Ultimate Guide To Ultra-Marathon Training

Preparing for an ultra needn’t take over your life – here are the rules of smart long-distance training.


RW Editors |

Not long ago, a runner planning to race 80 kilometres in one go would have been branded a maniac. But today more and more runners are making the leap to ultra running. Having run all kinds of event, including ultras, I can see why. The wild courses can make road races look bland. There’s the fun of running for the unadulterated enjoyment – up to marathon distance the focus is often on your time, but that yardstick becomes irrelevant on hugely varying ultra courses, and the experience becomes the priority.

Then there’s the mental challenge – modern life offers few opportunities to push ourselves to our physical and mental limits. Ultra running is all about that journey. An ultra is certainly a serious undertaking, but it’s achievable if you follow some clear guidelines, and have a solid training plan and plenty of determination. Here is the essential information you’ll need to train for and tackle an ultra. But be warned: this is an addictive pastime.

Get ready

A 80-kilometre race will earn you your ultra badge of honour – it’s a challenge, for sure, but not so far as to be so intimidating you daren’t even try it. To take it on, you need to be fit enough to be able to run for two hours without stopping. Previous marathon experience is valuable, to give you an idea of the kind of fatigue you’ll need to be prepared for in training and the event.

‘The fact ultras are tough should motivate your desire to train,’ explains Scholes. ‘No one bets they’ll finish a 80 kilometre run – there’s too much that can go wrong. So coming up short on your preparation isn’t an option’. To make sure yours goes to plan, Scholes advises smart scheduling and flexibility. ‘Moving sessions is fine; it’s only when you regularly start missing them that it becomes an issue.’

Time your sessions to replicate race conditions, says Anderson. ‘In any ultra you’ll need to push through exhaustion, but running 80 kilometres in training to simulate running tired takes more time than most of us have. You can get the experience by getting up three hours earlier than usual and running longer sessions then.’

And don’t neglect recovery. ‘Running doesn’t make you fitter, recovery does.’

Pacing the race

On race day, pace is everything and with an ultra this means starting slowly.

‘Those first 16-25 kilometres will feel ridiculously easy,’ says Anderson, ‘but resist temptation. Anyone can be a hero at the start of an ultra, it’s being a hero at the end that matters.’ Here’s an extreme example: one year I started the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in last position and built up gradually, making up over a thousand places to sneak into the top half of the finishers. To be overtaking rather than being overtaken at the end of a race is a massive mental boost.

And don’t be afraid to have walk breaks. Marching uphill uses less energy than running, is only a little slower and saves your energy for the flats and descents.

Body armour

Focus on your form, strength and stretching to ensure minor issues don’t become big problems.

Increase your cadence

This is the number of times your feet hit the ground in a minute. A quicker cadence lightens your footfall and reduces ground contact time, which helps lower injury risk. ‘Don’t worry too much about a number, just try to gently increase your cadence until things feel lighter underfoot,’ advises form expert James Dunne. Most runners find success in the 165-185 stride-per-minute range.

Avoid overstriding

‘When you land your foot too far ahead of you, it’s like putting the brakes on, and you overload your ankles, knees, hips and lower back,’ says Dunne. ‘Runners should aim to land each step beneath the knee.’

Smooth and light

‘Being smooth and light is more important than style,’ explains Dunne. ‘Just be careful not to go so far with increasing cadence that you end up running right on your toes – if there’s no time to allow heel contact you’ll overload the calves and Achilles tendon.’

Stretch your hips

Tight hips are a common problem in people who sit at a desk all day. ‘Sitting for long periods tightens the front of the hip, inhibiting the glutes and lengthening the hamstrings so you don’t get enough propulsion,’ says Dunne. ‘The body then generates this from the calf and Achilles instead, and injury comes next. For ultras, hip mobility is vital’. To loosen your hips, do this stretch regularly: kneeling on one knee and keeping your body upright, lean forward while tensing the glute and quad in the kneeling leg. Do this until you feel a pull around the hip flexor, and hold for 20 seconds. Relax and swap legs. Repeat on both sides, but this time squeeze your glute for a second when you find the stretch point: do this 20 times.

Know your pain

Learn the difference between good and bad pain. You feel good pain evenly all over, like a warm general soreness – this is the sign of hard work well done. Bad pain is focused in one place, doesn’t go away, worsens with ongoing training and needs immediate attention.

3 Key Ultra Strength Moves

To hold form you need strength in your glutes, lower back and hamstrings. Target them with these exercises.

1/ Squats

With your feet shoulder-width apart, lower down and push your bum back. Make sure your knees don’t move in front of your toes. Pause when your thighs are parallel to ground, then squeeze your glutes to push back to the start position. 3×15 reps

2/ Glute bridges

Lie on your back with your arms by your sides and your knees bent. Squeeze your glutes and slowly lift your bum until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold this position for a couple of seconds, then slowly lower yourself back tothe ground. 3×15 reps

3/ Swiss ball hamstring curls

Lie on your back with your arms at your sides and your heels resting on top of a Swiss ball. Raise your hips so your body forms a straight line, then engage your hamstrings to bend your knees and pull the ball towards your bum. Return to the starting position. 3×10 reps

Fuel purpose

Choose real foods

You need maximum nutrients to cope with training demands. Go big on leafy greens, fresh veg, fruit, nuts, oily fish and lean meats – they reduce acidity and inflammation.

Focus on fat-burning

Maximise your ability to burn fat – it delivers the most stable release of energy. Glycogen (carb) stores are burned more quickly when you run faster, only last a couple of hours and need topping up on long runs. With fat as your primary fuel source your aim should be minimal, not maximal, carb consumption. In the preparation phase, boost your healthy-fat intake (with foods such as nuts, avocados and oily fish), reduce your sugar intake (it inhibits your ability to access fat stores), practise training on an empty stomach occasionally and be disciplined on long sessions – staying at conversational pace or slower keeps you in a fat-burning state.

Test race nutrition

In training, test everything from gels to cheese sandwiches to find what works. For such a long race, you need to know what foods are best for you.

Think Tough

1/ Define your ‘why’

Why are you doing this? ‘You have to know at the start of a journey such as this the reason you’re on it and you must anticipate the obstacles ahead,’ says endurance coach George Anderson. ‘Imagine beforehand what you’ll say to yourself in the tough times’.

2/ Find your mantra

Mine is from Winston Churchill and is simply this: ‘Never, never, never give up’. Find yours and call on it in times of extreme mental or physical exhaustion.

3/ Just start

Don’t want to train but know you should? Make a deal with yourself that you can pull out of the session after ten minutes. This will get you out the door and when the ten-minute mark rolls around, the chances are you’ll be feeling great and will keep going.

4/ Break down the challenge

As endurance-running coach Neil Scholes puts it, ‘you can’t eat an elephant in one go’. Don’t think about running 80 kilometres – that’s too scary – break it into manageable pieces, whether that’s checkpoint to checkpoint or, when things are tough, footstep to footstep – whatever it takes.

5/ Celebrate your achievements

Whether it’s nailing another training session or reaching another checkpoint in the race, recognise how far you’ve come and take strength from what you’ve achieved.

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