Note from Matt: Last year when I chose the course for my first 100-miler, one of the criteria I looked for was “fair.” I didn’t want the easiest, flattest course around, but at the same time, it is 100 miles, so why make it tougher than it needs to be?
Next month, Doug Hay will be running his first 100. But in choosing his race, he didn’t look for “fair.” Instead, he went with the race that most inspired him, the Massunutten Mountain Trails 100 — which happens to be one of the toughest on the East Coast. Not a coincidence.
This choice perfectly sums up Doug’s passion for ultrarunning and trails. And it’s the reason I asked him to answer a question that people ask me all the time these days: “I’ve run a marathon, but now I’d like to run an ultra. Any advice?”
Above all, the difference between marathoning and ultrarunning is the mindset, and Doug’s post will help you to understand that shift.
When it comes to running ultramarathons — any distance over 26.2 miles — most people don’t have a clue where to start. The distance sounds so much longer, the courses so much tougher, and the word “ultra” that much more hard core.
I know that before running my first ultra, I worried about things like:
- If I train for an ultramarathon, will I end up rotting alone somewhere deep in the woods?
- Will training for an ultramarathon take over my life and piss off all my family and friends?
- How do I even begin training for such a distance?
Questions like these were filling my head with doubt, and I know these same doubts are common based on the questions I get from runners and readers.
The good news is that the leap from marathoner to ultramarathoner isn’t as big as most runners believe. With a few key distinctions and (maybe) a little extra mileage, you can be well on your way to adding “ultra” to your running accomplishment list.
9 Keys for Going from Marathoner to Ultramarathoner
1. Understand that ultramarathons aren’t just for elites and superhumans.
If you can run a marathon, you can run an ultramarathon.
It’s true. Believe it or not, you don’t have to be a superhuman to run an ultra. The truth is that most training schedules for a 50k, and even some 50-milers, look strikingly similar to a marathon training plan. The major difference: most speed is out, and some additional mileage is in.
But not so much mileage it should intimidate marathoners from going for it, or even require you to cut too far back on your social schedule.
The first step in the transition from marathoner to ultramarathoner is to know you can do it. And if you can run a marathon, trust me, you can do it.
2. Learn how to run trails.
Ultramarathons can take a variety of forms. They can be timed events, such as a 6, 12, or 24 hour looped race, or they can be any set distance over 26.2 miles. The most common distances are 50k, 50 mile, 100k, and 100 miles. Multi-day stage races are also a big part of the ultramarathon scene.
But one thing that nearly all ultras have in common is that they are run on trails. Of course you’ll find exceptions, but if you plan to train for an ultramarathon, it’s safe to assume that it will be at least partially on the dirt.
For me, spending time out on trails is one of the best parts about training for the new distance. It’s good for any runner’s training, even road runners, and it can be a lot of fun.
If you’re new to trail running, here’s where you should start:
- Get familiar with trail running basics.
- Don’t concern yourself with pace and speed, but instead focus on time spent out on each run.
- Run with a more experienced runner and watch how they handle the terrain.
- Pay attention to safety issues and always let someone know which trails you’ll be running and when you expect to return.
3. Learn how to walk.
I was about 2.5 miles in to my first 50k when we hit the first major hill. Before the runners ahead of me took more than 3 steps up the hill, they all started walking.
I couldn’t believe it. Walking? Just over two miles into a race?
I zoomed right past them and ran up the hill. Take that, slow pokes.
It didn’t take more than 10 miles to realize that walking, or hiking, during an ultramarathon is a big part of any proper pacing strategy. And my strategy was terrible.
Walking is often more efficient than running up steep inclines, so runners power hike up those hills to save energy for the rest of the race. When all those runners I passed at mile 2.5 flew past me further into the race, I know I had made a mistake.
Hills are great for building strength throughout training, but treat long runs as race practice and don’t be afraid to hike the steep inclines — you don’t want race day to be the first time your hiking muscles get a workout.
4. Stay on top of your nutrition.
Nailing down your nutrition is key for any successful ultramarathon.
Even at the 50k distance, ultras can take several hours longer than your fastest marathon, making it that much more important to keep on top of your energy intake.
Everyone’s nutritional needs are different when it comes to endurance sports, so use your long runs as trial runs every week. Here are a few rules I always follow when it comes to nutrition:
- Consume calories every 30 to 45 minutes, starting at the very beginning of your run.
- Mix in real foods, like dates, PB&J, boiled potatoes, or fruit.
