Maybe you've run a marathon and are looking for your next challenge. Or, maybe you heard that someone ran a 200-mile race and thought it was a typo. (Nope! Races this long actually exist.)
Whatever the case, you probably want to know what it takes to train for an ultramarathon (often referred to as just an ultra): from the basics— what is an ultramarathon, exactly? — to the nitty-gritty of how to choose a training plan.
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Consider this your pre-training training plan to get you ready for the challenge of choosing and preparing for your first ultra. Because ultramarathons are more approachable than you might think.
What Is an Ultramarathon?
How long is an ultramarathon? An ultramarathon distance isn't one set number of miles. It's simply any race longer than a marathon (which is 26.2 miles). So, technically, a 26.3-mile race would be considered an ultramarathon.
Because of this, one runner could complete an ultra that is 50 miles, while another may have finished a 100-mile race. The large span between ultra distances makes it almost impossible to use a cookie-cutter training plan, but there are some aspects that hold true no matter how long of an ultra you plan on running.
"Ultras typically come in these common distances: 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers and 100 miles," Ian Torrence, lead ultra running coach for Sundog Running, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "In the last few years, 200-mile races have become popular, as well." You might also see races that cover 40 miles, 72 miles and 135 miles — the options are endless.
Torrence goes on to share that ultras can be held on trails, roads, tracks or a combination of any or all of these surfaces. That said, trails are most common, and trail running is harder than road or track running in the sense that you need to approach training runs by time versus distance. This is because running on a trail — with considerations for altitude, incline and terrain — takes much longer than running on the road or track.
"Preparing for an ultra-distance race on trail terrain is more complicated than preparing for a road race, because it's not enough to simply run fast and long," Sarah Lavender Smith, ultrarunner, running coach and blogger at TheRunnersTrip.com, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "An ultra-distance trail runner needs to develop trail-specific skills and endurance to handle the variability and technicality of the terrain and elevation profile." For that reason, trail runners will spend more time on their feet.
How Hard Is Ultra Running on Your Body?
You've likely heard the folklore: Running is bad for your knees. Though, research from the past decade, like this February 2017 study in Arthritis Care & Research, has indicated running regularly can strengthen joints and, in part, protect your knees from osteoarthritis.
But, isn't too much of anything unhealthy? In other words, to what degree can running be detrimental to your body? As to be expected, the research around this divisive topic is a bit mixed.
"Generally, the adaptations that occur during the process of training for an ultramarathon tends to be good, [including] improved heart and lung function and muscular endurance," Jason Machowsky, CEP, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery's Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "For some, endurance training may also be a good stress-reliever or social bonding experience."
And, while a comprehensive August 2020 review in Current Sports Medicine Reports validates those possible benefits, it also suggests ultra-running (characterized as an extreme exercise behavior) can cause temporary health setbacks. These include "significant degradation" of heart, lung and leg muscle function, Machowsky explains. However, these symptoms appear to only persist for a week or less after the competition.
There are still "questions about potential longer-term, negative cardiopulmonary side effects" of training for, and periodically racing, ultramarathons, according to Machowsky — especially for those who may be considered at risk of severe complications. Before any definitive claims can be made, though, he says more research and screenings are needed among ultra runners to identify who may be at increased risk of experiencing irreparable injury or heart health issues later down the line, for instance.
In fact, the authors of the Current Sports Medicine Reports review postulate the risks associated with leading a sedentary lifestyle far outweigh those of participating in extreme endurance events. That said, Machowsky emphasizes how critical it is to prepare your body for these extensive distances.
"If you are new to running and/or endurance activities, you will need to spend significant time developing an aerobic base, which usually occurs at lower intensity levels," he says, adding you'll gradually increase the duration you run over time. Remember this: Slow and steady is the name of the game when it comes to ultra running.
Also, being mindful of aches and pains and working alongside a running coach and health professional (think: a licensed physical therapist) are two great resources to utilize when taking on the distance — and may help mitigate your risk of injury.
Before You Start Training
The first step in ultramarathon training is to choose your race and, based on its distance, choose a training plan. There isn't one simple training plan to draw on, but each plan will have the same building blocks.
Additionally, how long you take to train for the race will ultimately depend on the distance of the race, as well as how much of a base you have built (for example, someone who just completed their third marathon will have built up more fitness than someone who has only run a 5K and been on a bit of a break from the sport). Whatever your starting point, there's no one runner that should run an ultra over another; coaches stress that ultras are for everyone.
"There isn't a prerequisite to run an ultra," Torrence says. "The length of an ultra training plan depends on the race distance and terrain, the individual — like injury predisposition and schedule — endurance background and race goals. Personally, I went from my farthest race being a road half-marathon directly to a 50-mile trail ultra. Desire and perspective are most important."
When choosing your race, it's important to recognize what the biggest challenges are in order to make the most informed decision. A lot of these challenges will arise during ultramarathon training; choosing the best "first" ultra depends on being able to train in the same conditions that you'll be racing in. This is why Torrence recommends doing a race close to home so you can visit and train on the course.
"It's important to train specifically for the conditions of your race," adds Smith, also the author of The Trail Runner's Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultra. "So, for example, if you are drawn to sign up for a rocky, rooty, steep 50K out of state but you live in the Midwest with no easy access to similar terrain or hills, then you might want to choose an ultra closer to home in a more familiar setting for your first experience at that distance."
