If I’ve learned anything through running, it’s that I’m always looking for the next challenge. It’s a common trait among those of us who decide to run, competitively or for fun. That’s why after the second marathon is under your belt, you look for more. A race abroad, a BQ or a PR, and for some of us, a longer race. The 26.2 miles of quad crashing running during a marathon just isn’t enough anymore. We want to run farther. Even though most of your friends call you crazy, you decide to go for the Ultramarathon. You won’t see them for 16 weeks anyway.
So, you embark on the journey to go past the 26.2 miles. You decide to race the next distance up and try for the 50K. Ultra running is about time spent on your feet, not the speed. It is about aerobic endurance, and finishing the course. It is about dedication and mastering your control over the mental and physical limitations of your own body.
Training for an Ultra is an individual journey. The perfect experience will come from your own trial and error during your training. Understanding your nutrition and hydration needs can only come from experimenting with them during training. As you develop the ability to run well past fatigue and adapt to the increased mileage, you’ll be able to better gauge what your body needs to keep going under different situations. This is invaluable on race day and will be the key to your goal, which is to finish the course.
After trying a couple of different training programs, I’ve developed some recommended guidelines when training for an Ultra. Below are my recommendations:
Train on the terrain you’ll race on.
Since most 50K races are mostly trail running, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve logged some miles on trails. You don’t have to cut out road running altogether, but be sure to integrate trail running about twice per week. I’ve found that running trails that contain hills prepare me more appropriately. They hone my skills and make me feel more powerful.
You should run consecutive long runs per week. Usually these are on Saturday and Sunday. It’s not necessary to work up to running the full distance of the race in a long run. Focus more on the length of time you are able to run instead of the distance. Run that length over the course of your two long run days. In other words, if you plan the race to take you 9 hours, you’d want to work up to running 4.5 hours on each long run day.
Set realistic expectations
Ultra Marathon times will be longer. You should account for slowing to save your legs on hills and slowing to navigate unknown trails. The goal is not to run fast and hard, it’s to build the endurance and cardiovascular capacity to run the distance before you.
Run the hills.
Most Ultra Marathons have hills in them, so it makes sense to prepare by practicing. Running hills during training has more benefits than just the age old “practice makes perfect,” on the hill climbs. The strength and power gained from running hills will help you run faster with less effort in other parts of the race. This is vital to save energy and fatigue. If you’re a new runner, add hills one day during the week and into your long runs. If you have been running for a while, adding hills to long runs and some hill drills on a short day should suffice. The strength you gain from training with hills translates directly into endurance for those last few miles.
Cross training is used to further your training with an exercise less strenuous on the joints. It will provide you with a low impact option that will still increase your strength and aerobic endurance. You can push yourself harder without the risks of damage to your body. Try cycling to recover after a long run or alternate a long cycle ride with a short run.
Try out your gear
Choose a style of hydration pack and try it out. Run with it while training and get comfortable using it. Pull on those clothes you finally chose and use them on a short run day. Try out different types of nutrition, learn which gels you like and what foods get you over the hump. Experiment during your short runs. Use your long runs as trial runs for your gear. Make your decisions based on performance and comfort.
Once you’ve made a decision, buy multiples. You may not be able to find them again when they need to be replaced. You don’t want to risk having to run without tested gear. It could end your race before it begins.
As most ultras are run over variable terrain it’s no surprise that most runners opt for a trail shoe, although some runners will run in a cushioned shoe.
Gung ho is a no go.
Even though the start of this race is the moment you’ve been waiting for, don’t let your adrenaline make you go out too hard. Play it smart and stick to a moderate pace. There are so many miles ahead to make up that time. Training using the slow start technique will help your mind not over power your muscle memory.
Use a Mantra
Mantras are great. They help you navigate through the emotional ups and downs that is an Ultra Marathon. This can be anything. A phrase or even just a single word that motivates you.
Ultra Running is not for the casual runner. It takes dedication, hard work and an incredible ability to listen to your own body. It takes perseverance and full acceptance of setbacks and failures. It takes more mental and physiological adaptations than any other sport.
If you follow these tips and put in the effort to train your body appropriately, the reward is phenomenal. The endorphin highs you experience from running such a great distance and pushing yourself to your maximum potential send your love for running into high gear. Not to mention the accomplishment you’ll feel when you finish.