10 Tips for a Successful First Ultra Marathon

Ultra-marathons have been gaining in popularity for some time now. As people rack up the marathons, they find themselves asking ‘what next?’. And so for many, ultramarathons (any distance over 26.2 miles) have rapidly become the logical next step, with the most common race distances being 50km, 50 miles, 100km and 100 miles.

So, if you’re looking for your next challenge and have got your eyes on an ultramarathon, here are 10 top tips to help you succeed in your first race:

Aerobic Capacity

As a runner, and especially as an ultra-runner, the main goal during the foundation phase of training is to reduce the production of lactate. Simply put, you want to be producing the majority of your energy, aerobically. Producing aerobic energy means you produce less lactate. One of the by-products of lactate build up is the fatiguing effect when running so it’s obvious why it’s something you want to avoid!

Spend more time training in Heart Rate Zone 1 or 2 (depending on your aerobic threshold in relation to your anaerobic threshold). This means easy effort. These runs should make up 60-70% of your training and for many will be slower than you think. It may even require you to walk. Don’t push the pace – just trust the process

Progression

One of the most effective ways to increase aerobic capacity is to prioritise volume over intensity. We can simply increase training volume through running for longer or running more frequently. However, one of the most common ways injuries occur is doing too much, too soon. So, we need to increase this volume gradually over an extended period of time. Ideally you want a good few months to dedicate to base building phases to increase volume slowly.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an exact science to it. The magical 10% rule is often cited as the way to increase weekly run mileage. However, for some, the increase in mileage is still too quick and for others not quick enough. You need to listen to your body and understand your performance and energy levels day to day. If these are adversely affected for an extended period of time, you may be increasing volume too quickly.

A method I like to use when coaching athletes is to work backwards from your goal race. Using recommended weekly mileages for particular ultra-distances, I simply work backwards reducing the volume each week, until I hit my first week of training. This is another argument for allowing adequate time to train for such events and to gradually increase mileage. See below for some recommended weekly mileages that you should hit in the last few weeks leading up to the race:

50k = 50-55 miles

100k = 60-80 miles

100 miler = 80-110 miles

For a runner competing in a 50k race in 12 weeks time, I would lay out weekly volume like this.

Week 12 = Taper

Week 11 = Taper

Week 10 = 55 miles

Week 9 = 50 miles

Week 8 = 25-30 miles (deload)

Week 7 = 45 miles

Week 6 = 40-42 miles

Week 5 = 35-37 miles

Week 4 = 15-20 miles (deload)

Week 3 = 30-35 miles

Week 2 = 27-30 miles

Week 1 = 20-25 miles

Again, this is just an example using the 10% rule as a guide but can easily be adjusted based on how the athlete handles the increase in volume. It will also require a lot of commitment as the weeks progress.

If you are looking at these weekly mileage goals and thinking it’s too much, the obvious question is could you complete an ultra on less mileage? The answer is yes, absolutely. But and this is the important bit – if you want to complete it and complete it well, training volume to build aerobic capacity is THE most important training method to achieve this. Listen to your body and progress slowly.

Specificity

During the early stages of running we want to build general fitness and skills to lay the foundations for more specific training during our peaking phases. The specific demands of the race are one such example. Typical ultras usually include some cheeky elevation gain and tough climbs. We want to try and mimic this environment in the last 6-8 weeks of our training. Most races advertise the total elevation gain which allows you to calculate the average elevation change per mile.

Total elevation change in feet/total miles = average elevation change per mile.

You can then use this average elevation change to select training routes that replicate such change. Obviously if you have access to the race route itself to train on then you’re golden.

Specificity will also apply to weather conditions, heat, nutrition practice and kit.

De-load Weeks

As discussed in tip 2, increase in training volume is key to improving endurance. However, recovery is where we adapt to such training and become fitter. Therefore, de-load weeks, where we reduce weekly mileage by about 30-50% of the previous week, allows that recovery to take place. We should incorporate de-load weeks every 4th week or every 3rd for older athletes.

Route Recces

As mentioned with specificity, route recces can give you insight into terrain, navigation and help develop nutrition strategies. If you can get the opportunity, route recces can massively help. It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re tired so time spent learning the route is always worth it.

Nutrition

Your gut needs to be trained like any other muscle and you do this through practice and repetition. Develop nutritional strategies during your long runs to help determine what food and drink works for you and to give you an understanding how you respond to fuelling. This is completely individual and will require a lot of trial and error. However, we can use some guidelines to help develop strategy through practice.

