your training. If you’re not sure that you have the time or the will to fully commit, then wait until you do.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.