Stepping up: preparing for an ultra-race
Are you a regular marathon runner looking for a step up? If 26 miles is starting to feel like a walk in the park, why not give an ultra-marathon a try? Classed as any race over the standard marathon length, these tests of endurance take place all over the world and vary in length, intensity and terrain. Some will reward you with beautiful vistas, and others with grueling hill climb. Either way, you’ll need to train carefully if you want to rise to the challenge.
Our guide below shares our tips for preparing for your first ultra-race. Ready to get started?
Need to knows
Firstly, don’t see ultra-marathons as an overly macho thing; they’re more about completion than competition and focus more on personal success than performance. You’ll still need to train carefully to take part and bear in mind that distance running is a whole different type of discipline with its own set of training techniques. Remember to pay attention to your body as you go and remember that ultimately, an ultra is meant to be enjoyable!
Distances for ultra-marathons can vary wildly, from the challenging JFK 50 mile to the near-insane 333km of La Ultra. The main difference with running large distances is that you generally need to run slower to conserve energy – many participants actually walk some sections of their race, especially near the beginning. You can use a heart-rate monitor to slow your pace during training if you need to. You’ll also need to learn how to run on tired legs, as some level of fatigue will be inevitable.
It’s recommended that you allow yourself around three months to train for an ultra. It’ll come as no surprise that you’ll need to run a lot in the weeks leading up to your challenge; you will need to be able to run the full distance in back-to-back days before attempting your race. It’s also a good idea to do some strength training alongside your running to reduce the risk of injury, as well as other types of low-level cardio exercise (such as cycling) to help build up your endurance.
Pay attention to your body as you run and use the aid stations along the way if you need to. It’s unlikely you’ll make it all the way without feeling some kind of pain – you’ll be pushing your body to its limits – but you will need to be the judge about how much is too much, especially if you have pre-existing injuries. Cross training may help to prevent injuries by improving your overall fitness, so try to work some of this into your training regime.
Like any long-distance race, you will need to carb load the evening before, but try to eat something that you’re used to, that’s easy to digest (an ultra-marathon is no place for an upset stomach!) You’ll also need to refuel as you race; as well as staying hydrated, it’s recommended that you eat around 200-400 calories per hour, or eat some kind of high-energy snack every 30 minutes. If you struggle to eat solid food while running, you can try energy gels to give you the boost you need.
Mind over matter
Don’t neglect to think about your mental health. An ultra-marathon is meant to be a challenge and you will find it both mentally and physically tough. You will likely get very tired at some point in the race and you will need to use your will to keep yourself moving. The biggest thing to remember is to enjoy your race. You’ll find your other racers supportive and helpful so try to drink in the atmosphere and enjoy the moment.
Have we convinced you? If you feel like signing up to your first ultra, check out our ultramarathon page for our full selection or worldwide events. And ultra-races aren’t limited to just running: you’ll also find ultra-swims, ultra-cycles and ultra-paddles to try – so take a look!