An Ultra marathon, which can also be referred to as ultra distance or ultra running, is a running race that is even longer than a traditional marathon.
The most common lengths for ultra marathons are 50 km, 100 km, 50 miles or 100 miles. Some ultra marathons are also time-based rather than distance-based, where you run for 6, 12 or 24 hours. Put simply, any running race is an ultra marathon if it is longer than the traditional 26.2 miles or 42.2 km marathon.
Unlike some of the races that are shorter distances, an ultra marathon cannot be a last minute decision. Ultra marathons require deliberate and systematic training in order to avoid injuries and to have the endurance to feel strong as you cross the finish line. We recommend creating a training regimen at least 6 months before the ultra marathon event that you wish to compete in. Here are some key elements that you should incorporate into your training plan:
While we usually recommend at least 6 months for a training program, it really depends on your fitness and endurance level when beginning your training. You need to give yourself the appropriate amount of time to adequately train and be prepared for the ultra marathon event.
The main focus of your training for an ultra marathon should be endurance. Rather than trying to finish in a specific time, like in a marathon, ultra marathons are about running at a lower intensity so that you can sustain your energy and run for the entirety of the race.
Before you dive into your ultra marathon training routine, you should be able to run for an hour comfortably. Then, we recommend a gradual progression by increasing your total distance by 5 to 10% each week. The beginning of your training is about building a solid base, which means focusing on adding mileage each week before you begin the other parts of ultra marathon training – cross training, interval training, speed work and hill training.
Running for such long distances can easily cause fatigue, burn out and injuries. Therefore, it is crucial that you do not train at too high of an intensity. This means you may feel like you are running slower than your normal pace – this is completely normal! It is important to pay attention to your heart rate, and your ‘aerobic zone’ so that you are able to sustain a steady pace throughout the entirety of the run.
Long runs are critical to your ultra marathon training in order to build up your endurance and be adequately prepared for the event.
To help mimic the fatigue and tired feeling that your legs will feel during the ultra marathon, it is important to incorporate back-to-back long runs in your training. For example, running 17 miles on Saturday, followed by 12 miles on Sunday.
Just like your overall weekly mileage, the length of your back-to-back long runs should also gradually increase. Of course, do not plan back-to-back long runs too close to the ultra marathon event, as you do not want to be burnt out on race day.
If possible, try to complete your long runs on mixed-terrain and mixed-interval paths, as that is what you will experience at the ultra marathon event.
Training for an ultra marathon with a steep course relies on having more incline focused training sessions in your program. Training on different kinds of terrain will also help you to prepare for steep courses.
When training, gradually increase the intensity by which you walk or run up an incline week by week. It’s perfectly fine to alternate between walking and jogging at first as you begin to acclimatise to the intensity of the incline and your heightened heart rate.
People often forget that fuelling and hydration during an ultra marathon requires adequate planning and a process of trial and error. It is important to use the long runs in your training program as a time to learn which types of fuel and which amounts of fuel keep you feeling strong while running.
When running for hours, our body’s glycogen stores run out and cause a lack of energy and fatigue. A quick carb source like endurance gummies or gels are commonly used among ultra marathoners to keep the body sufficiently fuelled.
It is important to learn what fuel makes you feel good. Maybe the gels give you a stomach ache, and you would hate to find that out the day of the race. Also, when running for as long as 24 hours, you may want to mix up your fuel sources so you are not only having 20+ packages of gel.
Nutrition is of course personal and individualised, but a good rule of thumb is to refuel your carb sources every hour after the first hour on running.
While your training program can be perfectly planned, the ultra marathon event can have many uncertainties that you are not prepared for. That’s why we’ve gathered information and advice from professional ultra marathon runners for you.
Our bodies are made up of a wide variety of muscles, joints, ligaments, bones, etc. If you only incorporate running into your ultra marathon training, you will leave yourself prone to injury. By only running, the same muscles, joints, ligaments are used over and over again, while others are neglected and never strengthened. Therefore, it is essential to incorporate strength training and cross training into your ultra marathon training routine.
By incorporating other exercise and fitness activities, such as strength training, swimming or yoga, you will expand and strengthen your overall mobility, flexibility and strength.
Strength training and cross training will help you maintain your form and strength even as the muscles that are predominantly used while running will become more and more fatigued throughout the ultra marathon. Cross training allows you to be a more well-rounded athlete, which will ultimately make you feel much stronger when you run across the finish line.
If you choose to work with a personal trainer to help you with your strength training, we recommend that you work with someone who has experience with training runners. They will be able to give you a training program and guide you through exercises that are specifically helpful for long-distance running.