How to run your first ultramarathon

Literally going that extra mile from marathon to ultramarathon
March 25, 2014

Believe it or not, you can run an ultramarathon. The only prerequisite is that you must want to run further than 26.2 miles. As they say: where there’s a will there’s a way.

One of the beautiful things about the ultramarathon is that there’s no single way to train for one. Even at the highest echelons of the sport,  volumes and styles vary as much as the terrain each runner prefers, but these tips for ultramarathon training should help cover your bases.

Tips for ultramarathon training

 1.    Start Running

If there’s one must-do before training for your first ultramarathon, it’s running… well, a marathon. In training for a marathon, you’ll learn all the basics needed to train for and race an ultramarathon—stuff like your personal training volume, pacing, gear, hydration, and so on.

With the marathon (and hopefully a rest) over your shoulder, it’s time to pick your first ultramarathon. I’d suggest starting with a local 50k (31.1 miles). You should aim for one that gives you a good chance for a relatively stress-free four-month period to train.

 2.    Get a training regime – and stick to it

Head into the four-month training block, having run regularly for a month at around half the mileage you had in preparation for your most recent marathon – at least 20 miles per week.

Over the first two months of ultramarathon training, gradually work your way up to the most intense level you trained at before the marathon. In month three and the first two weeks of month four, try to log another three-to-four weeks at this weekly mileage, being sure to also mix in two recovery weeks with 15-20% less weekly mileage. No, you’re not reading this wrong: you can run an ultramarathon without training any more than you did for a marathon!

How? You’ve got to focus on the long run! As soon as you can, build up to a 20-mile-long run. Once you’re there, alternate weeks of running a 20- to 26-mile long run with another run of 14 to 18 miles. Over time, you’ll grow more comfortable with both the physical and mental aspects of running for long periods of time. Speaking of time, don’t worry about time or pace on these runs. Just get out there and get ‘em done!

 3.    Keep a running routine

These long runs will also help dial in all the auxiliary aspects of ultrarunning. Whatever you ate and drank during your marathon, plan to do a bunch more of both during an ultra. With a slightly lower exertion level this becomes a lot easier in an ultramarathon, but you’ll still want to practice eating and drinking more on your training runs. Find out what you still like to consume after a couple hours of running, so you can rely on them during the race.

Chances are you’ll be using new-to-you gear to carry your extra food and drink as well as a handful of other new-to-you items. Test these all beforehand. Don’t use anything new on race day. That’s true all the way down to your socks and shoes.

Choosing where to run your ultramarathon

When I suggested choosing a local ultramarathon, it was for a reason. You’ll want to prepare as best you can for the race’s particular terrain. There’s no better place to do that than the course itself; however, finding something similar nearer to home will work too.

While not universal, most ultramarathons are run on trails—often on hilly or mountainous terrain. It sounds strange, but preparing your legs to keep moving downhill is almost as important as training to climb.

Preparing for the mental part of an ultramarathon is particularly crucial, especially for beginners. Even before you pick a race, figure out why you want to finish an ultra. Let that be your lighthouse when things get dark. Have fun during training and smile whenever you can. A positive attitude yields positive results. Finding some friends to join you in your quest is one of the easiest ways to keep the mojo going until you cross the finish line!

Oh, and in your enthusiasm don’t forget to taper the final two weeks before race day, so your mind and body are fresh. Now get out there and get it done!


Bryon Powell

Trail Running, Hiking
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