- Drink at least some of your calories. A NMA favorite these days is HEED sports drink.
Check out Matt’s detailed write-up of his 100 mile race for ideas and advice on what works for him.
5. Reevaluate your understanding of distance.
Distance is relative.
At least that’s what I like to say when telling myself a 25-mile training run will be no big deal.
If you’ve run a marathon, you probably remember that the long runs you thought felt long at the beginning seemed like easy runs by the end. Your understanding of distance changed with your training.
The same will happen while training for an ultramarathon.
Regular 13-20 mile weekend runs will become standard, and after a few weeks, you won’t sweat the distance like you did in the beginning.
Most ultramarathon training plans even call for at least one or two back-to-back long runs, where two 13-18+ mile runs are scheduled on consecutive days in order to replicate the feeling of running on tired and overused legs.
When looking at that weekend on your training plan, keep in mind that by the time it comes, the distance will be less intimating. You’ll have a better understanding of what that distance feels like and how to properly manage your effort throughout the run.
6. Get the right gear.
Trail running doesn’t necessarily require new gear, but running an ultramarathon, especially one on trails, might mean you need to pick up and train with a few new items:
- Headlamp: Many ultramarathons start pre-dawn or run after sunset and require a light source to see the trail. Headlamps tend to be the preferred choice for most runners, although you’ll find many runners, including Matt, using a small handheld flashlight instead.
- Hydration System: Aid stations at ultramarathons are often several miles apart, and when out running for multiple hours at a time, it’s important to take in water more frequently than aid stations allow. Almost all runners will carry some sort of handheld bottle or pack for water or other energy drinks and small amounts of nutrition. The size and type of pack or handheld is completely up to the runner and distance.
- Shoes: When running a trail ultra, it’s a good idea to have a pair of trail running shoes, which have a thin rock plate to protect your foot against the terrain, and larger lugs on the bottom to provide traction in the dirt and mud.
- Clothing: No special clothing is required for most ultramarathons, but keep in mind that you’ll be out much longer than a marathon, and weather is often less predictable in the woods or mountains. And don’t forget about spots that rub. Lube up. You’ll thank me later.
7. It’s all about pacing.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably already figured out that pacing is an important part of ultramarathon race strategy. What you do during the first half will have a massive impact on how much pain or pleasure you feel the second half.
Think about how important it is to keep your splits under control at the beginning of a marathon. Now think about how much more important it is when you add another 6, 24, or more miles after that initial 26.2.
During your training, practice running a slower race pace. Practice keeping excitement and speed under control, and practice letting the terrain be more of a pacing guide than your GPS watch.
8. Embrace your new community.
The trail running and ultrarunning communities are one of my favorite parts about running ultramarathons. The ultramarathon race vibe often feels more like a laid back day at summer camp than a loud crowded city marathon.
Runners chat and encourage each other as they run by, aid station workers assist with much more than just handing out water, and after the race even strangers will want to listen to your battle stories and hear about the race.
Runners training for their first ultra can get involved with the community well before the race itself. Here are a few good ways to start:
- Seek out a trail running club in your area.
- Volunteer at an ultramarathon before your race. No experience is needed to help out.
- Chime in on the ultrarunning section of the NMA Community Forums.
9. Learn from others.
There are so many unknowns for most first-time ultrarunners that it’s often intimidating or frustrating, but reaching out to others who have run the same or similar races can be a big help.
I’m currently training for my first 100-miler, a rugged course known as being one of the toughest on the East Coast. To say I’m nervous would be an understatement.
But just this past weekend I bumped into a friend on the trail who happened to be running with last year’s female winner of that very race. I joined them for a few miles and picked her brain about everything from pacing to running through the night. It was a huge help in calming my nerves and pumping me up for the race.
You might not know anyone else running your ultramarathon, but you can take advantage of resources around you, like ultramarathon training guides or a number of ultrarunning podcasts (including No Meat Athlete Radio episodes like this one).
If you have the will, you’re most of the way there.
Don’t let the word “ultra” or the facial expression people make when you tell them you’re planning to run 50-miles fool you: running an ultramarathon isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
Ultramarathons have given me a sense of strength to conquer the impossible unmatched by anything else I’ve experienced. Any of that pain or discomfort that once filled me with doubt has always been well worth the achievement of crossing the finish line.
Embrace the drive that’s motivating you to take on such a distance and channel it into your training, and arm yourself with the right tools, training plan, and support group to make the journey a successful one. These nine tips will get you started … it’s up to you to make the leap.