Ultra-marathon: a footrace longer than a marathon
Ask any runner what an ultra-marathon is, and this is the definition you’re likely to hear. While it may be technically correct, from a training perspective, an ultra means much more than that. Anyone can do an ultra—but it requires a shift in perspective.
Instead of simply getting the miles in each day (as you might when training for a half or even a marathon), preparation for an ultra-marathon incorporates a number of variables: volume, intensity, nutrition, vertical specifi city, terrain specifi city, environmental adaptation—to name a few. It’s important to consider all of these factors, because they are what you will encounter during the race. In order to have a successful experience, you have to deliberately practice what you will do on race day.
A Little Bit Longer Now
Allured by the notion that 50K is only ever-so-slightly farther than the marathon (31 miles as compared to 26.2), many runners make this distance their first foray into ultra-marathon running. The proposition is easy to conceptualize. If I’ve run 42K, what’s another 8K? While this thinking can be an inspirational gateway into ultra-marathoning, relying on it has a few pitfalls. Avoid them, and you can succeed. Fall prey to them, and they will unravel all of your hard work come race day.
1. Choose wisely.
When wading into the ultra-marathon pool, do so with purpose. Ultra-marathons are hard. The event you pick to be your first 50K should have some meaning. Maybe you are attracted to the fauna and fl ora. Or perhaps the area has a breathtaking landscape. Whatever your attraction, choose an event with a purpose.
2. Get your head right.
Ultra-marathons are not long marathons. Ultra-marathons are best thought of as a separate sport. Yes, both marathons and ultra-marathons involve running (and walking if that is part of your plan). But from a training standpoint, simply extending your marathon training program is only going to get you so far. Therefore, your training and preparation start not with a single step, but by getting your psychology wrapped around the idea that ultra-marathoning is a different sport. You are going to have to train and prepare much differently, particularly if your first 50K is on trails.
3. Find the specifics.
Once you have gone about choosing your first 50K, take a look at the course profile. Specifically, look at the amount of elevation change (positive and negative) per mile that you will experience during the race.
For example, if there are 2,500 feet of elevation gain and 2,500 feet of elevation loss, that works out to 161 feet of elevation change per mile over 50K. One of your goals in training should be to match this rate of elevation change over a week’s worth of training. Meaning, if you run 40 miles per week, that 40 miles should also include about 6,440 feet of elevation change. This will better prepare you for the biomechanical stressors that come from running up- and downhill.
4. Train the gut.
One of the more unique aspects of ultra-marathon running is that the outcome is largely based on how well you can tolerate taking in calories over the long haul. A survey performed on the finishers and non-finishers of the Western States Endurance Run (a 100-mile race in Squaw Valley, Calif.) found that the number-one issue runners encountered was gastrointestinal distress. You can get away with mediocre nutrition for a 4-hour marathon, but as the hours pile on, those nutritional mistakes will rear their ugly heads.
Fortunately, your stomach is made of muscle! It adapts to stress similarly to how your skeletal muscles adapt to running longer. Taking the time in training, particularly during longer runs, to use the foods and drinks that you will consume during the race not only will help your training runs be of higher quality, but also will dial in your race-day nutrition