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Transitioning to Ultra Running

You’ve conquered the marathon and your running friend wants you to try an ultra marathon as it will be ‘fun to do’. What do you do?

Refuse with a number of polite excuses or rise up to the challenge and join your friend?

Whilst there are ever increasing runners of all abilities completing ultra marathons each year, training and taking part in one shouldn’t be a quick or rash decision.

Ultra marathon running can be a hugely fulfilling and uplifting experience with the camaraderie between runners inspiring but it’s a decision that should be made with considered thought realistically in the cold light of day, not after a few drinks with bravado!

An ultra marathon is any distance race that’s over 26.2 miles whether it’s on roads, trails, through mountain ranges or over deserts. They can vary from 30 up to 100 continuous miles with the option of races over multiple days for much further too. The choice of races is endless with some incredible physical and mental challenges over dramatic courses with breath taking scenery.

As with any training be realistic. Jumping from the marathon straight to a 100 mile race is a huge ask. Far better to earn your ultra marathon spurs by trying shorter distances first and then progressing to 50 miles or more. Your body will thank you for it.

If you’ve only ever run flat road marathons, think again if your selected first ultra involves treacherous mountain terrain with steep ascents and descents. There are plenty out there that follow off road terrain on more forgiving flatter routes often along rivers or canals.

You’ve chosen your race and are ready to enter it. Before pressing submit think again. Do you have the time to train for it? Training for an ultra marathon takes time. Not necessarily enormous amounts more of time (we’ll discuss this further in this article) but aside from the training itself, there’s the preparation and recovery time for sessions to consider too. All in all this can add up to a vast commitment of time outside of working hours.

Are your family and friends in agreement for you to do it? If they aren’t then reconsider what you’re about to do. Aside from creating stress with family members it will also create huge stress for you too that will affect the quality of your training and motivation to train.

So you have your family and friends onboard but can you train your body to be fit, fast and strong enough to do it? Look back over previous marathon training. Highlight sessions / strategies that worked and ones that didn’t. Take these into your training.

If you’ve struggled with injury and illness due to high training loads, consider what will happen during the training for your chosen ultra marathon. Injury or constant fatigue during training and racing is often a sign of over training or poor attention to strength and conditioning.

Press submit now? Not quite. One final question - why do you want to do it? Make sure you have a good reason to motivate yourself to train and complete it rather than just for the sake of it.

Once you’ve considered all these things and are happy with the answers, now press submit to get your race entry confirmed. You’re ready for the training!

Make your training specific and plan well all ahead.

In terms of training volume and speed, there is increasing evidence to suggest that lots of long slow running / walking doesn’t necessarily produce the best in runners taking part in ultra marathons.

Whilst ultra marathon training should involve some slow easy miles that gradually build up in volume, it shouldn’t involve endless runs to the point of muscular exhaustion.

Far better to progress above 3 hr runs in training by doing back to back long runs on different days. This can start with two easy effort long runs one day after another.

As you become stronger deeper into your training cycle, make the first day’s run at a slower pace / effort over undulating terrain if possible so that you take in some good climbing and descending.

The second day can then be an increased effort run to steady or harder over easier less technical terrain. It doesn’t have to be the same length of time as the first day’s run but you can work up to it if you’re really in strong shape. The second day’s run works on improving leg turnover and efficiency when your legs are already tired. At some point (s) in your ultra marathon, you will feel uncomfortable so this will help your mind and body adapt to the effort required, to be become more resilient.

Don’t just run at slow paces throughout training. Vary your pace / effort to work on your speed and strength endurance during some sessions. Threshold, faster 10k effort or Kenyan Hills are all sessions that will help you achieve this. Too much easy or slow pace running will not help you develop fast twitch muscle fibres or make your heart and lungs more efficient.

Be prepared to use walking during your longer runs to develop time on your feet. Few runners will complete an ultra marathon without walking. Walking at a brisk pace or slower is often necessary to avoid running to exhaustion and a DNF especially over courses with technical steep terrain.

Strength and conditioning should be a constant throughout your training to reduce injury risk with 2 or 3 strength sessions a week during the early months. Ultra runners will often hit muscular break down first rather than maxing out aerobically in races.

If your muscles are strong and resilient then this will allow you to survive far deeper into your race with your running form in tact and efficient. As a coach I have trained runners to run / enjoy ultra marathons without injury including the Marathon Des Sables off the back of consistent strength training rather than more endless slow miles on fatigued legs. Start sensibly by getting the technique and muscle activation right first before adding weight to build strength and then ultimately power.

Mentally prepare for the discomfort (and maybe pain!) that will lie ahead. Don’t become blasé just because you can run a marathon!

Don’t forget the basics - get your nutrition right to correctly fuel your training, repair your body and allow it to progress.

Try nutrition and hydration strategies within long runs so that you’ve got a sound plan for race day. Your kit matters even more too the further you run so conduct thorough testing in training so you know that it will be comfortable. Homework about your chosen race should leave no stone unturned.

Understand the route profile, conditions and work out your race support if you’re running a longer event. You’ll need family and friends at check points to refuel / inspire you with good running buddies to pace you too if they’re allowed to run with you. The logistical challenges of an ultra marathon need far more planning than a marathon so don’t be caught out.

Finally even with a well organised thorough training, race and nutrition plan, don’t automatically assume that you’ll have a great race experience the first time. Some people do, but more often than not, they don’t. Use it to learn, come back stronger and more experienced so you succeed or enjoy it next time.

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