Running an ultra marathon takes grit and guts. It requires an inner desire to accomplish something that most people will never even attempt. To train for your first ultra marathon, you’ll need to build aerobic stamina, and a strong body that can withstand running for several hours at a time.
In this guide, we’ll cover how to prepare for race day with a training overview, nutrition tips, and advice for how to prepare without getting injured.
But before we dive into all that, let’s cover some definitions so we know what we’re talking about.
An ultramarathon is any race longer than a marathon. The most common ultramarathon distance is 50k, but 100k is growing in popularity, too. This translates to distances of about 31 miles and 62.1 miles, respectively.
You can also find 50-miler and 100-mile ultramarathon races. While the distance may vary, the same training fundamentals apply for any ultrarunning distance.
Typical Ultramarathon Distances:
However, some other non-distance-defined races qualify as ultramarathons, too. For example, you have 6-hour, 12-hour, and 24-hour races. You also have backyard ultramarathons, and these ultra distances can vary up into the hundreds.
Training for an ultramarathon requires a steady increase in sub-threshold base miles, while incorporating speed work and interval training.
We recommend allowing about 6 months to complete an ultramarathon training program, but depending on your running experience, you may need even more time to build up.
Before starting your ultra training, you should be able to run for about an hour. Increase your total weekly distance or time by no more than 5 to 10% each week.
The first two months of training, simply focus on building up mileage with easy runs and long runs. About four months from race day, add in one hill workout per week and one interval or tempo run per week.
Two to three months out, you should add in more technical runs that mimic your race terrain, especially if you will be racing on a trail.
Stay focused on running within the right aerobic zone without straining your system. If you’re new to the distance, this will mean running at a slower pace than you’re probably used to running.
Transitioning to ultramarathon training from road racing may require a bit of a mental shift on pacing. You might feel really slow at first! Your base runs should feel easy (slower than race pace), and they should allow you to recover quickly.
As you progress your training, pay attention to your average splits over your runs. If you find yourself starting out fast and slowing down dramatically by the end, focus on starting your runs at a more conservative pace.
Coach Nate dishes out some great tips on ultramarathon pacing in this video:
To review, here’s a quick snapshot of an ultramarathon training schedule:
The church of the long run. It’s a silly saying in the running community, but for endurance events like an ultramarathon, it’s true. If you skip too many long runs, you’re missing crucial chances to improve your endurance and fitness.
Because an ultramarathon is 30 miles or longer, it’s not realistic to practice running the full distance prior to race day. Instead, to practice running on tired legs, ultramarathoners do back-to-back long runs.
For example, on Saturday, you might do a 16-mile long run followed by a 10-mile long run on Sunday. Now, like most of ultramarathon training, build up to back-to-back long runs gradually.
When you first start training, you should stick to one long run per week. About two months away from race day, increase the distance you run on the second long run day until you’re running close to your race distance over the two days.
You should also use long runs as an opportunity to mimic race-day conditions as much as possible. Run your long run on a hilly trail. If your race starts at 6 am, start your long runs at 6 am and practice waking up to eat a meal beforehand.
Use your long run to test out certain foods and hydration techniques so you know what works by the time race day comes along. After all, a lot of ultramarathon racing – especially the nutrition side of it – is a matter of trial and error.
Another way to prepare for race day is using half-marathon or marathon races as practice races in lieu of long runs. The race will allow you to practice your pacing, pre-race and mid-race fueling, and deal with all the other unpredictable factors of racing.
Many ultramarathon races are held on trails passing over mountains, which means steep inclines and declines, rocky footing, and a variety of surfaces to cross. Naturally, the best way to prepare for the variety of terrain is to practice.
Aim to do at least one run a week on a trail. If you only have access to flat trails, make sure you incorporate hill training another day of the week, either on pavement or a treadmill.
Hill workouts are perfect for building stamina and strength early on in your training plan. In fact, the benefits of hill running are so great, they’re basically a requirement for any ultramarathon training plan, especially if your race is on a hilly course.
A simple but effective hill workout you should incorporate once every week or every two weeks is 10 x 30 seconds on a 6 to 10% incline at 5k to 10k pace, with a walk or jog recovery down the hill.
If you’re running on a treadmill, recover for the same distance you ran up the “hill.” As you get more fit, you can increase the duration of the hill interval, doing 8 to 10 repeats of 60-second hills.
