Ultra-Marathon Training Guide
In this guide, let’s get you ready to tackle events longer than the marathon. As you know, “ultras” take on all shapes and sizes. There are road 50 kilometer runs that aren’t too different than racing a marathon just with 5 more miles added on. And on the other extreme, there are 100+ mile races over arduous terrain with inclement weather and high altitude.
As a result, your training must address not only the factors for success (outlined below) but also the type of course you’re racing on.
Let’s dive in and discuss all things ultra.
Factors for Success
It doesn’t matter if you’re running a flat, smooth 50K or the Western States (100 mile) Endurance Run, the factors for success are similar. Yes. There are slight modifications from one to the other but overall, here are the items you need to improve for ultra success.
Factor #1: Leg Durability
The first factor is leg durability. While many runners think about cardiovascular fitness when training for a race, long races like ultra-marathons are more dependent on the ability of your legs to handle the pounding across the race than on your cardiovascular fitness. After all, the average marathoner takes 35,000 to 45,000 steps during the race so imagine how many steps you take in an ultra! You can have great cardiovascular fitness but if your legs can’t handle the pounding then you’ll hit the wall and struggle to finish.
A key aspect of training is to develop legs that can handle the distance. My training achieves this in four ways – sustainable and consistent weekly mileage, long runs, back to back long runs, race-specific long runs (over similar terrain as your race) and specialty leg strengthen exercises like in the available Marathon Legs program.
Factor #2: Mental Toughness
I cannot say enough about this factor. While we love to talk about the physical training, a lot of ultra-marathon training is to condition your mind to the extreme mental suffering that occurs in the race. It’s just really hard to run for hours and hours and it gives the mind a lot of time to either be in a positive mindset or have lots of pity parties.
As a result, you need to be one tough runner to really nail an ultra race. I’ve seen it in the pros I coach as well as everyday runners like you and me. If you have a strong mind, particularly in the second half, you can battle the fatiguing feelings your brain is throwing at you instead of what many runners do and that is slow down later in the race. And trust me, there will be periods of the race where you feel excited and motivated and others where you are feeling down. The training must help you develop strategies to deal with the down periods, so you keep moving forward.
Factor #3: Nutrition/Fueling
One of the toughest parts of ultra-marathoning is fueling. You’ve probably heard that you have plenty of fat within your body to power you for hours and hours but even at ultra pace, you also burn carbohydrates and those carbohydrate stores (called glycogen) are limited. Plus, the brain needs fuel too so you’re fueling not just for your muscles but also for your brain. A happy brain likes to keep pushing. An unhappy brain sends lots of fatigue messages. Fueling helps keep your brain happy.
There are about as many fueling strategies as there are runners so it may take some experimentation to find what works for you. That said, here is my article on fueling to give you a head start on your fueling plan. You’ll need to experiment a lot to find what works for you in different conditions. Some fueling might work great in cool conditions, but you may need another method in hot conditions. Some might work great early in the race yet a different strategy is needed later in the race. Experimentation is the key to dialing it in.
Factor #4: Equipment
Equipment can be a huge performance booster or limiter in ultra-marathons. Get it right and it’s smooth sailing. Get it wrong and it can be a tough day at the races.
For shorter races, the concern is usually just for shoes and apparel (and maybe hydration). But for ultras, you may need to change clothes multiple times. You may need to change footwear (and socks) multiple times. You may need to carry more fluids/nutrition for a part of the race then less for another part. You may need hiking poles for the steep climbs but not need them for flatter sections. And don’t forget about lighting. Many ultra races involve running in the dark and that’s another critical piece of the puzzle for ultra success.
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