How YOU Can Run an Ultramarathon (and Still Have a Life)

Psst! Want to hear a big secret? It might get me banned from the cool table at my running club, but here goes:

Running an ultramarathon isn’t that hard.

iStock 000009635929XSmallMake no mistake: I’m not saying it’s easy.  But running 50 miles isn’t twice as hard as running a marathon, and going from marathon-to-50 is definitely way easier than going from the couch-to-marathon (or even 5K-to-marathon).

It doesn’t take tons of mileage either.  I ran my first 50K on about 40 miles per week, and even for my first 50-miler, I didn’t log more than 50 miles in any one week.

If you can make marathon training work with your lifestyle, you can make ultramarathon training work with your lifestyle.

In fact, when I first decided I wanted to run a 50-miler, something I had budgeted six to nine months to train for, I was shocked when the only ultrarunner I knew nonchalantly told me this:

If you’re in marathon shape, you’re in shape to at least finish a 50-mile race. Will it be pretty at the end? Probably not. But you can at least finish.  There’s a flat, fast one out in California [three weeks from the time he wrote this email], and you could probably do that on the [marathon-distance] training that you have now. If you were able to run back-to-back 20-mile runs this weekend, and about 30 miles next weekend, while maintaining a similar schedule during the week, I’d say you’ll probably surprise yourself with how fast you’ll finish.

I’m not saying you should go out there and try to run a 50-miler in three weeks.  That could be dangerous, so don’t do it without proper training.  What I am saying is that once you can run a marathon, your first ultra is well within reach.

You’re probably a lot closer to doing an ultra than you realize.

This is not going to be the No Meat Athlete Guide to Training for Your First Ultra.  (That one’s coming, one day.)  Today, I just want to give you the foundation, the first steps you can take if you’re in the “just barely thinking about an ultra” boat.

In writing this post, I have one goal: to convince you that if you wanted to run an ultra, you could.  That people who run ultramarathons aren’t superhuman endurance machines—they’re normal people like you (and like me).

So here goes. Open your mind, read on, and discover that it’s possible.  From there, you can decide if it’s for you.

Step 1: Start running on trails.

Actually, once you’re in marathon shape, running on trails is probably the biggest obstacle standing between you and an ultra.  Don’t underestimate how different trail running is from running on roads—during the Vermont 50 a week and a half ago, I heard a guy say he had fallen three times during the first 12 miles, because he had never run trails before.  (And his shirt was covered in mud, so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t exaggerating.)

That said, trail running isn’t necessarily harder that road running, just different.  It’ll take a few weeks for you to build up the small stabilizer muscles in your legs and core.  You’ll learn just how high you need to pick up your feet, and you’ll naturally adjust your stride to deal with the terrain.

The upside: trail running will help you avoid injury.  In addition to making you stronger and your stride safer, trail running will give your bones and joints a break.  You’ll find that the wave of foot and leg pain that shows up after about 20 miles on roads doesn’t happen on trails, or at least that it takes much longer to arrive.

Oh yeah, and it’s fun.  So start incorporating trail runs into your normal training, and when you’re ready to train for an ultra, you’ll have a big head start.  Check out my Zen Habits post, A Beginners Guide to Trail Running, if you need a place to begin.

Step 2: Get comfortable with going slow.

I said running an ultra isn’t that hard.  I didn’t say anything about running an ultra fast.

Many runners are conditioned to equate “running” with “running fast.”  But what if you slowed waaay down?  Even with zero additional training, what if you started running 10-minute miles instead of 8′s, or 12-minute miles instead of 10′s?

When I qualified for Boston, my pace was just under 7:15.  When I ran the North Face 50-miler, my pace was over 12:30.  Granted, the latter was on trails and in 95-degree heat, but even after accounting for those factors, that’s a huge difference in speed.  How much farther could you run, today, if you slowed down by that much?

For all but the elites, running anything longer than 50K involves a lot of walking.  For really good runners, maybe it’s just the hills.  For me and many others, it’s some flat spots too, when you just need a break.

So once you start running trails, get comfortable with a slower pace, or even walking.  If your goal is to finish an ultra, that’s the quickest way to get there.

