“Are you running for the whole race?” is the most common question I get when people find out I’m an ultrarunner. It’s true that I participate in races that see me on my feet for 12-plus hours at a time, sometimes days straight, but I Do you run intermittently? The correct answer is no.
Even elite athletes walk ultras. Legendary runner Dean Karnazes, who has completed the 100-mile Western States Ultra multiple times, is an advocate of mountain walking. And the mighty Jasmine Parris who holds the overall course record in the 268 mile UK Spine Race, powers run through many categories.
Ultras are a very different beast from marathons. Personal bests, pace per minute, and positive splits have no place on the ultra trail. For most runners, the goal of an ultra is often simply the finish—the journey rather than the time.
By definition, an ultra is a distance over 26.2 miles. In reality it can range from 27 miles to 3,100 miles in a single or multi-day event. The field of ultrarunning is evolving right now. According to a report by Run Repeat, participation in the sport has grown 1,676% over the past two decades, with more than 600,000 people running ultras each year. And more women are running ultras, with 23% of participants being women, up from just 14% in 1997.
So how do you train for an ultra and overcome the marathon distance?
Here are my top four ultrarunning tips to help you put 26.2 miles in the rear view
1. Speed like a turtle
The first thing to shake off is a dynamic mindset. Running a marathon is often a watch-watching exercise as you constantly check your pace and try to stay on track. You probably have a goal in mind and want to hit sub-five, four or even three hours.
It won’t work on an ultra. Most ultramarathons are off-road and the terrain can be highly variable and incredibly technical. You might be crossing rivers, scrambling over rocks or navigating tree roots. And just when you thought you could pick up the pace for a long downhill stretch, you discover that the ground is treacherously slippery. Speed soon becomes irrelevant as it is impossible to keep an even speed.
A much better gauge felt effort, and you want to keep it easy, about five out of 10. The longer the Ultra the longer you will need to hold off for the first few hours. Stopping running in the beginning because you feel great will pay you big in the long run. A slow and steady tortoise approach will see you outpace the hasty hare at later stages.
You’re inevitably going to get lost at some point, even on a well-marked route. This is even more likely during training, especially when you are discovering a route for the first time. That’s part of the fun of ultrarunning so always make extra time.
2. Get your fuel right
A common expression among athletes is that an ultra is an eating race not a running race. Eating little and often is the best strategy and the same goes for hydration. Get your fueling wrong, and after six or more hours on your feet, you’re likely to convulse, vomit, or even collapse. A general rule of thumb is to consume 40 grams to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour for the first four hours, and then increase it to 70 grams to 90 grams per hour. It’s common to see a line of ultrarunners walking up the hill while snacking on sandwiches, chocolate bars or fruit.
About 500ml (about 17 ounces) of water and/or electrolyte drinks should be consumed every hour. This will vary according to your build and external factors such as weather conditions.
Planning your fueling is the most important preparation you can make. Test products and real foods during training and understand what you need. This can be a combination of quick sugar hits like candy or gel, slow-release foods like flapjacks or bananas, as well as salty foods like peanuts and chips. During training, make sure you carry enough water or know where you can fill up. The Refill app is a great resource for finding free water supplies.
3. Don’t skip strength training
When I completed my first ultra (six loops of a five-mile forest course), my left leg completely locked up on the final loop and I could barely move. Diagnosed with iliotibial tract (IT band) syndrome, I thought my running career was over. But my physiotherapist was much more optimistic, and encouraged me to incorporate strength training into my running program. It completely changed my perspective. I now train strength religiously, and have never had an injury problem while running multi-day events.
Running long distances puts enormous stress on the body, but proper strength work will offset this and ultimately strengthen your muscles and bones. Strength training cuts sports injuries by less than a third and overuse injuries by half, British Journal of Sports Medicine.
4. Find an ongoing distraction
Being out in the wilderness for hours can be exhilarating, but it can also be extremely isolating. It’s important to find a way to distract the mind, especially in the final stages of a run, which, quite frankly, can be quite uncomfortable.
Having a running partner to chat with or share painful silences can be a godsend. Both of you are likely to experience low energy, but it usually happens at different times so you can encourage each other and offer words of support or an alternative snack.
If you like to run alone, find ways to clear your mind by being in tune with nature or keeping your mind occupied by working through non-running related topics. And if you’re running, break up the distance by focusing on running from checkpoint to checkpoint rather than focusing on the total distance.
If you want to listen to something, make sure you download enough music, podcasts or audiobooks to last the (long) duration of your run. This is where having an extra battery to charge your phone comes in handy. Running Spotify for more than three hours completely drains my phone, especially when I’m constantly checking my OS Map app so I always carry an extra battery.
But most of all relax, take it easy and let the stresses of the day melt away as you rack up the miles.