How to Train for an Ultra
With the growing population of ultra runners, and questions that come in to us about ultra running, it is clear that many runners are becoming curious about ultra marathons.
However, like most things in running, although we want a clear cut answer, one does not exist, but that does not mean we cannot give you advice on how to prepare. A few weeks ago, we covered Why You Should Not Be Scared of Running an Ultra, and today we are going to explain how to take that next step to start training.
Training for an ultra is a far more intuitive and organic process than training for any other distance.
There really are not any set rules when it comes to mileage, pace or distance; and you need to find what works for you on a very individual level and figure it out as you go along.
How you approach it will depend on many factors, and your own personal response to training, as well as the distance of the race you’ve chosen.
To be a good ultra runner, you must become an expert in listening to your own body, and respond accordingly, whether that’s in training or in the race itself.
One thing is for certain; you need to get used to running for a very, very long time. How you do this will depend on your training background, injury susceptibility, fitness level, and ability to adapt to increasing training loads.
An ultra distance event might have you out on the course for six, seven or many more hours, and probably on rough terrain too, meaning a strong resilient body is going to be vital to keep you injury free and upright.
Before you even think about building up to an ultra, spend a number of months doing a mixed program of strength training, hiking, cross training, and cycling, in addition to your running.
Injury prevention is your number one goal. Before you knock out too much mileage (and get injured), work with a PT or coach on some specific strength and conditioning exercises, focusing on your glutes and core, to iron out any dysfunction and reduce your risk of injury.
“Building solid foundations is vital for anyone contemplating an ultra” explains Mimi Anderson, X-Bionic sponsored ultra-runner and multiple World Record Holder. “I like to think of an ultra runner as a big oak tree. To be successful, you need to put down some roots first. Things like core work, strength and conditioning and general fitness. Then build the main trunk, which consists of your weekly running mileage.
Build some consistent, solid mileage before you even think about tackling an ultra distance event or pushing your long run too far. It might take many months if not years, but like a mighty oak tree, a good ultra runner starts with strong roots and foundations’.
Run a Marathon First?
‘People don’t want to just run a marathon anymore’ explains Hugo Pettit, Organiser of Race to the Stones 100km ultra in the UK, ‘they want a life experience. And that’s exactly what an ultra run will provide.
It’s more about the journey and the experience. And as a result we are seeing a larger proportion of runners who bypass the marathon distance and go straight for the ultra’.
Ultra distance runs are becoming more accessible and open to all runners of all abilities. Races such as Spartathlon and the UTMB for example are still very exclusive and selective with entry requirements and cut off times, but many others are far more inclusive and open to all.
Race to the Stones in the UK is one of those events set up specifically to encourage runners of all abilities. ‘We are seeing the emergence of the ultra-plodder’ explains Hugo, ‘runners who might not be fast, but are strong and can keep going for a long time’.
That’s exactly the lure of the ultra. As the focus is more on ‘completion’ rather than finish time, it tests runners of all abilities regardless of speed.
That said, the ultra is not to be underestimated and whilst you might not need to have done marathon, you do need to train properly and respect the distance.
Running long once a week isn’t going to cut it when it comes to ultra training. You need to build accumulative fatigue with weekly mileage so you get used to running on tired legs.
If you’re training for a 30-40 mile ultra, your program won’t look much different to a regular marathon training schedule. The only differences might be that your longest run will be closer to 30 miles and you might not do as much speed work.
You will also want to try to include some longer midweek runs (of around 8-10 miles) and work up to back-to-back long runs where you might run 3 hours on a Saturday and then another 3-4 hours on a Sunday on tired legs. It is important to remember it will be much slower than the pace you’ve been used to, and you will need to include more walking/hiking.
What Pace Should I Run at?
The key factor in ultra distance running is to develop your aerobic capacity and your body’s ability to tap into fat stores; you need to become a fat burning machine.
Forget about ‘pace’ as such, and focus on long slow running, lots of walking and just keeping going for a long time. Hugo Pettit calls it your ‘forever pace’; the pace you can just keep going at all day long.
‘Runners coming up from the marathon distance have a natural set pace’ explains Marc Laithwaite, Endurance Coach and organiser of the Lakeland 100 in the UK, ‘Getting those runners to slow down for an ultra can be really hard. They are locked into a pace and it’s hard to get them to run slower. But to run an ultra, that’s really all you have to do’.