Step 3: Increase your long run distance or frequency.

Maybe it’s the popularity of the marathon distance, 26.2 miles, that makes people want to view it as an upper limit on how far we can run.  Of the distance, non-runners are fond of saying, “The human body just isn’t meant to run that far.”

But this is no more than a mindset thing.  When 26.2 miles is the ultimate goal, 20 or 22 miles seems frighteningly close to it.  The thought of running 30 is just plain nuts.

But you can shift that mindset.  When you recalibrate your thinking and focus on, say, 50 miles, everything changes.  Over time, slow-paced 20-milers become less intimidating.  And when you run your first marathon in training, without all the hoopla of a race, you realize that your muscles don’t suddenly shut down after 26.2 miles.  And that it’s something that, with the proper training, normal people can do without a big buildup and taper, crowds, or the long recovery period that goes along with the big event.

And then you can go 30 miles, if you decide that you want to.  But many ultrarunners will tell you that you don’t need to run even that far to prepare for a 50-miler.  Some prefer to run several 20-to-25-milers within a few days of each other.

For me, the length of the long run is the only difference between a marathon training plan and an ultramarathon training plan.  Keep doing the speedwork and hill workouts you would as part of a marathon program, and gradually increase either the frequency or the distance of your long (slow) runs.  That’s all it takes.

Step 4: Start paying attention to what you eat while you run.

So much of running long distances is about learning how to fuel effectively.

Personally, I can get through a marathon on mostly sugar, relying on sports drinks, energy gels, and bananas to get energy to my muscles as quickly as possible.  But by the end of that marathon, I want to puke.  For me, eating that way does not work for any amount of time longer than maybe three and a half hours.

Everyone is different, and if you’re going to convince your body to keep working for 50K, 50 miles, or more, you need to find a race-day diet that your body will tolerate for five or 10 or 24 hours.  (Chances are, sugar alone won’t work for that long.)

For long distances, I like to eat whole foods, like pinole, potatoes, nuts, pitas with hummus, bagels with peanut butter, and occasional fruits, shifting to higher-sugar foods (like sports drinks, Coke, and more fruit) for a pick-me-up toward the end.  This isn’t an uncommon strategy, but it’s not what works for everyone.

I can’t tell you what will work for your stomach and your body.  I suggest recording what you eat during long runs and how it makes you feel, and experimenting with different eating strategies to find out what works best.

That’s it.  Doesn’t sound so hard, does it?

I’m not trying to downplay the difficulty of running an ultra.  It’s an incredible feat that only a tiny percentage of people will ever have the discipline and courage to do.  It requires a lot of work, especially when you consider that inside every ultrarunner, there’s a marathoner, something that requires plenty of work in its own right.

But I hope you can see that these first steps to training for an ultra don’t require any spectacular level of fitness, and that the thrill and pure joy and pride of finishing an ultramarathon aren’t reserved for some select group of extremely gifted athletes.

I’d be willing to bet that there’s an ultrarunner out there who is a lot like you.  Someone who has your body type, or at the very least, someone who had your body type at one time.  Someone who runs a marathon or a half marathon in the same time you do, but who also has the ability to run 50 miles in half a day.  And I know for a fact that there’s someone who is busy as hell, with a kid, grad school, a couple blogs, and something resembling a normal social life, who also manages to run ultras.

There’s not a big difference between ultrarunners and other runners.  Once you can run a marathon, the ability to run farther is there for you if you want it.  You just need to decide if you do.  If so, I can tell you that it’s been worth every mile.

This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong.  Go check out the rest!

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Comments

  1. This is a very motivating post for me. One of my bucket list goals is to run an ultramarathon. Learning that going from marathon to ultramarathon shape may not be as daunting as I think is comforting. Although I’m far from regular ole marathon shape right now, I know that I have been there, and I can get there again with a lot of effort and training.

  2. As an ultra runner and a marathoner, I can say that this advice is spot on.

    My first ultra was actually a training run for the marine corps marathon (7 weeks prior) that I finally decided on just a few weeks before the 50k and only because I was inspired by my trail buddies that had just finished their first 100 milers.

