So, you’re a runner with at least one or two marathons under your belt and now you’re thinking you want to move up to the ultra distance.
While some people might think you’re crazy, there are plenty of others who will applaud your desire to test your limits. As Doug Rennie says, “you don't have to be crazy to run an ultramarathon, just prepared.” And he’s absolutely right.
The ultramarathon is defined as any distance greater than a marathon or 26.2 miles. The distances and lengths can vary, but the most popular ones are 50K, 50 miles, 100K, and 100 miles, in addition to events where you run as many miles as you can in a certain amount of time (like a 24-hour run).
The ultramarathon has been around since 1963 when the JFK 50 Mile (the first “official” ultra race) took place in Pennsylvania. Since then, the number of ultras has increased to almost 1500 races in the U.S. today and several thousand worldwide.
As a whole new ballgame for a runner, the ultramarathon involves a different mindset, a different way of training, and an entirely different strategy for tackling the longer distance.
Preparation Is Key.
Nobody knows this more than Gina Slaby, a former marathoner who ran in the last two Olympic Trials, and now a dedicated ultramarathoner. She held the World Record for fastest 100 miles by a female until it was recently, won the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run (2016) and was a member of the U.S. Women’s 24-Hour Relay Team that won the Gold Medal in 2017.
Slaby provided some insight for us into how to train for ultras and her advice on running the longer races. Here are seven tips she shared that will help you so that you not only finish your first ultra but do so in one piece and with a smile on your face.
1. Run farther at a lower intensity. You’re in it for the long haul, so plan on running slower and at a lower intensity than what you would for a marathon. While running a marathon you should normally run at 75-85 percent of your max heart rate, ultra runners are usually operating at a significantly lower level, in the 50-65 percent range. If you go out too fast in a marathon and blow up at the end, you may only have five to six miles to muddle through. It’s a much different story in an ultra where the price for going out too fast may mean plodding through 10, 20 or 30+ miles – making it downright painful. Unlike marathons where you can find comparable courses throughout the U.S., ultras usually can’t be compared because of the varied terrain, which includes the technical aspects and elevation gain. It’s nearly impossible to maintain a consistent pace on an ultra course.
2. Nutrition is key. The sports drinks and gels that can get you by in a marathon likely won’t be sufficient for the longer runs. This is because ultra runners burn through a higher percentage of fat compared to marathon runners, who burn through a higher percentage of carbs. Some of Slaby’s favorites foods while running are honey stinger chews, salted potatoes, potato chips, and chicken broth. Just make sure you practice eating different types of foods during some of your longer training runs so you can work out any gastrointestinal issues you may encounter. During the race, make sure you’re eating and drinking at regular intervals (every 60 minutes) - even if you’re not hungry - so you can sustain your energy levels.
3. Log “hours on your feet” instead of miles. Many ultra experts recommend running a certain amount of time (usually in hours) rather than getting in a specific number of miles each day or week. This is particularly true for the long runs on the weekends. In fact, since it’s almost impossible to go out and run a 30-40 mile training run, one way to build up your endurance is to run back-to-back long runs. A good rule of thumb is to estimate how long it will take for you to finish the ultra and do a run on Saturday and Sunday that equals that amount time. For example, if you think it will take you seven hours to finish an ultra, you might want to run four hours on Saturday and three hours on Sunday. Make sure you give yourself time to work up to it and do this at least a few times before your ultra, with sufficient recovery days during the week around those long runs.
4. Learn to be self-sufficient. The level of support provided during ultras is significantly less than what you get in a marathon so you need to carry what you need with you. You’re not going to have water stops every 1-2 miles like you do in a marathon. Instead, the aid stations could be 5-10 miles apart, and the amount of aid and food at that station may be a lot or almost nothing. Some of the things you may want to consider carrying are jackets, gloves, wet wipes, toilet paper, painkillers, anti-chafing lube, and quick-energy snacks. In some races, you can have someone “crew” for you, which means they can find you at certain parts of the course to provide you with what you need. When the course involves loops, it makes it easier logistically in terms of what you carry; but even some of the loops can be pretty long, so you won’t have access to your gear until the end of the loop.
5. Keep moving. Different runners approach ultras in different ways with respect to walking. Many runners, including elites, recommend that you keep moving. It’s better to keep running, however, slow the pace is, then to stop because often once you stop, you’re done. Other runners, such as top 24-hour runner Bob Hearn, are served well with a very methodical run/walk approach (i.e., running for a certain number of miles, walking for a certain distance). Ultimately, you have to use the approach that works best for you and practice it. You may find you have to walk certain parts of a course, especially on trails, but either way, you want to keep moving forward.
6. Get used to uncertainty. Unlike most marathons that are almost always on nice, surfaced roads, with clearly-marked miles, ultras are completely different. They are typically a combination of rocky trails with significant elevation changes, roads and dirt paths. You may not know whether you’re on the right path. The distance may not be exactly what the race says it is - it may just be “around” that distance; and on top of that, there are no mile markers, so when you’re running out in the woods, you have to use your own GPS (or best guess) as to how far along the course you are. It can be extremely frustrating for the veteran marathoner, but it’s all part of the excitement and variety of ultramarathons.
7. Embrace a new mindset. If there is one tip that encompasses everything mentioned so far and applies to every aspect of preparing and running an ultra, this is it. You’re going to be running a long way, and a lot can happen over all those miles. You have to pace yourself - it’s more about endurance than speed. Realize that it’s probably going to be lonely on parts of the course because ultras don’t have nearly as many runners as road races and expect that you might not know exactly where you are or how far you’ve gone. Recognize that those little pains that develop in the first half of the course could become excruciating pains by the end and that you may have to stop and walk. A new mindset includes approaching the ultra with more flexible and a “go with the flow” attitude than a marathon.
Ultras involve a different type of preparation than the marathon, but if you can run a marathon and you make the right adjustments (mental and physical) to your training, you can do it. For your first ultra, your goal should be to finish because completing one of these races is a huge accomplishment! Don’t let anyone tell you you’re crazy!