How to Train for an Ultramarathon—in a City
These guidelines from ultrarunner Ruth Croft will ensure you achieve your goals, no matter your location.
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Her recent top finishes include wins at the UTMB OCC in 2018 and 2019, second place at the Dolomyth Skyrace (2018), first place at the Mont Blanc Marathon (2018, 2019), a second at the World Trail Running Championships, Portugal (2019), and eighth at the 2019 Seoul International Marathon (2:34:17).
I grew up in New Zealand, but went to college in the United States on a track and cross-country scholarship. After four years of disappointing performances and injuries, I decided to give up running and move to Taipei, Taiwan.
It didn’t take me long to realize that running was ingrained in me. It plays such a vital part in not just my physical but also mental well-being, and so I laced up the shoes again.
Oddly enough, it was in Taiwan where I discovered trail running. So I understand what it is like to live in a densely populated city with oppressive summers all while trying to train for an ultra.
At the time I did over 90 percent of my training on a flat concrete river path, but what I learned was that you can undoubtedly make it work. I was able to take first at the 2016 UTMB CCC and second at the 2017 Lavaredo Ultra Trail, so never stress about not having mountains or trails out your back door.
How to train in a city for your next (or first) ultramarathon
These seven rules will keep you happy and healthy.
Make strength and core a priority.
When you’re living in a city and training in a city, you don’t have the same physical stimulus as you get running up and down mountains. So it’s important to build up your muscles. You want strong glutes, quads, hamstrings and core, so that on race day you don’t blow up on the first descent and that when your body fatigues you’re still able to maintain correct running form.
Plus adding strength and core work to your programs can help you get through your whole training plan injury-free. I recommend two sessions per week, and at the very minimum, do it at least once.
Some exercises to incorporate are glute bridges, step ups with knee drive, rear lunges, wall mini squats, calf raises, dead bugs, bird dogs and bear crawls. You can advance them by adjusting slightly, or adding weight, so keep that in mind as you progress.
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Be ready for mental challenges.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it—it is mentally a lot harder to train in a city. You don’t have butter-smooth singletrack and beautiful mountain views right outside your doorstep to dull the pain of training. But come race day, you will realize that what you’ve had to go through to get to that start line made you mentally tougher .
Some ways to overcome the mental challenge is to train in the morning; if you leave it until the evening things can pop up at work or with family, and it is also easier to procrastinate or think of reasons to not get out the door.
Another option is to not be afraid to switch out some of your easy running recovery days with some swimming or biking to help mix it up, as long as it is not a high-intensity spin class.
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If you don’t have hills, re-create them.
To build your climbing muscles (from your calves through to your glutes), a Stairmaster or a treadmill with gradient cranked up make for good hill alternatives. And these tools remove a lot of the impact from running on the roads.
Running stairs especially can provide an effective high-intensity workout that builds power, agility and cardiovascular fitness. During these sessions, the down can be your recovery but also a good opportunity to practice descending, and working on your coordination.
Remember most ultras aren’t all running, so practice your power hiking technique on stairs or the treadmill. If you’re wanting some extra credit, always opt for the stairs coming out of the subway, at your office building or up to your apartment.
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Find a running community or partner.
The great thing about cities is there are a lot of people and often running clubs, so find someone you can train with at least once a week. It can really help to share some miles to take your mind off the fact that you’re running on a concrete path in a concrete jungle … and running partners also help to keep you accountable.
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Motivation to train can come in waves. Some days it will feel really easy to lace up your shoes and get out the door, and other days it will feel like a chore. On the days that you are struggling, don’t be hard on yourself. Those feelings are all natural and part of the training process. Remind yourself that the biggest improvements in your running come from consistency; it is not just the specific session but all the training days added up.
Low motivation to train can also be an all-too-common feeling currently with COVID-19, and as a result of not having any races on the calendar. Now is a good opportunity to shift the focus. Maybe work on your speed, or get back to building the base. If anything, don’t burn yourself out doing at-home workouts, but try to do some form of exercise daily, if anything for your mental health.
RELATED: Struggling with Motivation for Winter Training? Here’s How to Get Going
Focus on nutrition.
If your nutrition is not dialed in come race day, it can throw your whole race. Your long runs on the weekend are great opportunities to experiment with different race-day nutrition strategies to see what works for you.
The main things to consider are carbohydrate, sodium, caffeine and fluid uptake. Carbs come in the form of glucose (also called dextrose), sucrose (aka sugar which is glucose plus fructose in equal ratio), glucose polymers (aka maltodextrin) and starch (such as rice or oats).
In general carbohydrates take less work to digest than fats or proteins, but certain types of carbs appear to cause issues for some so you need to play around with them. I always suggest for races over two to three hours you want to be getting at least 50g per hour, but like you train your physical body you can also train your gut to be able to take onboard more carbohydrate.
For hydration, aim for 450 to 500ml (15-17 ounces) of liquid per hour. Of course, if it is hotter and you’re sweating more, this needs to be adjusted. With caffeine, this depends on what works for you, and if it causes you GI distress. The suggested amount of caffeine is up to 200mg (or 3-6mg per kg of body weight). It peaks within 45 minutes of ingestion and has a half-life of five hours.
The most important thing to remember is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” model when it comes to race-day nutrition. It is up to you to find out what works.
If at all possible, for the longest run of your training, try to get onto trails.
Plan a trip to get out of the city and on some trails with others. This can give you something to look forward to while also acting as a “dress rehearsal” before race day. It’s another chance to practice your race-day nutrition, hydration and equipment, and if all goes well it will give you some added confidence going into your race.
Lastly, and most importantly, always make sure you enjoy the process, because the race counts for only one day out of all your training.