Preparing and Training for your First Ultra Part 1

Many of our readers have already run a number of ultras over the years, of that we’re sure. But if you haven’t and you’re looking for some advice as to where to start, we thought that we’d take a step back and consider all of those little things that for some of us, may have been forgotten along the way when it comes to preparing for your first ultra marathon, or indeed any ultra.

We’ll be doing this in two parts. The first will cover the decision-making process and some basic training tips, the second will focus on choosing the right equipment for your race.

For those of you who haven’t yet run your first ultra, we hope that this narrative and overview of the important things to consider helps you along your way, particularly as here in Australia, the North Face 100 is just around the corner in two months time. This race (along with Six Foot track this coming Saturday) is for many, the first foray into the world of ultras. So with a few months (or even days!) to go, here’s our  run down of things to consider.

Many runners take on the North Face 100 in Australia as their first ultra
Many runners take on the North Face 100 in Australia as their first ultra

The physical… And the mental

One of the first things to prepare yourself for is that running an ultra marathon presents both a physical and mental challenge. So many of us focus purely on the physical i.e. the training. How many of us actually consider the mental aspects of running over the marathon mark, and what kind of impact should it have on our training?

Aussie  trail runner and Salomon athlete Matt Cooper pays a lot of attention to this as part of his coaching initiatives, he comments, “In the last few weeks of race preparation the doors are all but shut physically, but mentally they have never been open wider.  In fact, it is this week that you stand at the fork in the trail. What you tell yourself this week about your race ‘preparation’ will have a great influence on your results.”

I distinctly recall my first ultra and the emotional rollercoaster I went through during the race. In short, I simply hadn’t prepared myself for the fact that I was running 100kms – physically I had to some extent, but I recall hitting 47kms and thinking what a mammoth task it was, and not just physically. The mental side of getting my head around the fact that I wasn’t even half way was huge and I kept asking myself how was I ever going to finish this race?

While physical conditioning for a race is highly important, don’t neglect the mental preparation that you should allow time for too as your big day approaches.

Commitment

Before you even enter a race, the biggest consideration is your commitment to training and what demands that will place not only on your time, but on those around you too e.g. family and friends. Running an ultra has a huge impact on your life and if you have a family, then you need to work out your priorities. You should consider how your training will fit with your work commitments and what adjustments you may need to make in other areas of your life.

Once you've made the decision to go for your first ultra - commit to it and all the training
Once you’ve made the decision to go for your first ultra – commit to it and all the training

Like many runners I know, I have kids, a pretty demanding ‘real’ job, a wife and this website to run – all of us have differing pressures and commitments that running needs to fit around. At times it’s incredibly hard to fit training in, but it’s all about priorities. For me, I rationalise as follows. Family comes first, followed by the job that actually affords me to live and subsidise my running and this website. Running is last on the list… no I tell a lie… sleep is the lowest priority!

Whichever way you look at it, if you’re going to run an ultra, make a commitment to do it and follow through on it. Doing well at your first ultra is very simple, you just have to be prepared to put in the miles and the rest will follow. It’s a numbers game pure and simple. If you don’t train and be consistent with that training, then you’ll be in a whole world of pain for your race, or at worst DNF it.

Picking your first ultra

Technically, any distance beyond a marathon is considered an ultra. However, the usual starting distance for ultras is typically 50 kilometers (approx. 32 miles). When deciding which ultra you want to run, stay grounded and stay realistic. I look back at my six or seven years of ultra running and believe I went about it in totally the wrong way. I launched head first into signing up for a 100km race and entered that race not having gone past the marathon distance. In short, I bit off more than I could chew.  I finished that race and I look back with fondness at it, but boy was it tough.

The temptation is to throw yourself headfirst into the ‘big’ stuff before you’ve had chance to build up. You also need to factor in things such as what you wish to achieve or get from your race. Are you looking for a fast time, or is it simply about the experience and not so much the time? What kind of weather do you wish to do this in? Picking an ultra in the summer is not going to be much fun if you’re no good at handling the heat. Likewise with the cold too, you may have to carry plenty of mandatory gear in your pack, which adds another dimension to your race.

Many races offer a variety of courses and terrain. Do you want something technical, or an ultra that is relatively ‘flat’ as we say in the running world that doesn’t require too much technical running ability? Will the course be a series of loops or a point-to-point race where you run from ‘a to b’? Psychologically many people prefer the latter as you feel as though you’re actually running somewhere. Loop racing presents an addition mental challenge as there will always be an option to ‘bail out’ at the start/finish line.

The type of terrain you run on in your first ultra is an important decision to make with regards to your running strengths. do you prefer flat, open fire trail, or steep technical climbing?
The type of terrain you run on in your first ultra is an important decision to make with regards to your running strengths. do you prefer flat, open fire trail, or steep technical climbing?

Do you want to run a well-established race that has lots of aid stations and a larger field of runners? Or do you prefer a lower-key event where you can get on with things and be left to your own devices? If it is a well-established race with plenty of aid stations, you generally don’t have to worry as much about course markings and what the aid stations will carry in terms of food and hydration. If aid stations are few and far between in your chosen race, then you again need to consider what items you’ll need to carry with you, as well as the volumes of fluid you’ll need to keep you hydrated between them, again based upon the temperature on the day.

Training for your race – Five basic tips

#1 Get to race weight – This is a tough one as it’s impossible for us as runners to objectively state if we’re at the right running weight. I speak from personal experience here in that I started ultra running off the back of a 20 year rugby union playing career. My position in rugby required me to be big i.e. eating lots and plenty of gym work. When I ‘retired’ from rugby, I weighed in at 107kgs.  I started running and it was a huge task to finish my 10km runs initially without having a walk somewhere along the way.

