Ultra Marathon Training Tips
Ultra Marathons are a race of any distance above a marathon, they usually start at 50k/30 miles and go up to multi-day events over 100s of miles. They are a great test of your mental and physical strength and are becoming more popular as people want to test themselves beyond there marathon distance; whether this is a good thing for all runners is a topic for another blog post…!
Ultra marathon races are hugely varied;
many are off road
distance varies hugely
elevation (how hilly the course is) from flat on the Thames Path to following the ridge lines of mountains
some are time and not distance based; e.g. how far can you go in 12 or 24 hours
lots of different terrains; road, track, trail, beach, footpath, woodland, mountain, fell etc
some have marked routes but many of the longer events are not and therefore involve some skill in navigating yourself
Your ultra training, like the training for any race, should be race specific; as because the races are so varied the training is too. When I’m working with ultra runners the plans I create for them are totally unique to them and their target race. However there are some good rules of thumb when it comes to ultra training that I use to create great training plans which I’ll share with you here.
1. Longest run distance
For a marathon you might run 20, or maybe 22, miles as your longest training run - three quarters or more of race distance. You don’t take this approach with Ultras, your longest run will be less than 75% of race distance as the injury risk rapidly increases with long run (and weekly total) mileage.
2. Time on your feet
The alternative to looking at longest run length, try to think more about time on your feet. I tend to set many ultra training long runs with time, not distance, goals. Take a look at the finishing times for the ultra you are targetting, and how long people take to finish on average. Have a think about where you are likely to finish in the field and plan around building experience of time on your feet around that. You aren’t going to try to run for that whole race time, that’s too fatiguing and should be left to the race itself but there are a few ways to build that time on your feet into your training week…
3. Double run days!
Do a run in the morning, do it again in the afternoon or evening of the same day. Maybe try to do the second run slightly faster than the first one.
4. Back to back long runs!
Do a longish run on Saturday and a longer run on Sunday. The length varies hugely based on the race you are doing, but a reasonable rule of thumb is to do a third of your total longer run distance the day before so you are running the longer run on tired legs. E.g. 1 hour on Saturday, 3 hours on Sunday.
5. Fitting it all in
The challenge with upping your race distance beyond the marathon is it involves more training hours. So another way to mix it up is to have a longer run during the week, an hour or more perhaps, depending on race distance. Run commutes are great ways of getting in the miles and doing a double run day. Time on your feet just walking is great training too. Use the step counter on your watch or phone to track how much you are doing.
6. Drop the amount of high intensity work
With the high mileage your body will have a lot to contend with in terms of training, recovery and adaptation. Doing lots of speed work or faster paced sessions will just add to that without giving you much race specific benefit. So keep speedier running to less than 20% of your running each week.
7. Train to walk
In most ultras even the people at the sharp end of the race walk sections. Walking isn’t something to avoid, it should be part of your race plan; it therefore needs to be practiced. Long walks with the family, dogs, friends etc is a key part of your training and means you don’t spend so much time “away” on your own. Include walk breaks in your long runs too, again it’s about time on your feet more than distance.
8. Train at night
If your race going through the night, train at night. One or two runs in the dark when you are tired will really help you prepare mentally for the race conditions. Remember the temperature drops a lot at night too.
9. Match the terrain
As much as the can match the race terrain on your long runs. Often it’s easier said than done but you can work around it. I’ve coached runners for the MDS (multi day event in the Sahara desert) in a UK winter using treadmill sessions in hot gyms and long runs in mud (as opposed to sand) wearing two extra layers. I’ve also training a Norfolk based runner for the UTMB (a mountain race around Mont Blanc in the Alps) by using the few hills around, the treadmill and the step machine in the gym.
10. Mentally prepare
The longer the race the more your performance will be impacted by your mental strength, not just your physical strength. Long runs will help you practice this. It’s useful to mentally prepare for the race, have plans in place for things that may go a little wrong, have mantras you like to help you through the inevitable tough patches. Take a look at this post for more information; https://www.ontherunhealthandfitness.co.uk/blog/planning-for-a-great-race
11. Test your kit
Wearing your kit for longer will inevitably mean you find a few niggles and rubs with it. Hone your race kit on long runs and it’s even more important not to try anything new near to or on race day; this is especially true for shoes. With the training mileage you will be doing it’s a good idea to have two pairs of shoes to rotate between runs so they are always giving you good cushioning and you don’t get the same wear patterns all the time. Some longer races allow a drop bag of kit at checkpoints, swapping shoes (or even just socks) can be heaven for your feet in a long race. Experiment with tactics to avoid blisters too! https://www.ontherunhealthandfitness.co.uk/blog/looking-after-your-feet
In an ultra you will have to eat and drink on the way round, and nutrition and your ability to keep eating whilst running or racing will have a big impact on your performance. Practice lots of options in your training runs; the longer the distances the more runners I find can’t stomach gels and sports drinks so explore other options in training. Research what is provided at race aid stations; it’s usually quite the buffet!
Take your own food if you’ve found something magical that works for you incase eating becomes more of a challenge later in the race. https://www.ontherunhealthandfitness.co.uk/blog/what-to-eat-on-the-run
I hope that’s been helpful! I have lots of experience helping people to prepare for ultra marathons, so if you have questions or would like some help and support drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org