An ultramarathon is a run longer than a marathon. Because most ultras are run off-road, please first read the trail running page. This article will specifically address training for, and running in ultras – not how to be trail savvy.
First off, for most mortals, running an ultra is probably not a good warm up for an “A race” ironman. It is not uncommon to need upwards of a week of serious recovery after a 50 mile race. But if you have an early season IM race, and don’t want your season to be done in May or June, picking a fall ultra definitely falls under the “doing cool s*$^ with your fitness” motto!
Building up to your first ultra
Just as in the leap from olympic triathlons up to long course, there’s a big leap from a marathon to a 50 miler, or even a 50 kilometer run. While the distances are believable from a fitness point of view, one must run an ultra very differently from how you would run a marathon. The assumption here is that most ultras are on trails, and most ultras contain a significant amount of climbing – and descending.
I’ve heard people on marathon courses complain about the “hills” – when the only bump in the road is a freeway overpass. In contrast, the Western States 100 starts out with about 2000 feet of climb in the first 3 miles!! Oh, and the start is at 6,000 feet! Many triathletes will survive the climbs due to strong thighs and glutes from biking, but the matching descents can really tear you up. Start slow and build up. Rushing into running hills can send you to the doc.
A great way to learn about how to run an ultra is to volunteer. Ask to be at an aid station out on the course (as opposed to helping with registration!). This will teach you a lot about what people are wearing, how they are running, eating, and acting (the ‘vibe’ is much different than at tris and shorter running races). Many groups that put on trail races will give you a 1/2 off credit for a future race if you volunteer, which is an additional perk.
Many ultraraces provide shorter distances as well. Your first race should probably not be more than a 1/2 marathon or a 30k (18 miles). Run EASY, learn, talk with other racers, enjoy the scenery. This is a training/learning run!
Another way to gain HUGE amounts of experience and knowledge – for free – is to pace another racer. Many races (generally only 50 miles or longer) allow registered runners to be acompanied by a pacer for the second half of the race. You get to run the course, eat the aid station food, and enjoy some great company. If you are looking to race past 50 miles, I would STRONGLY encourage you to first pace another runner. Some races have discussion forums (or Facebook groups) that will light up with requests for pacers in the months before a race.
Selecting an ultra
There are two main kinds of races: Distance races, and timed races. There are four primary ultra distances: 50k, 50m, 100k, 100m. For timed races, these are mostly in 12 and 24 hour flavors – run around a loop for the time, most miles run wins.
The calendar at the Ultrarunning magazine website is one of the most comprehensive lists of ultras. Start there to find races. A nice feature of their calendar is that it includes two ranking numbers – one for terrain (how much climbing), and one for surface (paved, dirt, technical rock). PLEASE pay attention to these numbers – and for your first couple of ultras…UNDERestimate your abilities. When the surface ranking gets to a 3 (out of 5), these trails can be quite difficult to run. A level 1 or 2 is managable, but it is not uncommon to see at least some blood at the end of a level 3, 4, or 5 race.
Some people love courses with tons of climbing, some don’t. Pay very close attention to the profile contours that are provided on most race sites. And keep in mind that the scale is pretty crunched – fitting 100 miles of contour into a 3 inch picture means you are missing a LOT of detail.
Race specific training
A big surprise to many new ultrarunners is the amount of time spent walking during a race. Many courses have prolonged (more than a mile) sections where you are best off walking – so you need to train to walk! Walking (quickly) up a steep hill uses different muscles than you are used to using – and the hills can go on for 15 minutes to an hour or more(no joking!). Try to find a hill that resembles the most knarly on the race course and walk quickly up, and run hard down, lather, rinse, repeat.
It is important to do some of your training at your actual race pace/intensity. Your running mechanics might change substantially when you are running this slow – and you’ll be doing it for a long time. Make sure your ultra race pace running is as smooth and efficient as when you are pushing it.
You MUST practice running downhill. There is a right way to run downhill, and a wrong way. The wrong way is slow, hurts, tears up your quads, and kicks up a lot of dust (which will make you popular with your competitors right before they blow by you on the trail). There is a big section on running downhill in the ‘Special Techniques’ section of the trail running page. Read it, try it, practice it. DO NOT try it first time on race day! Remember when we talked about ‘blood’ earlier?!?!
Another aspect that needs to be worked out in your training is race day nutrition. In most 5k – marathon races there are aid stations every mile or so. Not in ultras. It is not uncommon for aid stations to be 5 or 7 miles apart, which for most runners will be an hour or more of running. Oh, and since many aid stations are remote, you CANNOT trust that they’ll have all kinds of goodies…or that they will be there at all in some smaller races! There is also a very real possibility that you will get lost. It happens. A lot. Usually this just means “bonus miles!” – the point is, make sure you are equipped to carry enough water, and train with that equipment.
If your race will start, or end, in the dark, be prepared to run with a light. Know how it feels to run on an uneven trail at night – it takes practice. Some people have a hard time doing this – they get dizzy and disoriented. That doesn’t get better after running 50 miles! Practice with your equipment.
Be prepared to be underwhelmed!! The atmosphere at most ultras is almost sleepy! Five minutes before race start some guy will stand up with a bull horn and say a bunch of stuff that nobody can hear, and those that can hear can’t understand it anyhow. Someone will say go…and you’re off.
The ultra-mantra is: “Start slow, then slow down”. The good news is that ultra racing lends itself well to Endurance Nation style pacing. The EN guidance on riding a bike up a steep hill translates directly to ultra racing. You will feel like you are going backwards as people pass you going up hill. Smile, offer them kind words, you will see them again 😉 Use your uphill walk to adjust equipment, pop a salt tablet, drink, stretch. As the crest of the hill approaches and the trail levels some, start jogging. At the top, start your run. The others who ran past you a while back will now start going the other way. You are now flying downhill on fresh legs and a clear head.
Just like using a power meter to restrain yourself on a bike climb, a heart rate monitor can do you a big favor in an ultra. Aim to keep your HR stable between the flats and the climbs. Even more difficult is keeping your HR constant on the descents. It’s common to drop 25 beats from your HR going downhill. And while it’s probably inevitable that it will go down some – fight it, and RUN the downhills. Running downhill intelligently is where the smart ultra runner wins the race.
Because it’s next to impossible to apply your road pacing to a hilly ultra, we are left with Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), and Heart Rate (HR). My (untested!) suggestion: shoot for a target HR of 70% of your threshold HR (your flat 10k HR).
Like a long course tri, you will probably want to have someone drive you home if the race is local. A 2 hour car trip after a 50 miler is torture. No really…torture. Cruise control can help 🙂