For many runners who have successfully completed one or more marathons, moving up to an ultra is the next logical step. An ultra is any run longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles, and typically is 50K, 50 miles, 60K or 100 miles. Most runners start with the 50K distance, or 31 miles, and gradually progress to the longer distances. Listed below are basic tips that will help you successfully finish your first ultra.
When training for your first ultra, allow at least three months to gradually increase your weekly mileage. If you can allow six months, that is even better. Ideally, when you begin your training program you will be running at least 25 to 30 miles a week. The goal is to increase the weekly mileage to 40 to 60 miles.
Training for an ultra is similar to training for a marathon in that your weekly runs consist of speed work, a mid-long run and a long, slow run. Speed work may be track workouts, hill repeats or tempo runs.
The key is the long run, which should be done as closely as possible under the same conditions as the race you have chosen. If you will be running a trail ultra, the long run should be on trails. If the race features a lot of hills, the long run should include hills. Run easy the day before the long run, and take off the day after the long run.
If your daily runs up to this point have been in the 4-to-6-mile range, the long run should be around 10 to 12 miles. If your runs have been in the 8-to-10-mile range, the long run should be 14 to 16. The goal is to work up to a long run of 20 to 25 miles. The last long run should be two to three weeks prior to the day of the event. If you are able to get in two runs of 20 to 25 miles, that is even better.
Ultras are different from marathons in that walking is considered not only okay, but desirable. Not even the elite ultra runners run every step of the way. Walking gives your muscles a chance to rest, and allows you a chance to regain your breath and regulate your heart rate.
Practice walking during the long run. Walk all of the uphills, and run the downhills and flat sections. Another option is to practice walking by time. For example, run 20 minutes and walk two minutes. Keep in mind that the walking is not a stroll, but a power walk, ideally at a 15- to 16-minute mile pace.
Learning to eat
The most difficult aspect of training for your first ultra may be learning to eat while you are running. Ultra runners are on the course longer than in a marathon, and if the body does not get refueled, it will shut down.
The time to practice eating on the go is during the long training run. If possible, try the same items that will be available at the race you have chosen to enter. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips and gels are common, as are electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade or Heed. It’s better to find out in practice what sits well in your stomach and what doesn’t, rather than finding out during your ultra.
Depending on the terrain of the ultra you have chosen, you may want to buy shoes designed specifically for trails that have lots of roots and rocks. If it is not a technical trail, or if it is a road ultra, road shoes will do just fine. As when running shorter distances, do not wear a new pair of shoes for the first time the day of the event. Break them in ahead of time.
Because aid stations can be 4 to 5 miles apart in an ultra, it is generally recommended that the runner carry fluids. This can be bottles tucked into a belt or fanny pack, a hydration pack on the back or a hand-held water bottle. The fluid can be water or an electrolyte drink. Again, the long run is the best time to practice which method works best for you.
Following these basic tips when training for your first ultra will enable you to comfortably finish the distance. You will then achieve something that only 1 percent of runners accomplish: You will be an ultra runner.