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Running Your First Ultra

Photo credit: Nicolette Griffioen

Running Your First Ultra

27-Jul-21

Last updated: 27-Jul-21

By Nicolette Griffioen

Perhaps the most frequently asked question of ultra running is simply “What is an ultra?”. This Google search returns an astonishing number of results - close on two billion - and also advises on several other common, related searches. These include “What is considered an ultra?”, “What do you eat on an ultra?” and “Is ultra running dangerous?”.

All are relevant and I’ll touch on them briefly, but the important question I really want to answer in this article is: What does it take to complete your first ultra?

Right, Google questions first. What is an ultra and how far do you have to run to be an ultra runner? Well, theoretically speaking, actually not that far. By definition any distance above the marathon’s 26.2 miles or 42km is classified as an ultra.

But assuming you’ve set the bar a little higher than just running 1km to the pub down the road after your next marathon, you’ll probably be considering one of the more standard ultra distances. Races of 50km, 50 miles, 100km and 100 miles are some of the most popular options, while time-based challenges such as 12, 24 and 48 hour or “Last Man Standing” events are also considered ultras.

Next up is what to eat on an ultra. Short answer? ANYthing! Long answer? EVERYthing! Only joking... But some do say an ultra marathon is really just an eating competition while running. Fuelling your body for hours of continuous movement is definitely one of the greatest challenges long distance runners face.

There are many hours worth of reading matter available on this topic and different approaches online, but as with most training there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to ultra running nutrition. From personal experience, my advice is to first consider your hydration, electrolyte and caloric demands independently. Once you have a good idea of these figures you can put together a custom nutrition strategy that should meet your hourly requirements while running.

The final (and most difficult) step is to implement your plan. Train your gut to process all the fluid, electrolytes and calories that you intend to swamp it with on race day.

And then, is ultra running dangerous? Depending on your ancestry and social circles, you’ve probably already established an opinion on this one. Unless you’re a descendant of the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides, or of a fell running legend such as Bob Graham, Joss Naylor or other “Feet in the Clouds” character, then the chances are you’ve been preached the evils and perils of ultra running by at least one older relative.

Many an avid ultra runner, however, will happily spend hours engaged in the argument against such “outdated” thinking with valid scientific data to back their views. As with any physical activity ultra running is not without its risks, but these often relate more to the nature of an event and environmental threats as opposed to running itself being inherently physiologically damaging. Consequently, with the correct preparation, it is possible to mitigate many of the dangers associated with ultra running.

This finally brings me around to the discussion on what it takes to run, and more importantly complete, your first ultra. To simplify a fairly complex question I’ve broken down the answer into three core components. One: prepare your mind. Two: prepare your body. Three: prepare for the race. By paying attention to these three aspects, all of which are within your control as an athlete, you will put yourself in the best possible position to complete your first ultra.

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1. Prepare Your Mind

You’ve probably heard the expression that running an ultra is more mental than physical, yet your average running coach doesn’t advertise a mental training program. This is something you’re often left to figure out for yourself, and it can take years to master.

I recommend starting with a list of intrinsic motivators  -  the personal and meaningful reasons for which you want to finish an ultra. It may be for loved ones, a charity close to your heart, or part of a tough personal struggle. When negative thoughts begin to plague you, reflect back on these and they’ll keep you going for longer than any external factors.

One of the most important intrinsic factors is selecting a significant event in the first place. Your natural tendency should be to select a region, route and terrain that inspires you, which is good. Essential, in fact. If the ultra you sign up for doesn’t excite you then you have a very long road ahead, no pun intended.

The race that you’re working towards is going to be largely responsible for motivating your training over the course of several months, and you still need to be keen when D-Day finally arrives. Poor (and extrinsic) reasons for choosing an event include my buddy is running that one, it’s basically in my back garden or this one is super cheap!

When the moment of truth arrives 10 or 20 hours into your ultra your buddy will probably be long gone, you’re going to be cursing every familiar climb in your back garden, and the 50 quid you spent on your entry is going to be hard at work, along with your nagging legs and lungs, trying to convince you that enough is enough!

Many other techniques have been described in preparing to overcome the mental challenges of an ultra. Visualisation is a popular practice where you picture yourself starting the race, arriving at each check point, and ultimately crossing the finish line. You want to avoid the prospect of not finishing at all times.

Another recommendation is to set realistic goals. It’s great to be ambitious, but this can also lead to disappointment and a downward mental spiral. This is especially true of your first ultra where you don’t quite know what to expect. Keep it simple by just aiming to finish and your task will be easier to complete.

