So You Entered Your First Ultramarathon…

Run

, by Emma-Kate Lidbury

Photography by: michelangeloop

Ultrarunning is a sport that has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity since the COVID pandemic—and it’s a trend that looks set to continue based on data from Strava’s 2023 annual report. Running, trail running, and hiking were all in the top-10 most uploaded activities. And according to the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunning), participation in the sport has increased by 345% over the last decade.

So if you’re one of the many folks who has recently jumped into the ultra scene and you’ve signed up for your first race, there’s a good chance you have more questions than you have answers. How many miles should you be running each week? Do you need a coach? How do you fuel one of these things? And what kind of gear do you need? Rest assured, we’ve got all the info. 

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Training for Your First Ultra

Running can be a highly enjoyable sport, especially running on flowy singletrack trails miles from civilization. Running can also be an incredibly cruel and corrosive sport if you try to do too much too soon and wind up injured. For this reason, it pays to have a plan leading into your race - and to stick to it. While many people like to invest in a coach to help with this, others prefer to DIY, especially if you have experience in training from other endurance sports. If you fall into the latter camp, here are a few guidelines we’ve found to be helpful.

Photography by: Maridav

1. Build a macro plan: Let’s say you have 16 weeks until your event. Assess where you are now, and where you’d like to be for race day, and then map out a “big-picture” plan to help you connect these dots and shore up any weaknesses. This could mean you want a four-week block that focuses on building elevation or a four-week block building volume while also honing technical skills. Once you have this macro plan it’ll help you build the week-to-week plan and dial in specifics.

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2. Get race specific: Study the course profile and make sure your training is high in specificity. For example, if you’re preparing for Leadville 100, you’re going to want to spend some time training at elevation. You’re also going to want to get your body used to climbing and descending and building the necessary run-specific strength. Of course, if you’re running a relatively flat 50K at sea level then your training approach will need to be entirely different.

It can be very easy to fall into the trap of just running long, slow, steady miles when training for ultras, but not only can this get tedious, it also means you’re not training efficiently.

3. Mix it up: It can be very easy to fall into the trap of just running long, slow, steady miles when training for ultras, but not only can this get physically and mentally tedious, it also means you’re not training as efficiently as you could. Be sure to blend volume with intensity, as well as hill repeats, strength workouts, power hikes, and cross-training, such as swimming and cycling, to help maximize recovery without the high impact of running. Your body and mind will thank you for it!

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4. Maximize the weekends: Unless you’re a full-time trail runner it’s highly likely you’re going to be balancing training with work and/or family commitments, so you’re going to need to get creative when it comes to fitting training in. A great way to do this is to use the weekends as your high-volume training time, typically making Friday more of a cross-training day before hitting longer runs back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday. For example, a 12-15-mile run on Saturday followed by a power hike Saturday afternoon, then a 6-10-mile easy run on Sunday. (Note: only tackle these distances when you’ve built up to them. It’s strongly advised not to increase distance more than 10% week-on-week).  

With the above in mind, here’s a sample training week:

Monday
Rest day
Tuesday
6-10 miles easy/aerobic
Wednesday
Tempo/higher-intensity session, e.g., 3 miles easy, 15 x 1 min. fast, 1 min. easy, 3 miles easy
Thursday
6-10 miles easy/aerobic
Friday
Rest or cross-train or 3-6 miles easy (depending on energy/legs)
Saturday
12-18 miles social/smooth (or can be broken down as 12 miles morning, power hike afternoon)
Sunday
6-10 miles (to include some short hill reps/run-specific strength)

Fueling for Ultras

While some endurance sports can seem full of rules when it comes to fueling, ultrarunning is one of those beautiful sports that comes with next to no expectations on the fueling front. Want to eat a slice of pizza or a burrito mid-race? As long as you’ve got a crew member to hand it to you (and your stomach can handle it) then go for it! 

Given the lower intensity of ultrarunning, it’s far easier to eat on the fly, and it’s also advisable to add in more fats and proteins than you would for a marathon or a triathlon, for example, which would be more carbohydrate-focused. 

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That said, you’ll want to test everything in your longer training runs to see what works for you. The inescapable truth, though, is that if you’re planning to be out there for many, many hours you simply can’t do it without adequate fueling. While it’s certainly possible to make it through a half-marathon or marathon under-fueled, the same is not true of an ultra event. Although everyone is different, a general rule of thumb is consuming 3.5 to 4 food calories per kilogram of body weight per hour.

Runners at the start of an ultramarathon. Photography by: Montserrat Alejandre

Must-Have Gear for Ultras

Nutrition aside, there are only a few key items we’d consider must-haves when it comes to ultrarunning: 

  • Shoes: These should obviously be geared towards the terrain you’ll be running on and you’ll want to test them in longer training runs to ensure they’re comfortable and right for you. There are an increasing number of shoes that are versatile enough for trail and road running, but typically speaking if you’re racing on trails then you’ll want your tried-and-trusted trail shoes that provide good traction, stability, and comfort. 

  • Hydration vest: An essential for longer training runs and races, a good vest should fit snugly and almost feel like it’s not there. Most vests come with a bladder for water and a myriad of pockets where you can stash fuel and clothing. 

  • GPS watch: If it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen, so how do you plan to log your run/race without a GPS watch? Joking aside, they’re a handy item to have to help with navigation as well as monitoring effort/distance/time. 

Photography by: Sports Photos

The Importance of a Good Crew

While some races are short enough that you won’t need a crew, most events longer than 50K will be best tackled with a trusty and reliable crew. Depending on race rules, this can be a small number of people who meet you at dedicated aid stations and their tasks can be varied: helping you refuel, tending to blisters or chafing, helping you change gear, offering quick massage, or simply providing some much-needed hugs and/or emotional support. 

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At some longer races you can also have pacers join you in the latter stages of the course, especially when you might be struggling with fatigue, hallucinations, and more. Word from the wise: Be sure to choose your crew carefully and ensure they’re friends/trusted people whom you can rely on and you know well. Ideally one or more of them will have some ultra experience. A great crew can truly help lift you up; a terrible crew will do the opposite! 

Problem-solving on the fly is arguably one of the biggest mental, physical, and emotional challenges of long-distance racing (aside from the minor issue of covering the distance, of course)

Preparing for Race Day

One of the things that many ultra endurance athletes enjoy about being out there for so long on race day is the fact that the longer you’re out there, the more chance there is that something will go wrong. Problem-solving on the fly is arguably one of the biggest mental, physical, and emotional challenges of long-distance racing (aside from the minor issue of covering the distance, of course). We tell you this so you can prepare yourself accordingly if you’re typically less MacGyver-inclined when it comes to problem solving. 

Prepare yourself for all kinds of weather, for getting lost or going off course, for needing to pivot entirely from the fueling plan you’d so carefully put together, and for some kind of GI distress that’ll inevitably kick in at the most inopportune time. Approach race day with an adventurous and optimistic mindset, knowing that you’ve prepared body and mind as best you can, and everything else? Well, that’s what you signed up for.