  3. I agree with the idea that ultra running is a bit too mystified. I can remember how I felt when I finished my first (and so far only) marathon, and, tired as I was, I’m pretty I still had enough in me to go an extra 5 miles to complete a 50K. Now, 50 miles is a whole different game…

  4. great post! i’m running my first ultra at the end of the month and i found myself nodding my head at pretty much everything you’ve said here. the point about going slow is, in my mind, the biggest thing that people need to wrap their heads around in order to make an ultra seem doable.

    i remember when i started running and the thought of completing an ultra was just mind-boggling. i was certain those distances were reserved for superhuman species that i had nothing in common with. and now? i’m running a marathon this sunday as a training run and i’m pretty relaxed about it.

  5. Thanks for the inspiration. Running an ultra is on my list of things to do. I’m going to go and work on my long term running schedule right now and see when an ultra would fit in.

  6. Great post! Out of curiosity (not for myself, but for my husband) what is the fast, flat ultra in California that your friend told you about?
    Thanks!

  7. Awesome post. I’ve recently began the journey towards running a 50k in April and I can’t wait. Assuming that it goes OK, there’s a 50m that I’d like to do the following September. Gotta stay healthy.

  8. My hubby did one this past summer. I thought he was crazy but since then, I’ve started doing short runs on the trails and while I’m not fast on the roads and certainly not on the trails, it’s now something that I’m considering.

    I need to find one with a generous time limit =).

  9. Thanks for the motivation, thanks to reading your website and others, I will be going form the Baltimore 1/2 to the Hat Run 50k in March! My only concern is that I am really slow on the roads…let alone trail running, so that is my biggest fear, that I will time out on my run. Any thoughts on Crossfit Endurance? Maybe I’ll head over to the No Meat Athlete Forums!

  10. I’ll be doing one of these soon. Just finished my first 1/2 marathon and I’m hooked. My first marathon will be in March and then the sky is the limit…

  11. Interesting post and very encouraging. Yet I have ZERO desire to run an ultra! (I don’t even run full marathons anymore!) But I do enjoy reading posts from crazy runners like you! :)

  12. You make it sound waaaay too easy! I’m sure I will never run an ultra marathon but this is definitely inspiring for me to run longer distances thoughl

  13. since I’m starting marathon training (again!) this November, I may catch running fever and start fantasizing about an ultra. It sounds like so. much. fun! And work. But yes. Fun :)

  14. Can’t agree more. The distance and course differences between ultras makes it hard to set a solid PR, so you just have PRs for courses. Look at the times at Rocky Raccoon v. those in Hardrock. All it is is putting one foot in front of the other and not stopping until you’re done. Simple.

  15. Thanks for the encouraging post! I’m thinking of doing an ultra next year.

  16. My husband won’t let me forget that I used to say I’d never run a marathon. I’ll be running #3 (Marine Corps) in three weeks!

    I still say I will never run 100 miles. I’m pretty sure I’ll never run 50 miles, but maybe I can’t rule it out completely :)

    And I’ve already been pondering my running club’s new 50K, two weeks after my marathon …

    • Do it! That’s an ideal time.

      Plus, 2 Marathons (or in this case a marathon and an ultra) within a 16 day time frame would qualify you to register with the Marathon Maniacs.

      Come on…you know you want to… ;)

    • What 50k and where? I’m searching for an Ohio one right about that time.

  17. Lovely post!

    I’ve never run a marathon, but will be running/walking a 24hr relay for cancer on Oct 16 and 17.

    I’m sure by Sunday, I’ll have grown a little tired of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I will have eaten over the previous 24 hours. :)

    For all those thinking about doing it…

    DO IT!

  18. Thanks! This is JUST what I needed to read this week! I’ve got two back to back marathons coming up & have been toying with the idea of a 50K th next month. Part of me thought, “What’s a few more miles?” The rest of me thought, ” Girl, you so crazee!”
    I’m built slow and can only expect to shave so much time off my marathon each time. But the idea of a little extra distance is very appealing.
    Thanks for the great information!