There are 3 key things we need to look at –

1. Calories, specifically carbohydrates

2. Electrolytes, focusing on sodium

3. Water

For carbohydrates, look at ingesting 40g per hour form the start if your event is over 2 hours. This can be increased to 60-80g per hour if required. You should be looking at replenishing around 30-40% of total calories lost during the run itself.

You should be looking at taking on 500-700mg of sodium per hour or 600-800mg per litre of water consumed.

As for water, you should be looking at around 500ml every hour. Obviously increase this if running in hotter climates.

Again, these are guidelines and will fluctuate based on distance, intensity and weather conditions. Hence the need to practice and develop what works for you. The key is, you need to refuel and hydrate and get used to doing so on the move. It’s also good to try and find around 5 foods that work for you to avoid food fatigue which can lead to not eating at all. Jason Koop recommends:

1 real food, something not specifically designed for running

1 sport engineered food, such as gels or bars

Something sweet

Something savoury

Something salty

Mindset

I was hoping to get across all I wanted about mindset and mental robustness within a few short words. Alas, I was naïve to think that I could talk about such a huge subject in a couple of paragraphs. I will dedicate a whole new article on this topic another day. For now, here are a couple of tips to help develop a strong mindset to endure an ultra-marathon.

Find your why: To be truly successful at anything, you need to have an emotional investment in achieving it. Your ‘why’ should have a deeper meaning than just I’m doing it because someone said I should or because I saw something on social media. If you don’t have a why that is meaningful to YOU, you’ll crumble as soon as things become challenging. It’s what can drive you to go out for a long run when the weather is crap and it’s dark outside. Lacking motivation is a load of rubbish. You’re not motivated because you don’t have a true emotional connection to why you’re doing it in the first place. Find and understand your why. If you can’t, perhaps that particular event isn’t for you.

An ultra is going to hurt. Just like a standard marathon, everyone hits low points. Understanding how your body deals with those low points and understanding yourself when things get hard or you get bored on the same old seemingly endless trail road is key to developing a robust mindset. Get into the habit of recording such thoughts and feelings post run so that you can begin to challenge why you feel like that and begin to rewrite the narrative in your head.

Developing a positive self-belief in your ability comes from structured and consistent training. Without this, you’re already mentally disadvantaged at the start line especially when you ask yourself the inevitable questions like ‘Am I ready for this?’ If you’ve done the training, then you know the answer is a resounding yes. If a proper constructed training program seems like it’s too much to take on, then reassess your why. Accountability to yourself and/or a coach will help with consistency in the long-term whether that be through purchasing a plan, hiring a running coach or potentially raising sponsorship.

Finally, get comfortable being uncomfortable. Don’t skip the hard sessions, train in awful weather and reap the rewards of how epic you feel after tackling such things. It helps develop a stoicism that can’t be gained from anything other than just tackling the hard stuff head on and not complaining about it. GET.IT.DONE.

Kit

A lot of ultra-marathons have a mandatory kit list in which you must have on you at all times. This can include map and compass, survival bag, whistle and waterproofs. Ensure you have all this kit and train with it. Ensure you can pack it correctly, so your pack/vest sits comfortably and doesn’t rattle about. Invest in a good waterproof running jacket, especially if you’re doing 50 mile + events in the UK. It can be a game changer. A lot of runners have very positive experiences with running poles/sticks too. I personally have used them more since racing in the Lake District, utilising them on the big climbs.

Ensure you’ve got the right trainers for the terrain. If you’re running on trail/bridleways etc then most trail shoes will be adequate. If you’re racing on more mountainous/wet rock and technical descents a shoe with at least 5mm lugs (tread on the bottom) would help keep grip and confidence. Overall shoes should just be comfortable and fit well.

Feet

I’m not going to dwell too much on this one. Check out the book ‘fix your feet’ by John Vonhof. There may be some strategies in there to help overcome blisters and other foot issues.

Failure to Prepare is Preparing to Fail

I hated it when people used phrases like that when I was in the military. However, when surveys have been conducted after some ultra-marathons, one of the most common responses for why some participants DNF’d or didn’t perform as well as they hoped, was a lack of preparation i.e. not enough training, lack of adequate kit or poor nutrition. These are all easy wins, and too often we focus on super lightweight kit or the latest graphene grip shoes or fucking snap back hats at the expense of structured training and practicing nutrition. Be prepared. Whilst I know life gets in the way sometimes, if you’ve established your why, given yourself enough time to train and carried out a structured training plan, you should always hit the start line prepared.



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