Smith also notes the importance of recognizing the amount of work that will go into training: We're talking months of blood, sweat and tears. Take into consideration the amount of training, planning and learning that needs to (and will) take place along the way. If you've only run on roads or never raced before, the learning curve will be steeper than if you've previously run on trails, so take that into consideration. Ultimately, you want it to be a positive and fulfilling experience; don't feel the need to rush into the furthest distance possible just to check a challenge off your bucket list.
"Don't rush into doing the longest or hardest event first; this is common after runners read about events in books or see them in videos," Ian Sharman, head coach at Sharman Ultra, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Take time to build up and enjoy races along that path, plus pick events based on what inspires you instead of what you think will look good as an Instagram post afterward." There are much easier ways to get a good picture.
The Building Blocks of an Ultra Training Plan
The two main components of an ultramarathon training plan include runs of varying speed and distance — like you would have training for a shorter race — and preparing your nutritional plan for race day. In fact, Torrence considers race day fueling to be one of the biggest challenges of an ultramarathon.
"No one can run ultra-distances without ingesting calories or fluid," he explains. "If you get this aspect wrong on race day you'll bonk, get nauseous or bloated, or worse, puke. Nutrition is a delicate balance between calories, fluid, electrolytes and exertion. The experience is different for every runner and must be practiced in training."
When it comes to what runs you can expect during ultramarathon training, as with training for shorter races, you should do speed workouts, recovery runs and, of course, long runs. Because the race distances are long, you should often train by time versus distance. For example, before a marathon, many runners have completed training runs in the 22- to 24-mile range. For an ultra, Sharman says you want to have run for over two hours to help with endurance, but no more than five hours, due to the amount of recovery needed afterward.
"There's a lot of overlap with road and shorter distance training, but the specific elements become more important as you get closer to race day, whether that's heat adaptation, hill training, altitude acclimatization, wearing a heavy backpack, using trekking poles or many other factors," Sharman says.
And don't shy away from back-to-back long runs. "They're extremely useful and are lower risk for injury or overtraining than extremely long single runs," Sharman says.
Finding the Right Training Plan
There are some ultramarathon training plans available online (such as those for 50Ks by Hal Higdon and Jenny Hadfield), but ultimately (and especially for your first ultra), you should get a personalized plan. This is not only because of the variance in distance and terrain of races, but also so you can take your experience level into account and increase mileage in a safe way to avoid injury and overtraining.
While a training plan will tell you how many miles to run on any given day, Smith emphasizes that it won't take into account a lot of specifics that are crucial in training, including a runner's experience, life stressors and even details about training runs such as climate, terrain, pacing and fueling. A coach will advise you on these things and tailor the advice to your specific race.
"The training plan depends entirely on the runner's fitness and experience, and the distance and difficulty of the event," Smith says. "For example, if you are an experienced marathoner, you could run your first 50K with relatively little extra training and simply finish it — though you may not realize your potential. If you're training for your first 100-miler, I'd recommend at least six months with 50K and 50-mile or 100K races built into the training block as practice."
Torrence echoes that the best training plan will modify every workout and long run for the certain specifics of your goal race, along with providing guidance on how to recover from tough workouts and what supplemental exercises you should be doing to cross train.
Setting Goals and Overcoming the Mental Challenge
If you're a bit overwhelmed reading this, it is completely understandable; this is where mental training comes in. With the challenges of longer distances and tougher terrain (remember: most ultras take place on trails), you will face the unexpected. Mental training is all about preparing your mind to handle whatever comes your way. You don't need to do it all perfectly, but you can ready yourself to approach any challenge in a calm and practical way.
"Although it's a physical test, the longer and tougher a race is, the more it comes down to mental toughness and being able to overcome problems during the race, including things that may never have gone wrong before," Sharman says. "Ultras involve being tough, so try to factor that into all training, while still having easy recovery days. That means not cutting corners — physically or figuratively — when training, not skipping runs due to bad weather and practicing pushing hard when you're near the end of hard training runs."
This is why you should enter into your first ultra with the simple goals of being prepared and finishing. Smith shares that you can expect to be uncomfortable, so one of the great mental challenges involves not quitting unless there is a true medical emergency. Recognizing that there are external challenges you can't control, such as weather or terrain, will help you focus on what you can control: your mindset and approach.
"I advise setting goals throughout the ultra to improve the process, such as: 'I'm going to try to run all the flats and downhills without hiking breaks,' or, 'I'm going to try to take in 200 calories per hour, starting after the first hour, to make sure I don't bonk,'" Smith says. "Then, set a stretch goal of finishing by an aspirational, but achievable, time."
As with practicing nutrition or getting your body used to running for hours on end, a lot of your mental training can be done on a day-to-day basis. As Sharman says, even overcoming the desire to skip training runs and learning how to run strong through the end of a long run will help build up your willpower.
"Rarely can you complete an ultra without experiencing a low point or 'pity party,'" Torrence says. "Your mind doesn't like running this far, so it'll try to talk you out of it. You need to develop a tough mind — one that will keep you on track and working towards the goals you've set for yourself."