  19. I doubt I will ever run an ultra, I don’t even have time to run a full marathon. The half is the perfect distance for me. I will say though, since moving to Austin I have enjoyed trail running. Even though it’s a slower pace I find it a lot more enjoyable, and way better than running around hordes of people around the parks here in town.

    Maybe you should make a post about how you fit the mileage into your schedule. I don’t even have a child and couldn’t see any more than I run now (15 -20 a week).

  20. Daniel Donovan says:

    Haha I do about 75-80% of my running on Trails and I still fall occasionally!!

    • Daniel Donovan says:

      Oh I was going to say; you can also start by doing a trail marathon before going full ultra too if you like. Just to get you familiar with the rigors of running trails instead of road.

      It’s october now and I’ve had to scale my trail running back a bit which kinda stinks cause I love running on trails and all the awesome scenery that goes along with it.

  21. Cease and desist. How dare your reveal our Ultra secrets! Tear up your Union card! You swore to the oath that you wouldn’t divulge what we know to be true.

    (as a real ultra runner, you are absolutely correct.)

  22. Matt -

    I am proof – it can be done by a novice. After completing in two marathons in 2009 (one spring and one fall) I set out to complete an ultra marathon in 2010. In 2010 I actually ended up completing two 50k’s and made an attempt at a race over 50 miles but dnf’d at mile 63.6. The dnf was a learning experience, and I will be back to the race next year to finish it. The cool thing – I’ve only been running for two years! It can be done by a novice!

    I have a family, children and a demanding job…you simply have to make time for your training.

    I will warn everyone though – once you get out on the trails you will be hooked :)!

  23. Thanks so much for posting this Matt! I’ve signed up for my first Ultra this spring (the HAT run) and my stomach gets nervous just thinking about it. Thanks for alleviating some of my fears about attempting this as a mere mortal.

    And I just have to add how much I love your blog. I am a fellow Harford Count-ian who is also sometimes vegan, mostly vegetarian and I also enjoy experimenting as much as you! Keep up the good work!

    • Hey Amber, thanks for your comment! I’ll be running HAT too next year, so we’ll certainly get to meet then if not before. It’s a great race; the people who put it on do a terrific job.

      Are you a RASAC member, by any chance?

      • Oh great! I look forward to meeting you!

        I’m not a member of RASAC…yet. I know they have a trail running contingent that meets up for some group runs but I’ve always been nervous that they were way fast and might not be open to newbies (relatively speaking). I’ve only been at this for 3 years and only have 1 full marathon under my belt. Are my fears well based? If not, I’d be more likely to join. I definitely need some more people to run trails with as I get into some longer runs this winter…

  24. Amber – I am newish and slowish, and live in Baltimore. Maybe we should find our own Penguin Trail Brigade to train with. I also signed up for the HAT as my first Ultra Event…YIKES!

    • That’s a great idea Susan! Would love someone to train with this winter. We need to exchange emails! Let me know how to contact you privately :)

      • I’m over at the NMA community forums as Sunami also Private Email is knaligATyahooDOTcom(sorry didn’t want to pick up any spam machines on my email address). Matt said he was interested in doing a run too.

  25. I completed my first 50k last year (Mar 2010) after only having completed half marathons. I am a turtle, but I completed it and I proceeded to do another 1.5 months later. It’s funny, I actually did my first marathon in Sept 2010 (a trail marathon that is, I don’t do pavement) and it’s so true, when I finished the marathon, I felt like I could go another 5 miles. It’s all a mindset.

    Currently I’m nursing PF and I’m really bummed as it’s lottery time for my 50k in Mar, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to get in the training with my heel issue. :( Hopefully, I can work through this soon. It sucks not being able to run.

    Oh and yeah, your post is RIGHT ON about ultras. You might also throw in there that trail races are WAY more fun than road races. The volunteers and the food provided ROCK!

  26. Its a funny thing. I ran across America averaging 26 miles a day for 100 consecutive days. But an ultra of 50 or a 100 miles scares me. It won’t stop me, but it scares me. My longest distance to date has been 34 miles. I did many 30 mile days too. So I am confident that I can do it. Badwater, here I come. Thanks for the advice and fabulous column. Keep moving forward.

