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.
Make 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.
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!