I recommend reading a book such as The Ultra Mindset or How Bad Do You Want It? to add a few good stories to your collection of mental tricks before your first ultra. One of the most consistent themes highlighted in these accounts is training the ability to suffer, and although mental, this is best done through physical training.

2. Prepare your Body

You might be surprised to hear it but this should be the easy part of preparing for an ultra, or at least your first one with a goal of simply finishing. If your running distance has progressed logically over the years you probably only have a small jump from marathon distance to 50km.

There shouldn’t be any fireworks in your training program – all the fundamentals to physically complete an ultra remain the same as for shorter distances. These include consistency, incremental increases in mileage, strength and conditioning if possible, and injury prevention.

If your choice of ultra is the hundred miler and you haven’t followed the stepping stone approach (as many don’t) then the above fundamentals are even more important. In terms of consistency, aim to run six days a week to accustom your body to the incessant impact over the course of 160km. Use the 10 percent rule as a guideline for increasing your total weekly mileage, and try not to increase volume and intensity simultaneously.

For most athletes ultra run training should be almost entirely at low intensity and volume focused, the exception to which I’ll discuss shortly. Strength and conditioning is as important for ultra runners as for short distance athletes, but the time demands for the higher mileage means it often falls by the wayside. Avoid this issue by giving yourself a decent time-frame in which to prepare for your first ultra.

Think a minimum of three months for marathon to 50km, but up to 24 months for marathon to hundred miler. Then apply a periodised approach where your training blocks further away from the race are less specific (e.g. strength training focused) and those closer to race day are more specific (e.g. high volume at race pace).

Due to the higher mileage required in ultra training, over-use injuries are generally more prevalent than in shorter distances. In addition to following a progressive, structured training plan, cross-training is a valuable tool for reducing risk of injury or maintaining strength and fitness while managing an injury.

Swimming and cycling are both low-impact but good cardiovascular workouts, while yoga and paddling engage your essential core musculature. I advise incorporating at least two cross-training sessions into your ultra running program each week, regardless of your level or phase of training.

To conclude this section on training the body for an ultra I want to discuss intensity workouts. This is where training to suffer comes into the plan. The best reason I’ve heard for prescribing high-intensity interval workouts for ultra runners is that it teaches them to suffer! So more for the mental than physical adaptation, include those speed sessions or hill repetitions in your ultra run training.

For our purposes the pace, gradient, duration and number of intervals is basically irrelevant, as long as you dread the session, hate every minute of it, and feel like a champion once it’s completed! All within reason of course. As with your long runs, build up your intensity sessions gradually to avoid unnecessary injuries.

3. Prepare for the race.

For many ultra runners this is the fun part and they start their race-specific planning months out from race day. Depending on the type of ultra you’ll be running it could possibly be left until the day before, but ideally you would start a little sooner. This preparation involves all the logistics around the event.

Print the course map and profile, figure out where the aid stations are, check what food and drink will be available, and note where you might be able to see family en route. Breaking down an ultra into bite-sized chunks will help you to manage it on race day, hence course knowledge is actually a valuable component of the mental preparation process.

Ensuring you have all the required gear for the event also comes in here. Avoid unnecessary last minute stress by checking the kit list well ahead of time and testing any new gear or apparel during training. One of the most important functions of long training runs is to use them as test runs for gear and nutrition strategies ahead of race day.

If your event starts at 4am do a training run at that time and include your pre-race breakfast. If your race starts at 9pm do a few post-dinner Friday night runs and test your headlight. Ultimately there are enough unknowns for anyone, on any ultra, to have to deal with uncertainties for which you could have prepared.

Finally it’s time for you to sit back and relax. When it comes to the taper phase you shouldn’t be scrambling to test gear or squeeze in extra miles. Regardless of how your physical training panned out you should be relaxed and positive in the days leading up to your first ultra.

Look over your running statistics, focus on what you have achieved in the preceding months, and know that nothing physical you do at this point will improve the outcome of your race. Resolve any work, family or relationship issues that might haunt you during a long night’s running, then put your feet up and read a good book.

So there you have it. A simplified approach to running your first ultra. Interestingly, for many runners, the satisfaction of completing an ultra seems to lie in overcoming the high probability of not finishing. The very attraction of the ultra is in the not knowing if they will make it to the finish line. If that’s you I fully understand and feel free to discard this article in favour of the latest episode of your favourite series and order a takeaway pizza. But don’t worry, even following the above advice won’t guarantee you a finish at your first ultra, so perhaps head out for a trot anyway and save the series and pizza for afterwards...

About the author: Nicolette Griffioen is South African mountain, trail and ultra coach and athlete.

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