Ultra Marathon Training Strategies

Ultra marathon training and running will bring you many unforeseen joys of self exploration and endurance adventure! While this may sound like an ultra race advertisement, it really is true. An ultra marathon can be defined as any organized event distance that exceeds the 26.2 mile (regulation marathon) barrier. The most popular ultra marathon events include 50 k, 50 mile (80k) and 100 mile (160k) runs. While a few are road races, ultras are typically trail runs of varying difficulty due to weather and rugged terrain. This is also one of the reasons why they are so rewarding. They are much less of a competitive environment and more of a solitary adventure taken through the bowels of nature.

While training strategy for every distance always depends on your specific running goals, training to go beyond the marathon requires a shift of focus or, more accurately, emphasis on certain physiological components. Ultra marathon training will require you to allow your body to adapt to running for extremely long periods and so much like marathon training, will require a good amount of time commitment if you want to prepare yourself properly. A high level of bio awareness is the ultra marathoner’s best friend. Knowing what to wear, how to pace, and probably most importantly what to eat and when to eat it all become very critical decisions that can make or break an ultra running experience.

Ultras do widely range in distance so training programs for a 50k would be different from a 160k. I do have 50 mile and 100 mile training schedules available by request (contact me on the bottom of the running help page).

If you are new to ultras and are simply contemplating the idea or you are building a training strategy, here is a list of training preparation considerations, based on experience, to help you build a solid training program or perhaps just make your decision!

Go Really Long

As with other distance events such as the marathon, the long run is the key run for your ultra marathon training program. Consider two types of endurance building strategies: super long runs and back to back long runs. How long is ‘super long’? That really depends on your event distance. If you are training for a 50k, a marathon is a great training run for your ultra. If you are training for a 100 miler, you should consider running at least close to 50 miles or more at least once during your training, as well as a good handful of marathon to 50k distance runs. Obviously, running this long this will take a lot of time and will require sufficient recovery. So be prepared to take off more time during the week than you normally would during a marathon training program . Back to back long runs might be 2 long runs of 3 hours on Saturday and then again on Sunday. These are a great training stimulus and train your legs to keep going when they are less than fresh due to the previous day’s run.

Learn to Carry Water

If you have an aversion to carrying water, as I once did, now is the time to get over it. Many ultras have sparsely spaced aid stations so it’s important to have a way to frequently hydrate in small doses in between. This is a way better strategy than trying to down large amounts of water at one time, which you'll feel sloshing around in your stomache. Additionally, for safety in remote areas, it’s important to have a certain amount of supplies on you in case something happens and it’s a while before you’re found.

Eat Solid Food

Gels, water and your electrolyte drink of choice will not cut it for your caloric intake for ultras 50 miles and beyond. You will need to explore and get used to eating more solid foods to sustain you for hours and days. Obviously the longer the run, the more important it is to consume solids. Good solids for ultras depends very highly on the individual. Ultra food choices vary from bean burritos to potatoes, chicken soup, to dry bread and chili. Your ultra marathon training period is the ideal time to experiment with foods to see what works best for you and does not cause you GI distress.

Learn to Walk

Ultra marathon training should incorporate walking practice since a good portion of ultras will require you to walk. Not just through the aid stations, walking rather than running up hills will be a much more efficient use of your energy. After having raced marathons for many years, I was prepared to run as much of my first 100 miler as possible. It was a real eye opener to see virtually everyone from front to back slow to a walk as we approached the first hill before the first mile marker! At around mile 60, the value of walking frequently and walking early became abundantly clear. Whether it’s for recovery or to get your butt up hills in the most energy conserving method possible, walking moves you forward so don’t underestimate the power of learning a brisk walking stride during your training.

Replace Sodium/Electrolytes

The longer the distance you go, the more important frequent supplementing of sodium and electrolytes becomes. Particularly in warmer weather. Along with sodium replacement, be careful not to drink too much plain water without electrolyte replacements as this will move you towards a hyponatremic state which basically dilutes your blood and increases your sodium levels. Even sports drinks don’t do enough to replace your sodium levels alone to off-set your fluid intake. Experiment with carrying and ingesting salt tablets at regular intervals (hourly). My personal choice is ‘endurolytes’ or ‘Succeed S-caps’. While it’s yet to be scientifically proven, many runners (including this one) will swear that the key to avoid nausea and cramping is the proper balance of sodium and electrolytes in your system.

Run at Night

This shouldn’t be a consideration unless you are training for a 100 or possibly a 50 miler, but if you are, running at night is a completely different running experience to get used to. It’s important during ultra marathon training to practice running at night to get used to wearing night gear such as headlamps and maybe extra clothing. Also, trail running at night provides a whole new array of smells and sounds which are spectacular. Sense of pace is affected at night. From experience, you are usually running a bit slower than you feel due to the limited visibility and depth perception of a headlamp. One of the biggest challenges runners face during their first 100 miler for the first time, is the combined sensation of physical and mental wrestling that takes place after running for 18 plus hours. They find themselves tired like they’ve never been before, in the middle of the night in a strange place quite likely battling uncomfortably low temperatures and nausea. For this reason, practicing to run at night is likely one of the most critical elements of proper ultra marathon training preparation.

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