Ultra Running Tips for Beginners

Updated: November 23, 2021
female ultra runner tying her shoes for an ultramarathon
By: John O’Regan

So you want to run an Ultramarathon

An Ultramarathon is any footrace longer than a marathon distance (26.2 miles; 42 km). The most common distances are 50k, 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles. Races can be longer and extend into multiday or timed events such as the 12-hour and 24-hour races in which competitors see how far they can run in 12 or 24 hours.

Ultramarathons take place on varied terrain, the most common surfaces would be unpaved roads or trails through forests and up and over mountains but you will find most of the time-based races are held on a standard 400m running track. The growth of ultrarunning in general and the increase in women’s participation in particular over the past 25 years is significant.

I could never run an ultra” is a phrase I hear quite a lot from runners. Often followed by something like: “I know how I felt at the end of X race, and there’s no way I could have done another X number of miles/Kms”. However, you can succeed at ultra-distance if you are consistent with your training, put in the required work and are realistic with your goals and targets.

Training for an Ultramarathon

The most important thing you can do to prepare yourself for an ultra-distance race is to spend lots of time on your feet. You need to build up your mileage over time.

The time you spend on your feet will help to increase your overall strength and endurance. Start walking places instead of taking the bus, take the stairs instead of the lift. Incorporating standard running type sessions that would be utilised when training for races from 5K to Marathon such as hill repeats and tempo runs will also prove beneficial.

Give yourself at least six to twelve months to train for your first ultra marathon and ideally that will be preceded by at least one Marathon distance event. You should be laying your ultra-marathon training on an already established fitness and endurance base.

A common downfall is trying to rush into too many miles too soon and then not making it to the starting line in a fit and healthy state, or not making it at all!

Consistency is key.

Slowly increase the number of miles per week to avoid injuries or setbacks from overtraining. Practice running on tired legs but do this cautiously as the priority is avoiding injury.

For a lot of runners, it can be difficult to eat and drink (refuel) during a race and so they avoid it. You might get away with not refuelling in races up to marathon but during an ultramarathon, you might not have the choice, run out of fuel and you will hit that wall.

With this in mind, you will also need to train your stomach to consume calories while running. It might feel difficult and uncomfortable at first but just like the body and mind, the stomach needs training.

If you want to try an ultra marathon then get in touch – John and Sinead can help you.
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Why run an Ultramarathon?

While running long distances has proved to have its benefits to your physical well-being there are also benefits to your mental well-being. As mentioned earlier ultra-distance races are held on a variety of terrain and environments with many of them taking place in nature. Running through forests and on trails can be invigorating and you will never regret the run you did.

Although ultra distances are longer with a higher volume of training it can be less intense than shorter, faster, running and in some ways easier on your body. Running off-road can also be more forgiving on your leg muscles and most of the pain you feel will be from working hard rather than injury.

However, there might also be some downsides that you should consider. As you increase your distances you will also increase your chances of a few running-related issues.

Blisters can be a problem for some and then there are other possible foot issues such as black and bruised toenails or in some cases other more serious issues with the lower leg. For this reason, it’s advisable to wear footwear suitable to the type of running that you plan on doing and try to get runners that suit how you run.

How to choose the right gear for Ultra Running?

To keep it simple, the main thing you’ll need to train for an ultramarathon is a suitable pair of running shoes. If you have the right running shoes then you are good to go.

Comfortable clothing is next. My preference is for shorts while other runners might prefer longer leggings. For the upper body, I’d suggest a T-shirt suitable for running, these are known as technical T-shirts as they wick the sweat away and are more comfortable. You might prefer a long sleeve depending on the air temperature and if necessary you can add a light windproof or waterproof jacket.

If you plan on running off-road on tracks and trails then it might be worth adding a small backpack to carry some other items such as a hat and gloves and maybe some fuel to match the duration of your run. As you add to your experience then you might need to start adding some safety critical items to that bag with items that include a first aid kit.

Think ahead when making your purchases and try to future proof yourself but bear in mind that the bigger the bag the more you end up packing. Get advice in a specialised shop.

How to get into Ultra Running?

The ultramarathon is now what the marathon was 20 years ago. Ultramarathons have become more popular. Many people run marathons and then transition to ultra-marathon distance but that’s not always the case as many bypass the marathon and jump straight in with an ultra.

For me, the marathon didn’t have the same appeal and it was the Marathon des Sables, a 250Km race in the Sahara desert that was my temptation into the sport of running. I did my first marathon while training for the MdS and then discovered the joy of running.

If you have previously ran a marathon then that running base will help with the training for an ultra plus you also know what it feels like to train and have an awareness of the commitment needed.

To start you first need to set yourself a particular goal/race. Once you set your goal/race start training. Start with the end in mind by calculating how many weeks you have between now and the race date. Be realistic and ensure you have enough time to train.

You need to do the training! In a shorter distance race, you might manage to get away with being underprepared but go longer and you will be found out.

Your training plan should be tailored to your race, your lifestyle and your goals. A 50k road ultra vs. a 100k mountain trail ultra will require different types of training, think specifics. As you’d expect, longer races require greater training mileage. A flat 50k road ultra-training program will look very similar to a marathon program while a mountainous trail race will require something more specific to the challenges of climbing and descending. This also requires a level of skill that takes time to practice and hone.

Run as frequently as your body and lifestyle allows while trying to keep it as adventurous and fun as possible. Listen to your body and don’t be afraid of cross-training but do take some downtime and rest.

Train for the type of terrain you will be racing on. If you’re racing in the mountains (either road or trail), make sure you spend adequate time running hills. Just like any kind of race, if you enter an ultra and don’t like it, you can leave that part of your life behind and never try it again. But you won’t know unless you try.

If you want to try an ultra marathon then get in touch – John and Sinead can help you.
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