“Do you run for the entire race?” This is the most commonly asked question I get when people discover I’m an ultrarunner. It’s true that I participate in races that see me on my feet for 12-plus hours at a time, sometimes for consecutive days, but do I run non-stop? The honest answer is no.
Even elite athletes walk in ultras. Legendary runner Dean Karnazes, who has finished the gruelling 100 mile Western States ultra multiple times, is an advocate of walking the hills. And the formidable Jasmin Paris who holds the overall course record at the 268 mile UK Spine Race, power walked many sections.
Ultras are a very different beast to marathons. Personal bests, pace per minute, and positive splits have no place on the ultra trail. For most runners the aim of an ultra is often simply to finish—the journey, rather than the time, is the goal.
By definition, an ultra is any distance over 26.2 miles. In reality this can range from 27 miles to 3,100 miles, on single or multiday events. The field of ultrarunning is booming right now. Participation in the sport has grown 1,676% in the past two decades, with more than 600,000 people running ultras each year, according to a report by Run Repeat. And more women are running ultras too, with 23% of participants being female compared to just 14% in 1997.
So just how do you train for an ultra and go beyond marathon distance?
Here are my top four ultrarunning tips to help you put 26.2 miles in the rear view
1. Pace like a tortoise
The first thing to shake off is a pacing mindset. Running a marathon is often a clock watching exercise as you regularly check your pace and try to stay on track. You probably have a goal in mind and want to reach sub five, four, or even three hours.
This will not work in an ultra. The vast majority of ultramarathons are off road and the terrain can be hugely variable and incredibly technical. You may be crossing rivers, scrambling up rocks or navigating gnarly tree roots. And just when you thought you could pick up the pace on a long downhill stretch, you discover the ground is treacherously slippery. Pace soon become irrelevant as it is impossible to keep an even speed.
A much better gauge is perceived effort, and you want to keep this to easy, around five out of 10. The longer the ultra the more you need to hold off in the first few hours. Racing off at the beginning because you are feeling great will cost you dearly in the long run. A tortoise approach of slow and steady will see you overtaking the hasty hares in the latter stages.
You are also inevitably going to get lost at some point, even on a well marked route. This is even more likely on training runs, especially when you are discovering a route for the first time. This is all part of the joy of ultrarunning so always build in extra time.
2. Get your fuelling right
A common expression amongst athletes is that an ultra is an eating race not a running race. Eating little and often is the best strategy and the same goes for hydration. Get your fuelling wrong, and after six or more hours on your feet, you are likely to suffer from cramps, vomiting, or even collapse. A general rule of thumb is to consume 40g to 60g of carbohydrates every hour for the first four hours, and then increase this to 70g to 90g per hour. It is very common to see a line of ultrarunners walking up a hill whilst eating sandwiches, chocolate bars, or fruit.
It will also be necessary to drink around 500ml (about 17 ounces) of water and/or electrolyte drink each hour. This will vary according to your build and external factors like weather conditions.
Planning your fuelling is the most important preparation you can do. Test out products and real food during training and decipher what you need. It is likely to be a combination of fast sugary hits like sweets or gels, along with slower-releasing foods like flapjack or banana, as well as salty snacks like peanuts and chips. On training runs, make sure you carry enough water or know where you can fill up. The Refill app is a great resource for finding free water supplies.
3. Don’t skip on strength training
When I completed my first ultra (six loops of a five mile forest course), my left leg completely seized up on the final loop, and I could barely move. Diagnosed with iliotibial tract (IT band) syndrome, I thought my running career was over. But my physiotherapist was much more optimistic, and encouraged me to incorporate strength training into my running program. It completely changed my outlook. I now strength train religiously, and have had no injury problems even when running multi-day events.
Running long distance puts huge strain on the body, but the right strength work will offset this and ultimately strengthen your muscles and bones. Strength training reduces sports injuries to less than a third and overuse injuries by half, according to a report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
4. Find a running distraction
Being out in the wilderness for hours on end can be exhilarating, but it can also be extremely isolating. Finding a way to distract the mind is vital, particularly in the final stages of an ultra, which, quite frankly, can be pretty uncomfortable.
Having a running partner to chat to or share the painful silence with can be a godsend. You are both likely to have energy dips, but these usually happen at different times so you can encourage one another along and offer words of support or an alternative snack.
If you prefer to run alone, then find a way of either emptying your mind by tuning into nature or keeping your mind busy by working through non-running related issues. And if you are running a race then, break down the distance by focusing on running checkpoint to checkpoint rather than concentrating on the total distance.
If you like to listen to something, make sure you have downloaded enough music, podcasts, or audiobooks for the (long) duration of your run. This is where having a spare battery to charge your phone comes in handy. Having Spotify running for more than three hours completely drains my phone, especially when I’m also constantly checking my OS Map app so I always carry a spare battery.
But most of all relax, take it easy, and let the stresses of the day melt away as you tick off the miles.