How to Train for Your First Ultramarathon

Men running in a ultramarathon

Are you ready to tackle the trails on your first ultramarathon?

Ever signed up a challenge on a whim only to wake up the next day and regret it? That’s me in a nutshell. I’m a sucker for getting carried away with hatching crazy plans, whilst blithely ignoring the preparation required to see them through.

Take last weekend. I went to a friend’s daughter’s christening and got chatting to a few people. At some point between the dousing of the baby’s head and the cutting of the cake, I found myself nodding in agreement when a friend casually asked if I fancied keeping her company on a training run in November. “Great,” she said, “it’s only 45-miles, though we’ll need to set off early to make the most of the daylight.”

One thing I forgot to mention. This particular friend is one of the increasing band of people who put themselves through hours, if not days, of torturous running. For fun, apparently. I had always considered that some day I may want to try an ultramarathon, in that vague non-commital sense of wanting to have done one without having to go through the actual doing part. It appears she’s called my bluff.

For context, though I have done a fair bit of off-road running, I have never run a marathon and at the time of agreeing to this challenge, the furthest I had run for a good many months was about six miles. So I’m pretty much starting from scratch.

Having signed up for a challenge I am utterly unprepared for and have no idea whether I can actually do, my first step should have been to develop a training plan and get out running. However as a compulsive procrastinator researcher, my actual first step was to spend hours on Google searching for articles titled, ‘How to go From Couch to Ultramarathon in Ten Weeks!’ (Clue – they don’t exist.)

So to help all you new wannabe ultramarathoners avoid falling into the same trap, here’s what I have learnt from my many hours of research.

Leave yourself enough time to train

Ok, so I’ve already failed on this one, but this is a definite example of “do as I say not as I do”. Presuming you’re a bit more sensible than me when it comes to planning your challenges, pick an event that’s far enough out to support a gradual increase in your training volume.

How long this will be depends on your current level of fitness, experience in running longer events and how long the ultramarathon is you’ve signed up for. Runner’s World have a sixteen week training plan to get you prepared for a 50-mile ultramarathon. Sixteen weeks that is, if you’ve already run a few marathons. Perhaps better suited for those of us who don’t pop out a marathon every other weekend is this sixteen week plan, which builds the ‘long’ runs up gradually from ten miles.

Mix up your training

One piece of advice I’m definitely taking on board is to cross-train. This is partly an injury-prevention strategy and partly to keep my motivation up (I have a very low boredom threshold – possibly not the best trait for a long-distance runner).

The most popular forms of cross-training seem to be cycling and swimming. Both sports exercise your muscles and improve cardio without the impact associated with running. I’m also a big fan of walking, plus it’s a bit easier to persuade friends / family to go on a hike with you rather than a run. (You definitely want to take any opportunity to sneak training into your social life, unless you want to become a hermit for a few months.)

I’m also trying to keep my climbing up, as I figure the upper body and core workout will help balance all that lower body exercise. Yoga could be a good alternative for those who aren’t a fan of hauling themselves up vertical walls. The RunUltra website has a great article detailing different cross training sessions which is well worth a read.

Strengthen your body

I am a stereotypical lazy runner. My hip flexors are inflexible, my glutes are withered and over the years I have developed a running style that I strongly suspect fails to engage any of the key muscle groups involved in good running posture.

But I know deep down, that I will not have a chance of getting up to ultramarathon distance without getting injured, unless I tackle these fundamental issues. So I’m working on all those horribly painful strength exercises I have always avoided – mainly those that involve the word ‘squat’.

To help your hips keep working as they should, check out this set of four exercises, requiring nothing more than a theraband. If you have a bit more time (and equipment) then try this comprehensive set of ten strength and conditioning exercises.

Train off road

Most ultramarathons are off-road affairs. I like to think this is because if they ran them on roads, people would collapse from a combination of boredom and repetitive strain injury miles from the finish line.

You may not be breaking any PBs by switching from the road to the trail, but ultramarathons are not about speed (unless you’re a super elite runner). As well as getting to enjoy communing with nature and avoiding inhalation of car fumes, trail running is harder work, so you get more bang for your buck. And as the surfaces are typically uneven, you’ll be concentrating so hard on where to place your feet that you won’t have a chance to get bored.

Listen to your body

Yes, training is hard. And a lot of the time, you have to push through those moments where you feel tired, achy and want to give up, otherwise you won’t make any progress. But not always. Sometimes when your body is screaming at you to stop, it’s for a good reason – a warning sign that if you carry on you’re risking injury or illness.

Ultramarathon training is (quite literally) a marathon, not a sprint. So if your body is telling you to take it easy then relax, take a few days off and catch up on your Game of Thrones box set. Your legs will thank you for it.

Figure out what you can eat

“But surely I can eat whatever I want if I’m doing this much training?” I hear you all cry. But not whilst you’re running. One of the hardest things about transitioning from half marathons or marathons to longer distances is getting your eating strategy right. It’s not so much a case of what you like to eat, but what you can eat and (as far as possible) keep down.

Obviously this is not something you want to test out on the day of your race. And if you’re not used to eating whilst you exercise, then it may take you a while to figure out what your body does and doesn’t like. This isn’t just about stuffing your face; there is a science behind it. Although you typically burn around 400-600 calories an hour whilst running, your body can only actually absorb 240 to 280 calories. So if you scoff too much, your stomach may literally reject it.

Equally whilst gels and bars may get you through a marathon, you’re going to need some ‘real’ food to keep you going for eight hours on the trails. Find out what is going to be on offer at the feed stations on your ultramarathon event and test it out during your training sessions. See what your body likes and what it doesn’t. And as a last resort carry some ginger to chew on if you’re feeling nauseous. I haven’t tested it myself (yet), but ginger is well known for helping to steady a dodgy tum.

Three tips for ultramarathon success

If all else fails, remember these three things and you should have a pretty good chance of getting to the start line of an ultramarathon, and completing it:

  • Get a lot of hours under your feet
  • Don’t get injured
  • Work out what you can eat without puking (too much).

Whoever said this ultramarathon lark was hard?

If you have any tips for training and racing ultramarathons, please share them in the comments below. Honestly, I need all the help I can get!

  2 comments for “How to Train for Your First Ultramarathon

  1. November 23, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Valuable info. Fortunate me I found your site accidentally, and I’m surprised why this coincidence didn’t happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

    • Alison Ingleby
      November 27, 2016 at 5:52 pm

      That’s great Milda, I hope you enjoy the other posts.

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