How to Train for an Ultramarathon

[00:00:00] It seems like I see a lot of questions about how do we do a 5k, how do we get started and then how do we do an ultra? I’d like to ignore all the middle sandwich distances, but that’s okay. So today I want to talk about 5 secrets that successful ultra marathoners know that you really should know.

[00:00:28] If you haven’t been with me here on the channel before, I’m Jesse Funk. This is a show I call Runner’s High, where we talk about everything running-related or endurance-related as I get into triathlon some time. So if you have questions about any of that kind of stuff, leave them down in the comments. But more importantly, if you are in the endurance community running specifically or triathlon, hit the subscribe button. Stick around for more episodes every Tuesday and Thursday.

[00:00:53] So we want to think, okay, I want to do an ultra marathon, but how do I get there? I’ve never run anything quite that long before and there’s got to be some trick to it. There’s got to be some secret, right? Well, they aren’t so secret as maybe they are hidden. If you haven’t done it before and you don’t know runners that have done this kind of distance. But there are some secrets or tips that you should use when you’re setting up your training to try to make your bid to finish your first ultra successful.

[00:01:23] And the first of them is going to be building mileage smartly. And this is the thing about, OK, if I’m running a 5k, right, I know that likely if I want to race a 5k and be successful, I’m probably going to need to finish that distance before the day of the race. Right? Because if I want to go hard on the day of the race, then I need to have run over that distance so that I have the endurance to do it.

[00:01:52] Ultramarathons, it’s a little bit different philosophically in that you may not actually complete that particular distance in training until race day, which is a little bit of a mindset shift, right? Where you go, Oh, I haven’t done it before, but here it goes. But you can prepare yourself by building mileage smartly, and that means most of your runs are going to be long runs, right? Long slow distance, because unlike a 5k, which is kind of my thing, you don’t need speed quite as much in that ultra distance. You need the ability to keep going forever.

[00:02:32] So most of your runs are going to be in the 30 to 90-minute range early on in your training as you build up and then start going 16, 20 miles, that kind of range for your long run. And then you go on to depending on whether you’re going 50K, 50 mile, 100 mile, it will range and you build up over time to get you to go say 30, 35 miles on a run if you’re going for like a 50 miler. And then as the 100 mile, you want to maybe do a 50 mile race a couple of months beforehand to get that under your belt. That leads me to point number two.

[00:03:08] And point number two is something that my coach and I used a lot when I was training for these much longer races. And that is the back-to-back long run day or long distance day in my case when I was doing triathlon. So as I mentioned, that first tip, you want to build mileage smartly and you’re not going to get to your race distance in training before race day. So then how do you prepare to go for a longer distance than you’re actually running for? And that is in in this whole step, the back-to-back long run day.

[00:03:41] So this is one way to simulate your mileage and the fatigue that’s associated with that longer mileage without actually going for that longer mileage all in one sitting. The idea being here that you accumulate mileage from your long run one day, you’re still tired the next day and you do it again. So in some ways it’s kind of like a long run interval if you think about it. Like on the track, if I’m doing intervals, I can have rest in between the periods, although maybe I’m training for a particular distance. I break that up into more manageable chunks.

[00:04:18] It’s kind of the same philosophy here, except that your break period is more like 8 to 12 hours or more and you get some sleep in there as well. That being said, most people end up doing these on the weekends is a Saturday Sunday block. I did them Sunday, Monday. That’s just how my schedule worked out because I own a company and I had the flexibility. But for you, probably going to be a Saturday Sunday block, which means tell your loved ones that you love them. You’ll see them later because your weekend is pretty much going to get eaten up.

[00:04:54] But when you do this, it helps you have the ability to go for that longer distance. So use this in your training block. This comes later on. So if you’re just beginning this ultra kind of training, so you’re six months out, you don’t necessarily do this in the beginning as you get to four, three months to go. Then you start thinking about, okay, I built up mileage.

Now we’re going for the 16 to 20 mile runs. So maybe I go 20 miles on Saturday and I go 15 miles on Sunday or something like that. It depends on your mileage, where you are in your training, all those kinds of things. We can parse out the parse out the details in the comments below for you in particular, but that’s when you start adding it in as you’re leading up into the race.