As for steep inclines, remember that for an ultramarathon, it’s not a matter of if but when you walk. Focus on going up hills slowly. Every time you power up a hill, you go above your lactate threshold and take longer to recover.
The key to mastering steep inclines keeping your heart rate at a low simmer for as long as possible. Remember, it’s not a matter of who goes the fastest, but rather who slows down the least.
On the next steep hill you face, try this run-walk technique to manage your heart rate:
Okay, we’ve hinted at it enough: let’s get into the weeds on ultramarathon nutrition. As we said in the long-run section, fueling your body for running these long distances requires a lot of trial and error.
It’s also extremely important to fuel your body during your runs. When you run longer than 75 minutes, your body’s limited glycogen stores run out and cause you to “hit the wall.” That’s why runners refuel with fast-hitting carb sources like endurance gels and gummies.
Nutrition is specific to each individual, but a basic rule is to refuel with about 100 to 250 calories of a carb source per hour after the first hour of running. So, on a three-hour run, you might consume two gel packs. With an ultramarathon where you’re running for six or seven hours, you’ll need to consistently refuel every hour. Since those gel packs will likely get old, you need to find other food sources.
A key to the ultramarathon is fueling correctly and practicing your race nutrition and hydration over and over again. By race day, you should know how often, how much, and what to eat and drink.
Since everyone’s body and stomach are different, all the research in the world won’t match simply testing out what works for you. Use long runs and other runs over an hour as fueling practice opportunities. Try different gels, sports drinks, and other hydration products, and solid foods.
Many ultrarunners advise sticking with more liquid energy sources in the earlier parts of the race and switching to solid foods later in the race. For solid food options, try salty carb snacks like a salted baked potato, chips, or a pickle. The salt will help replace sodium lost through sweat. But remember to experiment, too. Ultrarunners are known to have weird mid-race snacks. Professional ultrarunner Courtney Dauwaulter has said during 100-mile races she’ll eat pancakes and McDonald’s double cheeseburgers.
For even more tips on ultramarathon fueling and nutrition, listen to Coach Mario Fraioli here:
We admit it, running an ultramarathon does require a lot of running. But it’s more than that too. You need your body to be strong, durable, and, if your race is off-road, ready for the ever-changing terrain of trail running. To prevent injury during your training, focus on strength training, mobility work, and running drills.
Let’s start with strength training. Doing core and single-leg exercises are important not only for keeping your body strong but for helping you keep your form during the tail-end harder miles of runs. That way, running on “tired legs” won’t mean running with bad form.
When your form breaks down, you’re more vulnerable to injury. We get that it can be hard to fit in strength training on top of long training runs. To make it easier, break up your strength work into short, 10 to 15-minute workouts.
For more on strength training for an ultra, Coach Alex Ho has some tips here:
In addition to strength training, take time to stretch after runs and dedicate rest days to foam rolling and mobility exercises like yoga and dynamic stretching. We have a great dynamic stretching routine here that you can use after a run or on a rest day.
If you find yourself facing pain any time throughout your ultramarathon training plan, listen to your body and take needed rest. With a sharp or stabbing pain, you should probably take a few days off and, if it doesn’t go away, consult a healthcare professional. When facing a dull ache, like a tight muscle or general soreness, try working through it with foam rolling and gentle stretching.
Sometimes the best motivation is hearing advice from people who have already accomplished what you aspire to. Here are racing and training tips for new ultramarathoners from three elite ultrarunners.
“Patience, persistence, and a desire to get it done. No one else can run those miles for you, but if you are willing to put in the work and are nice to yourself in the process, you can complete an ultramarathon.” – Courtney Dauwaulter, via Redbull
“Start slow. The worst mistake you can make during your first ultramarathon is going out too hard. Conserve your energy for the later stages of the race. The goal of your first ultramarathon should be to finish.” – Dean Karnazes, via Long Run Living
“Focusing on small goals is key. Ultramarathons are hard to wrap your mind around. If I get 50 miles in, it’s hard to think about goals. Sometimes it’s getting to the next aid station. Other times, it’s catching the next runner or to the shady spot. Sometimes, it’s just one foot in front of the other.” – Scott Jurek, via Men’s Journal
Want more pro-runner tips? The Run Experience chatted with professional runner YiOu Wang about all things ultrarunning. Check it out!
Now you know what an ultramarathon is and the typical ultramarathon distances, it’s time to pick a target, build a plan, and make it happen.
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