How To Prepare For Your First Ultra Marathon
“The only limitations are in your mind.” – Marshall Ulrich
At the starting line of my first 40-mile ultra running experience, in a state of frenetic nervousness, I asked myself the inevitable question: Why?
I’m fascinated by the thought of pushing both my mental and physical limits. The 40-mile ultra race seemed a new frontier.
But there was a more complex answer too. As I crouched at the start line, knotting my shoes at 4am in the morning, maybe it was a mad desire or the craving for success had brought me there, to Transfăgărășan, to take on the equivalent of 1 ½ marathons on the most beautiful road in the world.
What is an Ultra marathon?
Any race longer than the typical marathon distance of 26.2 miles.
This kind of endurance racing has become extremely popular lately. Ultra marathons can vary in length. You can find ultras of hundreds of miles long or you can register for a 50-miler. Let’s find out more about how to train for your first ultra marathon.
A successful first ultra is one where you:
- Finish the race
- Don’t get injured
- Have a lot of fun
The incredible transformation from beginner to experienced ultra runner is a gradual process that can’t be hurried. After running my first ultra, I couldn’t get in the car without help. I couldn’t descend or climb stairs without someone to lean on. It took me one week before I was able to walk without muscle and joint pain.
At the time of writing this, I have just finished running almost 100 miles in 1 week. That’s the equivalent of over 7 half-marathons in 7 days. I pursued this 7-day ultra-run in order to develop my discipline, and yet my muscles are not hurt and I’m walking easily.
The Process of Adaptation
Adaptation is a word used to describe the mental and physiological transformation that allows us to push beyond limits. It’s the fundamental motivation behind why we keep returning to “assess” our mental barriers by running faster and farther. Let’s be honest, without this little game – the fight to control your mind and push beyond what’s called normal – running would be extremely boring. We would never adapt to running ultras and we would basically stay at one fitness level until the end of time. I need to mention that our bodies don’t change overnight. It takes years of hard work to see big changes in our running fitness.
When I entered the world of running I quickly realized that one of my strengths was discipline. It took me 2 and a half months of training to complete my first half marathon. It took me another 4 months to prepare my first 26.2 mile race. I approached the sport gradually and increased my distances one week at a time. Many new-to-ultramarathon competitors try to cheat the process of adaptation by running too much, too soon and they often end up injured.
First time ultra marathon runners typically fall into 2 groups:
- Beginners – These competitors have been running for 1-2 years, however have found that they enjoy running. Propelled by friends and acquaintances who have completed their first 40-miler races, the curiosity hits them.
- Marathon runners – These are the people who finished a couple of marathons and are thrilled by the possibilities of the next experience. These guys love to race and set personal bests. They’ve successfully prepared for and completed a marathon and loved the incredible experience. These runners are seeking what lies past the marathon mark.
Marathon vs Ultra Marathon
Many runners have heard this: “If you can do a half marathon, you can do a full marathon.” It is generally accepted that the level of dedication required for both is similar and the training technique is the same — you simply train longer for a marathon. So… does this same rationale apply to the relationship between marathons and ultra marathons? Not exactly. The training for a marathon versus an ultra marathon has a couple of essential differences that one must consider before making the distance leap.
Ultras are less about speed and rather more about physical endurance. Obviously, in the same way as most races, ultras are timed and even have time cut-offs, however you will be hard pressed to discover two or more competitors sprinting to the end to be the winner. Moreover, there may be an hour or even more between the initial few finishers.
When covering distances of 30, 40, 50… .100 miles, the most efficient way for the human body to endure is to slow down. I have to say that training is no different. There is less requirement for short sprints, since truly long, slow runs that accustom your brain and body to hours of repetitive running, are by a wide margin more helpful in preparation for an ultra marathon.
Most marathon training programs have one weekly long run, preferably in the morning (as that is the point at which 99% of marathons start), and encourage adding just 1 mile to the distance at a time – up to a maximum of 20 miles. Ultras of 40 or more miles, however, require a minimum of one long run every week, and unless you have several years to prepare, you’ll have to add more than a mile every week. Despite the fact that its never a good idea to attempt and run the full race distance in training, you ought to go past 23 miles at least once. Some ultra runners will run a marathon or a shorter-distance ultra, like a 50k (32 miles) as a training run for a more challenging ultra.
Some people may have the capacity to complete a marathon without taking in anything other than a couple of glucose and electrolyte shots and water. However, failing to replenish your calories in an ultra marathon is not an option. Not just will you not reach the finish line, you are likely to suffer physical consequences like diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting, or passing out.
Remember, ultra marathoners are burning thousands of calories in a long training run or race; these calories provide the body with vitality and energy and must be replenished as quickly and efficiently as possible to maintain a proper calorie intake.
For a marathon, you ought to plan on wearing around 2 pounds of additional weight – the heaviness of a water cinch with a little pocket in it for your chosen nutritional supplement. Most ultra marathons have none or few support stations, so a runner will have to rely all the more on themselves.