Using a heart rate monitor can be a good way to bring the pace down. ‘The Maffetone method (calculate your training heartrate at 180-age) can be great for ultra runners’, explains Marc. ‘It provides a simple structure and a tool to make sure your training is in the right aerobic zone’.
How Long is Long?
‘Your ‘long run’ will depend on the distance of the ultra you’re training for, and varies from person to person’, explains Marc.
‘You can’t fully prepare for a 50 mile race in the same way that you might with a marathon. It’s impossible and you wouldn’t run 50 miles (or even close) in a long training run. So you have to accept you’re going into unchartered territory when you get to the race’.
Many coaches suggest there’s not much benefit in going further than 30 miles in training (in one run), especially if you’re new to ultra running, and for some that might still be too far. Anything further in training can be tough to recover from.
Some ultra runners use a ‘split run’ method to break the mileage down, where they might run 15 miles in the morning, and then another 10 later on in the afternoon for example.
Others run back-to-back long runs on consecutive days, and most also include a lot of walking and hiking in their training as well. Ultimately, it’s simply a case of building up your general mileage, increasing the long run (to the point you can handle), and staying injury free.
Striking the balance between training stress, recovery, and adaptation is never more important than in ultra training; probably more so than for any other distance. So keeping an eye on your recovery and monitoring your adaptation/fatigue levels will be really important.
The Daily Analyses of Life Demands for Athletes (DALDA) — First produced in 1978 by Dr Brent Rushall at San Diego State University and later revised in 2011- is a self-report sport-specific tool to help athletes monitor their individual stress response, training load and signs of overtraining.
Using a tool like the DALDA may help to monitor your training as you build up to an ultra. Becoming more aware of your own personal response to training, rather than following a set plan, is a crucial skill for ultra runners, and the DALDA may be key to that ‘intuitive’ approach.
Don’t Just Run
With volume, comes increased risk of injury; especially as your mileage and long runs build up. Cross training, and specifically road cycling can play a huge part in your fitness, and the reduction of that injury risk. The fitness gains from road cycling transfer well to running; helping with strength, cadence, long sessions to build aerobic capacity and recovery.
Did you listen to our podcast Everything You Need to Know about Injuries with Jeremy Stoker yet? We reveal some interesting findings about Cross training.
‘Long runs can really impact on your body’ explains Ian Corless, coach and host of ‘Talk Ultra’. ‘Hours of running might adapt you to the demands of the race, but sometimes we run the risk of pushing too far, and risking injury.
Long bike rides on hilly terrain for example, can be used to provide multiple hours of low impact exercise. Hours where you can push harder than running, without the risk of damaging knees, muscles, and ligaments. If incorporated with long runs, you have a great way to do back-to-back sessions while reducing impact injury risk’.
Many top ultra runners include cycling as part of their training program, not just when they’re injured, but as part of their day-to-day schedule. Try alternating a long bike and long run each weekend, or use the road bike to spin your legs on a recovery ride the day after a long run.
But running an ultra isn’t just about physical fitness; it’s as much about mental toughness as it is about physiological preparation.
‘Successful ultra runners are the ones who stay in the here and now’ explains Marc Laithwaite ‘you need to accept that in an ultra you’ll go through ups and downs, bad patches, and good. Having the mental strength to push through the bad, and stay focused is really important. You need to prepare to be in discomfort at some stage, but know that it will pass’.
‘The hardest part of an ultra in my opinion is always the time during the race when you are going through a bad patch or when things start going wrong’ confirms Mimi Anderson. ‘Your body hurts, you’re struggling to keep yourself motivated and your mind is trying to find reasons why you should stop, this is the point where you need your mental toughness.
Our bodies are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for and being mentally tough means that you can learn to overcome these moments. Mental preparation is just as important as the physical preparation’.
Tough training helps build mental toughness long before your stand on the startline of an ultra. Long runs, early mornings, getting used to training on tired legs, and the accumulation of fatigue are as much about your psychological confidence as your physiological fitness.
It’s simply a circle of confidence.
When we experience success in training and racing, our confidence increases. With increased confidence we can tackle longer distances and more challenging events. Our bodies are only limited by our minds; and we are all more capable of much more than we might think.