How to Train for Your First Ultra Marathon

[The following is a guest post by Toronto-resident Dave Reid. Dave is a former marathon runner who decided to get off the roads and run trail ultras instead. Here, he shares his best tips for us budding ultra marathoners.

Dave started out as a 10k road runner until he was rescued by a misfit trail running group, The Fat Ass Pylons. He lost more than 25lbs and is now running faster with less injury. He has no idea how many marathons and ultras he’s run, but he has loved every one of them. Dave will be turning 53 this year.]

By Dave Reid

Ah, your first ultra. People already think you’re crazy for running marathons, and now you tell them you’re going to do an ultra. Competing in a regular marathon is just not that big of a deal to you anymore.

That statement might sound a bit facetious, but think about it. Have you seen some of the people who finish a marathon? I think it’s fantastic that with the proper run/walk training, your Uncle Bert, who is 60 years old and 240 lbs, can run 26.2 miles in 6 hours. So like Shania would sing: “So you did a marathon. That don’t impress me much.” Besides, you will likely run a marathon or two a few times in training for your ultra, especially if it’s a 50 miler.

Geez, I’m off to a flying start with my first guest post ever. Anyone I haven’t offended, keep reading. I promise things will get better.

THE ULTRA

So this brings us to The Ultra. An ultra is defined as anything longer than a marathon, although most ultra runners would say the distance starts at 50K.

I would define a successful first ultra as being one that you:

  1. Finish
  2. Don’t get hurt
  3. Have fun.

So how do we go about doing that?

STEP #1 – PREPARATION

First, enter and pay for your ultra. Give yourself at least three months to prepare. I find if you’ve actually signed up for a race, it’s a great motivator.

The next, and maybe the most important thing you can do, is LOSE WEIGHT. (If you are skinny, please skip to the next step.) I have read that for every one lb. you lose, you can gain two minutes in an ultra. Based on my experience, I would say that’s true. Imagine running 50K or 50 miles while carrying a 10-20lb. weight in a backpack. You can train harder and have less chance of stress type injuries if you lose those extra pounds.

Also, do back-to-back long runs once a week in training. Estimate your time for finishing the ultra, and build up to running that total over 2 days. You want to run the full distance (combining back to back days) at least 3-4 times before your ultra. For example, if you think you will finish in 6 hours, run 3 hours on Saturday and 3 hours on Sunday. Or 4 hours on Saturday and 2 hours on Sunday. Or 5 hours and 1 hour. Mix it up. You get the idea. Sunday will be painful, but after you get warmed up, you’ll be OK. I use the Santa Clarita Ultra Training program. Very easy. Very cool.

Practice your nutrition during training and find out what works best for you. I typically use one gel every half-hour, and drink eload (which is like Gatorade) depending on how hot out it is. Quick tip: Start drinking before you get thirsty. I never eat solid food, but I know most people do.

Practice running efficiently, with as little wasted motion as possible. I try to keep my head as still as possible, and raise my feet as little as necessary. Run quietly.

Next, find socks, clothes and shoes that you love for training and racing. You want to be comfortable. Buy multiple pairs, because you can be sure they will be discontinued.

Train on the terrain you’ll be running. If it’s a hilly technical trail ultra, train on hilly technical trails. If it’s a flat ultra on pavement (ughh), train on that at least some of the time. A flat non-technical trail would probably be better for most of your training runs, as it is easier on the joints and less chance of injury.

Do a 10k tempo run once a week at a faster pace than you plan to run
your ultra. Run hills once a week to get strong.

If you are older, like me, take recovery days. A typical week could be:

Mon: Off

Tuesday: 10k tempo Run

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: 1 hour hill workout

Friday: Off

Saturday: 3 hour long run

Sunday: 3 hour long run (or you could do a 4 hour and 2 hour, or 5 hour and 1 hour)

Let’s say your ultra is at the end of June. You want to be able to run your distance, over 2 days, by the end of April. Give yourself time to work up to that. Then in May, you can run the distance 3 times and take it easy on the last weekend. In June, you can run it the first 2 weekends, taper the 3rd weekend and run your ultra the 4th weekend.

So that’s it for training.

STEP #2 – THE LAST MINUTE STUFF

  1. Get lots of sleep two nights before your ultra. You will not likely sleep well the night before, and it won’t matter if you got lots the night before that.
  2. Get everything organized the night before. You will sleep better.
  3. Carbo load.
  4. Get there early. You will need to use the bathroom once or twice.
  5. Hydrate before the run.
  6. Keep calm and relaxed at the starting line. You’re not going to win the race, you just want to finish. Enjoy the moment.

STEP #3 – THE RACE

  1. Start slowly, it’s a long run. Even more slowly than a marathon.
  2. Walk steep hills, especially in the first half. It’s not worth it to run. Power walk instead. You won’t lose much time, and you will conserve valuable energy for later.
  3. Breathe! You should be using long, relaxed, deep breaths. If you are huffing and puffing, like during a tempo run, you are going too fast. Slow down, relax and breathe deeply.
  4. If somebody passes you, let them go. Don’t race them! Odds are you may see them later.
  5. Remember to eat and drink like you did in training.
  6. Have a mantra. Mine is “Chug-a-Lug, Chug-a-Lug”. At some point just start up the mantra and keep going.
  7. Don’t think about the whole distance. Run aid station to aid station. Walk through the aid stations. Chat with the volunteers. It will pick you up!
  8. At some point, it’s going to start to hurt. Suck it up, Princess. Is there anything you would rather be doing on a great day like this?

So that’s about all I’ve got for you. I should also mention: I run with a group, and that keeps me motivated. If you slack off, they will kick your ass and laugh about it for the rest of the year. Not good.

At some point during the ultra, I’ll remember my favourite quote from Lance Armstrong: “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”

Good luck! I hope this helps.

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5 responses

  1. Great practical advice. I’m going to tuck this advice away for my first ultra… hopefully this year, but probably next.
    Thanks!!

  2. Awesome post. Schedules for my first 50k in December. Also trying to balance CrossFit training with my running which I hope isn’t going to make it hard to get in the miles. It’s definitely helping me shed some weight and get better core strength. So…here goes….

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