Gradually and over time, through the simple act of training, the weight came off. In short, the lighter you are, the quicker you will become – to a point. Work out what a healthy weight is for you. I’m still what you would regard as a larger runner weighing in now at 83kgs, but it’s appropriate for my height and build. I’m not one for fad dieting or starving myself. Just eat sensibly, get off the added sugar and crap, and eat fresh fruit and veg. It’s pretty simple – bar controlling those chocolate cravings!

#2 Train in the shoes you’ll wear on race day – It sounds so easy, but it’s amazing how many runners will train in one pair of shoes and then on race day, use a different pair entirely. I know, I’ve done it! The simple fact is that you want to be comfortable and that means finding a pair of shoes to suit you and your feet. It’s such a personal choice that it will differ from one person to the next, and it could change depending upon what type of race you’re doing. Even now, I will change between certain brands and types of shoes, depending upon what the race is and the terrain it’s run on. Additionally, buy multiple pairs of a shoe if you really like them as you can bet your bottom dollar they will be discontinued at some point.

What food will you be eating in your race?
What food will you be eating in your race?

#3 Practice your nutrition –  Get this nailed before race day. Don’t go into race day unaware of what food and hydration you need to keep you going and performing at the level you expect. Nutrition is such a personal thing. For some taking it in fluid format is the best option, while others prefer solids. Whatever you end up doing, make sure it is tried and tested a thousand times before race day so that you know exactly what you like/want and when/how often you need it during the race. Factor in the weather too – sometimes our taste buds and stomachs respond differently in varying conditions.

#4 Back to back long runs can benefit you hugely – Once you know which ultra you’re doing, you probably have an idea of a goal time in mind. A good way to start appreciating what it will take to finish is to start building up to running those total hours over two days e.g. over the weekend. For example, if you think you will finish in five hours, run three hours on Saturday and two hours on Sunday. Or four hours on Saturday and one hour on Sunday.

The important thing is to mix it up and vary your training so that your body gets used to running on tired legs. This is vital. You’ll get tired in ultras. It happens to us all at certain points in the race – the best thing to do is to prepare your body for this and to be able to run when you’re tired. While there will be a certain level of walking that you do in an ultra – even for the elites – the key to a good finish time is to do as little walking as possible. I have a phrase that I say to myself over and over again while I do long runs, or in the race itself – “The more you run, the quicker it’s done.”

#5 Train on the terrain you’ll be racing on race day – Even if that means going out of your way to find that terrain. If it’s a technical trail with plenty of vertical, train on technical, hilly terrain. If it’s a flat ultra on bitumen, train on that terrain. Vary your training too, taking into account the different types of sections the race may have. For example, Six Foot track has three very distinct aspects to it. Long-flowing downhills, hard, grafting uphill and undulating fire trail. Many people focus on hills training for Six Foot track, but often neglect to do downhill running as a specific exercise in their training plan. Six Foot is a downhill race… ’nuff said. Whatever race you choose, make sure you replicate as much of it as you can in your training and get on the course too if you can.

That concludes the first part of our preparing for and training for ultras. In part two, we’ll discuss the different types of equipment you may need, particularly for a race like TNF100, which requires carefully planning and consideration.

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Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

12 thoughts on “Preparing and Training for your First Ultra Part 1

  1. Thank you so much! I am quite new to running long distances and have a couple of ultras planned for this year. My first long run is Razorback, which is 38km, and now I am quite worried about the nutrition – will only really have one chance to try it! I think I have done all the other bits as you suggest. Lucky it is not 100, and my goal is to run as much as possible and finish, not a time, so I think I will be ok…

  2. Thank You! I’m running a trail marathon this year (Sehgahunda Trail Marathon) as a stepping stone into ultras. Your comments about mentally preparing are spot-on. When chatting people about Sehgahunda they all say “Whoa” and talk of it such a way that makes me feel like I might be underestimating it. But I am fairly confident in my ability to run it well. Until I have another one of those conversations and it causes me to think a little bit more…

  3. I still wonder, every time someone espouses on back-to-backs as if they are the gospel, did you try training for an ultra with just single-day long runs (followed by an easy short run the next day as a recovery run). It is also sort of conflicting in this day of “just finish, don’t care about the time” mantra that B2B training is followed by the idea that you will have to walk some of the ultra. If the terrain permits, a person can train to run the entire distance (yes, there are very few that can run a 100-miler regardless of the course) without being an elite. A person can train to successfully complete an ultramarathon using only single-long-run days and without walking–that is a fact that many don’t accept these days.

    1. All good points John. Indeed, many of the 30 or so ultras I’ve run have been done training using the one long day approach. Much of it depends on what you want to achieve. For the purposes of this article, what we’re trying to do is offer people advice based on their first ultra and to gain an appreciation of what it takes. As we repeatedly mention throughout many of our articles and advice… nothing is right or wrong, it’s about what works for you. We merely act as a volunteer guide to give people something to think about and some advice to impart. The beauty and indeed fun of our sport is that we’re all on a journey to work it out and learn new stuff along the way. The day I ‘nail it’ is the day I’m finished.

      1. “The day I ‘nail it’ is the day I’m finished.” — Noooooooo. I have found so many new ways to enhance old mistakes that no amount of perceived perfection could stop me from ruining a perfectly good day. My 50-mile times go from 6:30ish to 11:40ish which is interesting only because the 5:10 spread is less than the 5:23 spread on the fastest-to-slowest 50k times. A top-ten finish one year was rectified by a DFL the following year. There is always something else to adjust just as you thought you had it all nailed down. rgot

      2. I think we’re agreeing here John 🙂 Thanks for your input and good luck with the book!

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