Ten tips for a successful ultra marathon
By Henry Howard
As we transition from 2022 to 2023, many of our thoughts are filled with the promise of a new year.
For runners, it’s a time to dream big about an epic goal race. Or perhaps seek redemption from a setback like a first DNF. And to push ourselves to a new distance, time or epic adventure.
With the surge of popularity in ultra races, many runners will be looking to challenge themselves with a new distance, race or qualification for a dream race. For me, I am planning my racing year with another 100-miler in mind so I can improve, however slightly, my chances of getting into Western States via the lottery drawing just under a year from now.
Regardless of the distance, course details and other variables, there are common strategies that can be used during training and preparation that should prove beneficial. Here are 10 of them to consider as you train:
1. Dream big, visualize success: This time of year is perfect for dreaming about a big audacious goal and going for it. Scrolling through Ultrasignup or chatting with other runners on social media can get the creative juices flowing and help you decide on an epic quest for the new year. Once you have your goal locked in, use visualization to imagine all the challenges you might encounter on race day and how you’re going to overcome them.
2. Build the foundation: While a marathon training plan is usually around 14 to 16 weeks, training for an ultra takes a longer time period. Use the early part of the training to build your base. It is through consistency that endurance is built. Focus on building that base from which you can add more specific training as the plan progresses.
3. Incorporate speedwork: It may sound counter intuitive to think about speed when running at a slower pace for a long time. But there is a method to the fastness. By committing to regular speedwork, once or twice a week at minimum, you will improve running economy. It doesn’t take much. A few short bursts of speed during an otherwise easy run will — over time — boost that running economy.
4. Train for the terrain: As mentioned earlier, it is important to incorporate specific training. Getting on the actual course is ideal but not always possible. The first step would be to get a good understanding of the course. Flat, rolling hills, or long climbs? What’s the surface — dirt trail, paved trail, grass? Water crossings? Once you get a good handle on the course profile, seek out similar terrain for your training. Simulating it as best as you can even once a week will pay dividends.
5. Go for a hike: There are few ultra races where runners, even the elites, run every step. Power hiking is really underrated in training even though runners will find themselves using that method to scale a hill or just get through a rough patch. Hiking can be practiced in a number of different ways. On your non-running days, a good long hike will be good for recovery and practicing the skill. When I am training for a race in the mountains, I regularly follow up my long runs with a hike on the treadmill with the incline cranked up. And if your race allows trekking poles and you plan to use them, be sure to practice with them during your training.
6. Trust yourself: No one know you better than you. As it gets closer to race day, it’s common to question everything — your training, your nutrition, your choice of socks. Relax and know that you know what works best for you and not some dude clamoring about a product or gizmo on social media.
7. Eat, drink and be merry: It’s often said that long ultra marathons are eating contests with running in between stops. You will be burning a ton of calories during an ultra. There’s no way you can replace all of them during the race and that’s OK. Just fuel yourself, based on what worked during training, focusing on carbs that are easy to digest. And don’t forget to hydrate, sipping often is the best way to go. Merry? Absolutely. Spread cheer as you go. Chat with other runners. Be gracious to all the volunteers. Smile every mile.
8. Take it to go: Aid station volunteers at ultras are so friendly, helpful and amazing. But that doesn’t mean you need to spend valuable time chatting with them or your crew. The clock doesn’t stop and neither should you, for very long. At aid station stops, get in, get your food and hydration replenished and get out. You can eat while walking, er I mean, power hiking. During training practice carrying and eating on the go. Some portable options include a banana, mashed potatoes or a peanut butter sandwich in a sandwich bag, and wrapped items like Honey Stinger waffles, gels or similar endurance treats.
9. Focus on the end of the race: I need to work on this one. Often we put a lot of thought into the beginning of races, and vow to deal with the second half or last third when we get to that point. But that’s when our brain is devoid of working cells. Well ahead of the race day, be strategic about what you will want and need in those final sections of the race. Given your anticipated finishing time, what will the weather be like during that final stretch? Will you need warmer or lighter gear? A change of shoes and/or socks? What about nutrition at that point? Will you need a lighting source or spare batteries? Equip yourself with this knowledge and then plan out how you will access these items via your crew, a drop bag at an aid station or combination.
10. Celebrate: Maybe you hit your “A” goal, or another one of your goals. Or maybe things didn’t go your way on a given day. That can be disappointing. But it’s about the entire journey, the transformation you went through from your first training run through your most recent step during the ultra. Reflect back on how the experience has changed you, not just in the physical sense but the stronger mental outlook you have. Regardless of your finishing time, you have come a long way and are a better human. Celebrate that — and then dream big about your next epic challenge!