10 Tips All Runners Can Learn from Ultramarathoners
Once solely the domain of a handful of elite runners willing to go the distance for a belt buckle and bragging rights, the sport of ultrarunning is now becoming mainstream -- almost. More and more runners are attempting to test their metal with challenges of 50 to 100 miles or more. But it’s not just the distance that counts; it’s battling sometimes backbreaking terrain, mercurial weather conditions, injuries and soul-wrenching fatigue and still having the will to keep going. If you’ve been bitten by the ultrarunning bug, temper your glory daydreams with a dose of reality: You’re in for a challenge. Set yourself up for success by learning the secrets of seasoned ultrarunners who have “been there, done that.” And even if your goal is something much more “sane” -- say to run a mile without walking or to finish your first 5K or 10K -- you can still learn a lot from these ultramarathon runners.
1. Find Your Motivation
Check everything you thought you knew about running at the door when you sign up for your first race (especially if it’s an ultra), including your reasons for doing it. It’s not enough to want to raise money for a charity, lose weight or impress your friends. Those goals alone will not get you to the finish line of your first 50-miler, says competitive ultrarunner and coach Sean Meissner of Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching. “You really have to personally want to do it. It’s not something you should be doing for someone else. There needs to be an intrinsic reason for going that far,” he says. Meissner’s motivation? A simple love of the sport. “Going out for three or four hours is an awesome day. I just love being out there.”
2. Build a Solid Base
Ultramarathon training is demanding, sure, but so is starting any running training program if you’re a newbie. The longer you run, the more stress you heap on your body, making the risk of injury that much higher. Before you even pick out a race and start training for it, go back to basics. Competitive ultrarunner Ann Trason recommends strengthening your tendons, ligaments and muscles by following a program of easy running, running/walking, biking, swimming, basic strength training and flexibility exercises. Take time to address imbalances in your body by consulting a physical therapist, if possible. Imbalances in the hips, for example, can lead to back and knee pain, especially when compounded by the demands of training.
3. Train for Your Race-Day Course
Racecourses are as varied as the locations in which they are held. The Bear Chase 50-miler in Lakewood, Colorado, is a fast, relatively flat course in a temperate climate. Compare that to the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley, California, billed “the world’s toughest foot race,” due in part to sweltering temperatures and 13,000 feet of elevation gain. You won’t finish Badwater by training for the Bear Chase. “To make the most of your training, replicate the racecourse as closely as possible,” recommends ultrarunner and run coach Jen Barker. “Mimic the terrain and hills, or better yet, train on the actual racecourse.”
4. Increase Your Mileage Slowly
Depending on what distances you’ve been running and your race-day goal, your training schedule could see a huge increase in mileage. The most important piece of advice experts agree on is to increase your mileage slowly. “If you go in and you up your mileage too quickly, you’re going to risk impending injuries due to the fact that you’re doing too much too soon and your body’s not strong enough to handle it,” says corrective exercise specialist and running coach Elizabeth Azze. Build a solid base first and slowly increase the time or distance of your long runs each week.
5. Do Back-to-Back Long Runs
In ultra training, one weekly long run often isn’t enough to prepare your body for the demands of running 50, 100 or 150 miles straight. In addition to your weekly long run, you’ll want to include some secondary long runs on consecutive days. “Back-to-back training runs are key in ultra training,” says ultrarunner Jen Barker. “Two days in a row of long runs will help you learn what it feels like to run on tired legs. It will also help you practice your mental tricks to keep pushing when all you really want to do is go back to bed,” she says. You don’t have to do doubles every weekend, though. Endurance coach Sean Meissner suggests doing them every fourth weekend to avoid overtraining.
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6. Find a Group to Run With
Long runs can be daunting and lonely and take some getting used to. The shorter midweek runs can be a slog, too, after a long day at work, and especially in the winter months, says running coach Sean Meissner. “That time of year, there’s not as much daylight for training. There are plenty of groups, though, that meet at night with headlamps.” Take to the Web to find other runners and running groups in your area. Even if you can only find compatriots for your shorter midweek runs, they’ll ensure you don’t miss out on those important training days and offer you encouragement -- albeit, from afar -- for your longer solo runs.
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7. Carry Enough Fluids
Getting 10 miles out on a trail only to realize you’re running out of water is a surefire way to guarantee a bad training experience. It’s also dangerous. “A pretty standard rule of thumb is to try to get 16 to 20 ounces of fluid in per hour. If it’s hot, more than that,” says ultrarunner Sean Meissner. If you’re out on the trail for three hours, that’s at least 48 ounces, or 1.5 liters of fluids. To carry all that liquid you’ll need a pack or vest with a reservoir and/or bottles that’s made for trail running, meaning it’s light and fits snugly so it doesn’t bounce when you run. Meissner also recommends carrying two different types of hydration -- water and an electrolyte drink -- and switching between them to ensure you replenish electrolytes lost through sweat.
8. Don’t Skip Strength Training and Flexibility Work
Running is an important part of your training regimen, but it shouldn’t be the only part. Keeping your body flexible and strong will help you run better and prevent injury, says corrective exercise specialist Elizabeth Azze. “Ultrarunning is different because you end up carrying a backpack with your hydration pack in it, so you need to maintain a strong core,” she says. Also, when fatigue sets in, your posture starts to deteriorate; having strong core muscles can counteract that and improve your running mechanics. Hip and glute strength is also important to decrease the risk of knee and IT band injuries. Azze recommends a short post-run training regimen on easy-run days consisting of functional bodyweight exercises, such as single-leg deadlifts, glute bridges, hamstring curls with a Swiss ball and supermans. She also urges runners to stretch every day to keep the ankles, calves and feet supple.
9. Expect a Slower Pace
All ultramarathons have some sort of elevation gain (some of them gain thousands of feet). In addition, the trail surface may range from hard-packed earth to soft sand. “These two variables mean that you will likely move one to two minutes per mile slower on trails than your normal road pace, and that’s OK,” says ultrarunner Jen Barker. You may move considerably slower than that as a beginner and toward the end of a race when fatigue sets in. Setting out to run an ultramarathon at your marathon pace will only end in disappointment and possibly injury. “Get used to moving a bit more slowly, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the scenery,” says Barker.
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10. Dial in Your Nutrition Plan
“For most folks, successfully completing an ultramarathon takes more of a nutrition plan than just grabbing what’s available at aid stations,” says ultrarunner Jen Barker. “Chances are you will be moving more slowly and climbing more hills, thus burning more calories for a longer period of time than in a road marathon,” she says. According to ultrarunner Sean Meissner, 200 to 250 calories per hour is a good place to start. You also need to determine what source -- gels, drinks or real foods -- works best for you. Meissner says simpler sugars from gels are easier to process during harder efforts, and real foods, like potatoes and cookies, can be consumed during easier efforts. The most important thing is not to wait until race day to figure out what you’re going to eat -- that can lead to GI problems. Test out your nutrition plan on your long training runs well in advance of race day.
Go the Distance
Ultrarunners are a different breed. They’re passionate about getting out on the trails for long periods of time -- often solo -- and enjoying all the pain and the pleasure that comes along with it. If you’ve started to train for your first ultramarathon, or you’ve already completed one, what’s your motivation? What have you learned in your training so far? Do you have any tips to add to those of our experts? If you’re not an ultrarunner but love to run, what’s your next running goal? What tips do you have to keep you going? Leave a comment below -- we love hearing from you!
Jody Braverman is a professional writer and editor based in Atlanta. She studied creative writing at the American University of Paris and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Maryland. She also received personal trainer certification from NASM and her 200-hour yoga teacher certification from YogaWorks.