  27. Good post. My question is that I have been reading that you need to be logging at least 35-40 miles a week for the past 4 out of 6 months. I’m a decent athlete and have been running for years but more at the 20 mile per wk clip unt the past month where I have gotten bitten by the ultra bug and have been running at least 35-40 miles per week.

    I’ve been looking at they’ve Stone Mill 50 in November and starting a 4 month training program. Am I crazy? I don’t feel crazy but also don’t want my first ultra attempt to be a disaster.

    • @Dan. I ran my first ultra (50M) (and first race ever) 5 years ago at 35 yrs old. My training runs consisted of 12 miles (short) and 30 miles (long) as that was a convenient known lap distance. Week totals varied from 30+ to 50+ with day of rest and some cross training, biking, hill runs, etc. The important thing is to train every day no matter what; rain, snow, sun. Forget speed. Discipline is more important. Learning to put each foot in front of the other and keep on keeping on is best lesson. As a retired rugby player with partial foot amputation I learned to suck up the desire to quit long before. Put the miles in, listen to your body, eat right and you will do just fine. I trained for about 6 months going from 0 miles to race ready. Good luck!

  28. running farmer says:

    For anyone doubting your ability to complete an ultra a word of advice… go watch one, or better yet volunteer. The community is unreal and you will see firsthand all the “average joes” that are out there on the trails going far. One step at a time.

  29. running farmer says:

    For anyone doubting your ability to complete an ultra a word of advice… go watch one, or better yet volunteer. The community is unreal and you will see firsthand all the “average joes” that are out there on the trails going far. One step at a time.

  30. Do you have any plans on writing a beginners guide to the 50 mile?

  31. Coming across this blog comes at a perfect time for me. I’m training for my first 50k, and am a new vegetarian. Reading your site has been so encouraging~ I’m headed out today to get ingredients for your home made energy bars~ I’m excited~

  32. I was looking into running a 52 mile race at the end of september. i used to run but havn’t in a long time. i ran the 10 mile great south run in the UK a couple years ago…but not done much since!! i would be willing to work my ass off to get into shape for this in 37 weeks time. is that achievable??

  33. I ran Boston last year and my first ultra was the Pocatello 50 miler the following month. When my marathon friends ask me if I think they could do a 50k I tell them to sign up, go, and have fun! Do it like a marathon with a 5 mile cool down walk! After my 50 miler I swore I would never consider anything more. A month later I signed up for Bear 100 and ran that in September. I think people would be surprised how they well they would do and it is such a different atmosphere that is totally addictive. Happy Trails, Ryan

  34. havnt run at all for 12 years due to injuries etc. wanna start from scratch again n work up to ultras. Where should i start so that i can learn to run correctly like in the “born to run” book so as to avoid all previous injuries. Wanna learn all that landing on balls of feet n flicking heels up stuff.???

  35. ha ha, I went from half-marathon to 54k on 35ish miles per week, then 2 mths later ran a 50-miler. (trail, both of them). I did practice a couple of times on trails though, which was useful. I’ve got a 25k, marathon (my first 26.2! ha ha), 55k, then 50k coming up, still low weekly mileage. We’ll see how that goes, but I feel good about.

  36. Great post. I have ran marathons before and looking to run my first ultra this summer (aug) in the Phoenix area. Plan is to train like I do for my marathons with longer “long” runs. Thank you for your motivation!

  37. Amazing post; thank you for this! I always thought running a marathon was crazy as is, then I found ultramarathons and Ironmans, and thought, “Well you oughta be born an athlete or something because that just DOES NOT sound humanly possible! I can hardly do HIIT workouts for more than 30 minutes a day!”

    This post gave me hope!

    I was wondering, since training for ultramarathons is time consuming, would you still go to work? I mean, unless you are a paid athlete, where will your income come from? A post on time-scheduling would be fantastic!

    Thanks!

    D.

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  1. [...] The Marathon not long enough for you?  Try running an Ultra.  NoMeatAthlete has a great post how you can train for an Ultra and still have a life. [...]

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