A popular packing technique for ultra marathoners is a hydration pack, which has pockets and webbing for things like additional food, socks, gloves, a headlamp, Vaseline, a bandana and band-aids. Ultra runners can make things easier on themselves by doing long runs with their pack completely stuffed, so they can easily adjust their gait if necessary to make it more comfortable, and handle any chaffing problems because of maladjusted straps.
However, the most important training instrument required for a ultra marathon is the same as a marathon – dedication. If you have that, you’ll be okay.
Does the idea of running an ultra fill you with fear?
99% of all runners will never attempt an ultra run because that they see it as something extremely difficult, almost impossible. If that sounds like you, volunteer to work a support station at an ultra marathon, be the crew for a competitor, or simply enjoy as a spectator. Watching runners finish their first ultra marathon, or even just their first marathon, is amazing. You will be inspired. The satisfaction and excitement that they display will help you understand the transformation these people go through while running the race. You see torment, exhaustion, and broken bodies, but you also see individuals of all ages and shapes turning into a child again and achieving their goals.
A large portion of the runners you will see completing an ultra are ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing. Finishing an ultra is truly within the reach of almost any individual who understands that discipline, commitment and the strength to suffer for one’s goals is the key to success.
Preparing For Your First Ultra Marathon
Many people would expect that the typical progression would be 5km-10km-16km-half marathon-marathon, and afterward a 40 or 50 miler. That works much of the time. Nonetheless, I don’t think you fundamentally need to run 26.2 miles before you run an ultra. Personally, I know several runners who jumped directly to an ultra.
Most runners won’t even try to run an ultra after having completed a marathon or two. Just the thought of running twice as far, with twice the pain, and training twice as hard, quickly becomes an unendurable thought.
The secret is that the pain isn’t twice as much. Ultras are actually less demanding than marathons! Marathons are significantly more intense and a great many people run the whole race. During ultras, only the elite athletes have the capacity to run 40 miles non-stop. The downside is that some well-trained runners are sometimes beaten by average runners who mix in running with walking.
Step 1. Increase Your Mileage
If you want more chances of completing your first ultra running experience, then you will have to run more. Increase your mileage. I don’t have a clue about the minimum time that you ought to have been running before you endeavor your first crazy-ultra-experience, however I would propose no less than 6 months. Once you have selected your first ultra-race try to increase your weekly mileage to a maximum of 40-60 miles during the last 2-4 weeks prior to the event. You ought to run 4-6 days a week, relaxing the day following your longest run.
The day preceding your long run should be an easy one. What is actually a long run? If your day by day normal distance is 3-6 miles, then a long run would be 9-12 miles. If you usually run 5-8 miles almost every day, then a long run would be 11-16 miles. Your goal should be to finish 2-3 runs of 18-24 miles. I suggest running at least one marathon before a 40-mile race.
Step 2. Mix in Walking With Running
Do I need to run the complete distance in my long runs? The answer is NO. Indeed, many beginners have issues with the amount of walking required in their first ultra-running experience. They have prepared to run, not to walk. I’m telling you this because I only found out this when actually running my first ultra. A more experienced runner told me to slow down.
I would recommend that you mix in running with walking during your longest runs. Walk when you reach short steep slopes or run a particular amount of time and afterward walk a particular amount of time.
In summary: learn how to walk.
Step 3. Understand Specificity
The golden principle for any runner is specificity. Your preparation should mimic perfectly the terrain and conditions from the actual race. Are you going to do a trail ultra marathon? Your long run should be on trails. Will your ultra take place on a mountain? Will you need to do long climbs and descents? Train for those variables as much as possible. Do I need to run on trails consistently if I’m going to race on trails? NO. You should do only your long runs on trails.
Try to mimic the actual race’s conditions as much as possible. Train at the same hour the race starts. Take food with you. Prepare your brain early so that you will suffer less during your first ultra marathon.
Step 4. Your Goal Should Be to Finish the Race
Try not to consider any specific time or runner you need to beat. How much time do you need to complete 50 miles? When I initially started reading about ultras I found this nice line:
“double your marathon time and add two hours.”
Following this advice, a 3 1/2 hour marathoner should have the capacity to complete a 50 miler in 9 hours. I think this is generally a good rule for street 50s but not trail 50s. You should triple your marathon time for trail 50s.
Step 5. Choose Your Equipment
The critical piece of equipment for any runner is shoes. I don’t think the shoes that are particularly intended for trails are superior to the average running shoe. If running on trails you need shoes that offer sufficient traction, stability and solidness. I wear the Airia Ones for road half marathons and marathons and Asics Gel Trabuco 13 for trails.
You should also buy some sort of fanny pack in which you can carry liquids, food, emergency treatment supplies, and numerous different things.
Think also about wearing a hat and sunglasses to keep the sun out of your eyes. If it’s cold, wear a fleece or polypropylene hood and carry cotton gloves with you. In extremely icy or stormy weather, have some Gore-Tex or waterproof mittens.