[00:05:39] Tip number three can’t be overstated and that is practicing your fueling before race day and that means everything. So this is something that’s a little more technical than it is physical, but it’s super, super important. And knowing what exactly works with you because you want to avoid GI distress, which is when your stomach feels terrible and you feel like you kind of poop and then you can’t race because that is going on.

[00:06:09] So you need to practice what you’re using in these long runs, especially those back-to-back days, whatever it is that you’re going to be drinking. So say like you’re using our hydration, it doesn’t have any sugar in it. So I’ll explain this in another video, but because it doesn’t have any sugar in it, it actually means you hydrate faster. And hydration is super important when you’re going for such a long event.

[00:06:31] But because it’s such a long event, you also need fuel. So if you’re using a system like ours where your hydration and your fuel are separate, which is an easy way to control exactly how much you’re taking in, you need to practice that beforehand. And consequently, if you’re using like an all-in-one type product like Tailwind, they just shove everything in their drink.

[00:06:54] It works for some people. It doesn’t work for others. In any case, whichever system and strategy you want to use, you want to practice that beforehand so that you know, yes, in fact, this does work. I am comfortable with it and it doesn’t bother me. If that sugar in your drink bothers you or you have higher hydration needs.

Please check our stuff out solpri.com/shop. But as with anything it is a matter of practice makes perfect and practice ahead of time to make sure you don’t do anything new on race day, or at least anything that you can control because everybody knows, especially in Ultra. Things are going to go poorly at some point and you just have to adjust on the fly.

[00:07:42] Tip number four, this is one that’s often overlooked and can sneak up on people because they feel like I’m going easy. And that is to avoid those jelly legs late in the race by practicing your downhill running. And I mean, like learning to bomb downhills, just really charge downhills. Now, you’re not going to do this in the race because you don’t want to like bomb your legs out. But in training there’s a different amount or different muscle set, so to speak, the way your muscles are being used when you’re going downhill.

[00:08:18] And often in ultras, because they’re largely trail events, there’s a lot of elevation change. So if, like me, you’re running in kind of an urban environment. Yes, there’s elevation change, but not nearly as much as what you’re going to find in many ultra events. So when you practice this, you’re building up the kind of muscle capability to deal with repeated kind of stabilization of your body as you’re moving downhill.

[00:08:46] When you don’t do this and you find yourself going downhill over and over and over, your muscles simply aren’t strong enough to keep up with it. And you get these jelly legs, which is where your legs are wobbly. They don’t feel like they want to move. Even if you’re taking in all the right nutrition, even if you’re taking in enough water, you’re fueling properly, you’ve got enough electrolytes, you’ve got enough sugar, you’ve got all the things going on, but your muscles just can’t handle it.

[00:09:13] Everybody does have a breaking point, so it’s important to spend time going downhill in specifically like downhill repeats in some kind of practice before race day. 

[00:09:26] Which leads me to my last and final tip or secret for ultramarathon success. And that is strength training. Strength training is really important for pretty much any runner, but we can often ignore it in the shorter distances because you can get away with not doing it for a while unless you’re particularly injury-prone and then you definitely need to do it.

[00:09:49] It’s something everybody should be doing. But for Ultramarathoners in particular, there’s this especially susceptible to injuries because of repeated use. So repeat use injuries or overuse injuries happen very commonly and running because we’re using the exact same muscle groups and firing patterns over and over and over, day in, day out, without variation. Now that is exemplified or exponentially larger when it comes to ultramarathoners because they’re out for longer and they’re racing for longer.

[00:10:24] So when you spend time working on the strength component, that means that your muscles overall are stronger and receive less damage from those shorter, less aggressive movements, i.e. when you’re going slower and easier on your long runs because your capacity is higher. Meaning you could produce more power. When you produce less power, your muscles don’t receive as much damage.

[00:10:53] So having that along with that downhill running to improve your overall strength and capacity for stability helps prevent injuries. And late on in the race, when things are tough for everybody, then you’ll be strong enough to continue to the finish line instead of having to DNF and postponing getting that belt buckle to another day.

[00:11:17] So do you have any questions for me about running, about ultras, about anything else? Leave them in the comments below. I’ll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.

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