10 Ultra Tips for Moving from Marathon to Ultra
An event that was once seemingly relegated to an older subset of the running community who had long since passed their glory days of running, ultramarathon participation has spiked in recent years, leading to younger participants, a higher percentage of women, and more beginner runners. Ultramarathons are increasingly becoming a “bucket list” item for runners, and ten tips for moving up from the marathon to an ultra are discussed below.
Longer Long Runs
This first tip is perhaps the most obvious. When you begin to train for a longer race, it will be important to spend more time on your feet. However, does this mean you must run 80-90% of your race distance, the way marathoners do? The answer is no. For most athletes, a 25–50 mile peak long run will suffice for race distances ranging 50k to 100 miles. When a training cycle is approached correctly, there is no need to complete runs that are similar in distance to the race.
© Blasbike | Dreamstime
Back to Back Long Runs
When training for a marathon, the long run is given a place of prominence on the weekend, typically sandwiched between easy days. However, when making the move to an ultra it is important to help your body grow accustomed to moving forward while tired. Therefore, a common training tactic is to run back-to-back long runs, such as a 30-mile run on a Saturday followed by 20 miles on Sunday. The goal of these runs is not to set any speed records, but rather to spend a lot of time on tired legs – exactly what you will be doing during your race!
Here’s what happens when you get out of shape and how your body responds – it will help you understand why you need more time on your tired legs.
Buy Quality Gear
Training for an ultramarathon will require slightly more gear than your typical race. One of the most important items to purchase, if you haven’t already, is a hydration pack. These are available in a number of styles and sizes, from a small handheld device to a backpack that can carry enough water to last throughout an entire long run. Depending on your hydration pack of choice, a running belt may also be beneficial, which is similar to an aerodynamic fanny pack that can hold phone, ID, keys, gels, and other necessities.
A headlamp is often needed during ultras, especially if the race is set to take place overnight. Finally, if your ultramarathon is held on trails, consider purchasing a pair of trail shoes that will stabilize your ankles and protect your feet when navigating technical terrain. Don’t forget that spending more time outdoors may require more clothes, as well. A lightweight jacket that can be balled up and stored in a pocket is indispensable in many regions.
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Balance Quality and Quantity
A common misconception when it comes to ultramarathon training is that running a lot of long, slow miles is the only factor of training. While it is true that the ratio between quantity and quality may shift slightly in favor of quantity, relative to marathon training, it is still important to incorporate speed work into your weekly runs.
Although long runs should be given precedence in the training schedule, make time for one workout a week that incorporates tempo runs (i.e. 8–10 miles at marathon pace) or VO2 max work (i.e. 6 x mile at half marathon pace). By improving aerobic strength, ultramarathon pace will feel easy by comparison and your body will more efficiently convert glycogen and fat stores into usable energy.
Train in Race Conditions
If the race you are training for is going to be held on hilly, rocky, or technical trails, it is important to get as much experience as possible training in those conditions. Oftentimes, ultra runners need to be creative in order to practice the terrain. If the race is going to be hilly but you live in flat lands, consider using a treadmill, stair master, or even a parking garage to train the proper muscles.
© Blasbike | Dreamstime
Learn Proper Pacing
The longer your race, the more important that pacing becomes. A top rookie mistake among first time ultra runners is to run too fast in the first half of the race by charging the uphills. Even the most elite ultra competitors reserve their energy on inclines, knowing that it is far more efficient to power hike than run, especially on tough terrain.
Be Open to Community
One of the biggest differences between running a major marathon, such as New York or Chicago, and competing in an ultramarathon is that the community aspect is much different. Whereas a major marathon is filled with a combination of nerves, competitiveness, excitement, and chasing time standards that can make the running community appear cutthroat and standoffish at times, you will experience the exact opposite at an ultra. Instead of a race, approach an ultra as a celebration of running with an incredible party at the end.
Change Your Mindset
If you are moving from marathon to ultra, it’s important to change the way you think about distance. Whereas a 20-mile run may have seemed long in the past you will need to convince yourself that a 30–40-mile run is similar in effort. Ultramarathon training is the ultimate exercise in mental fortitude, so tricks such as visualization, reframing, and mantras will be very important.
© Winnietam | Dreamstime
Incorporate Strength Work
What does it take to run an extra 5 – 74 miles beyond a marathon? When it comes down to it, one of the biggest physiological factors is strength. Stabilization and core strength will be extremely important, followed by overall body conditioning. This additional strength work will help you remain injury-free throughout training while also propelling you through difficult terrain on the course.
Live the Lifestyle
Finally, when training for an ultra it is important to embody the entire lifestyle of a runner. Avoid the pitfall of engaging in unhealthy eating, sleeping, or recovery habits as a reward for the hard work towards your goals. In reality, the more miles you run the more important the “little things” become in order to stay healthy.
You need the drive to make it happen. You need to see yourself at the finish line months before the actual race and you need a well-defined strategy to complete an ultramarathon successfully. My advice? Start with a 40- or 50-miler. Choose the toughest one and stay on your feet no matter what happens. I needed six months to go from marathon to an ultramarathon, mostly because of my hectic schedule, but I’m pretty sure an average runner can do it in less than four months.
Anyone can finish a marathon without proper nutrition, but things change when you increase distances. Learn about nutrition and plan everything in advance.
Be patient during your first ultramarathon. Begin conservatively. Ultras can frequently be a battle of attrition, but they’ll teach you so much about both running and life.