Many runners wear tights in all types of weather. I’m not a huge fan of tights, due to the fact that they are exceptionally hard to get on and off quickly and could make your muscles cramp up when you’re taking them off. Remember also to take a Gore-Tex jacket with you, in case of rain.
Other things you should not forget: a buff, GPS watch, socks, another pair of shoes (just in case), glucose, electrolytes.
Step 6. Pre-race Preparations
The last few days prior to your first ultra marathon can be unimaginably troublesome. When you initially began training for the race 3 months back it appeared fun, exciting and “conceivable”. Reality sets in now and you’re not certain if you can actually do this. It now appears like a truly impossible race. You should not be scared; this happens to every ultra-runner. Even pro athletes have their fears.
Schedule the last hard workout one week prior to the race itself.
In an ordinary week before a major race you should run 8 miles on Monday, 6 miles on Tuesday, and 4 miles on Wednesday. Take Thursday and Friday off if the race is on Saturday. Don’t run too much in your last week before the ultra – you could just hurt yourself and your fitness will not change significantly. All the hard work and training from the past is right there in your mind. You are prepared, but you just don’t know it.
The Week Before The Race: Focus on Sleep And Nutrition
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – get plenty of sleep. Normally, the night before an ultra marathon you won’t sleep very well. Even if you don’t get any sleep at all the night before, your performance won’t suffer as long as you slept well the previous 3 or 4 nights.
Starting on Wednesday you should attempt to focus on consuming mainly complex carbohydrates at all of your meals. Try not to eat too much, particularly the night before the race. One day before the race you should try to hydrate yourself. When you need to go to the bathroom frequently and your pee is clear, then you are decently hydrated.
A crew is a smart idea. They can give you supplies and moral support. Having a supportive crew can also put more pressure on you to finish the race. It would be harder to let them down when they have given their time to help you reach your goal.
There is no real mystery regarding what to eat. After five hours of running, nothing appears to taste great. The best thing to do is to have a wide variety of foods. Try candy bars, chocolate, power bars, protein bars, fruits like watermelon, honey, sultanas, pulled figs. Work out what works best for you during your training.
The famous “carbo loading” applies to ultra marathons too. You should eat a lot of carbs 2-3 days before the actual race. You can read more about complex carbs vs simple carbs here. Find some benefits and examples of complex carbohydrates here.
Step 7. The Race
The big day has finally arrived. When you go to sleep one night before the race you should definitely set 2 alarm clocks. Setting only one alarm clock could make you worry about oversleeping, which could keep you awake all night.
You ought to get up no less than 1-2 hours before the start of the race. Plan your time: you will have to get dressed, eat, and complete your morning rituals. You should be at the starting area at least 30 minutes prior to the start.
What should you eat for breakfast?
It should be something light and easily digestible and absorbable such as cereal, pancakes, fruits, milk, coffee. On your way to the starting area drink a lot of water, you should be super-hydrated since your muscles will crave water and glucose.
At the point when the runners line up for the start of the race, get close to the back of the pack. DON’T get close to the front; if you do, you will begin too fast because it feels easy.
How quickly should you run?
I usually divide the race into thirds. The first one should feel like a walk in the park. The second one should be only a little uncomfortable. The last third is the place where the genuine race actually starts. You will have to grit your teeth and focus on finishing the ultra.
Think about your running pace as something slightly slower than your normal pace. When you walk, you should do it briskly – work this on in training.
When would it be a good idea to start walking during the ultra?
If you wait until you feel the need to walk, then you have waited too long. Remember this: start walking when you hit the first hill. Although this can be very hard to do, I know from experience. Many runners don’t know how to “tackle” the race. Run when you have to run. Walk when you have to walk.
You ought to be always checking your body and monitoring your pace. Are you drinking enough water? Are you walking sufficiently? Before you reach an aid station you should already know what you need. If you don’t preplan, you’ll waste time at the aid stations or with your crew trying to figure out what you need. You should get in and out of the support station as fast as possible. A few minutes can pass by surprisingly quickly at a support station.
Hitting “The Wall”
You will inevitably reach that point in the race where your progress appears to be so slow (often it’s around 30 to 40 miles) regardless of your effort which appears to be so huge. You feel like an old person with no energy, drained, tired and weak. Continue eating and drinking. More than likely you have low glucose levels or you are dehydrated.
Continue running or walking, even if you feel it’s very slowly. The finish line is waiting for you.
Step 8. Recovery
The following day you should go out and walk 20-30 minutes or run gradually for 1-3 miles and after that take a hot bath. Relax. Take another two days off and then gradually increase your distances again.
Remember to eat a lot of carbs (your liver will thank you for this) and proteins (for muscle recovery). Drink enough water for a few days after the race. The ultra marathon recovery week should be very much alike to the week prior to the race (in terms of eating, resting and training).
Run an ultra marathon. In a small but essential way, you will feel transformed.