No two ultramarathon experiences are the same. Our bodies, minds, stomachs, chaffing spots, and schedules all handle the stress of training and racing differently.
Which is why — in addition to sharing my own experience — I like to facilitate or participate in round-ups of advice from several different runners. There’s value in laying advice out — side by side — so you can pull form several people at the same time.
A few weeks ago I was asked by NordicTrack to contribute to one such article about making the leap to your first ultramarathon. The article features myself and seven other ultrarunners and bloggers, covering topics from what to expect during training, to mindset, to racing myths.
The advice and experience here is so good, they’ve allowed me to share it here with you.
Here we go …
The Most Difficult Aspects of Your First Ultramarathon
So you want to run an ultra. Are you ready?
Running an ultramarathon demands a lot more than just strength. In this first section, we discuss the mental and nutritional challenges of ultra running.
MENTAL FRAME OF MIND
It’s been said that ultrarunning is 10% physical and 90% mental. That may be off by a percentage or two — my tests aren’t conclusive just yet 😉 — running that far undoubtedly requires a certain metal frame.
“The physical side of training for an ultramarathon can be tough, but the mental side is what gets you across the finish line. Not just on race day, but also throughout training. The day in and day out of building up to your first ultra can leave you questioning why, or if you can even do this.”
“I find that the most challenging part of an ultra is the mental aspect, which applies to newbies and veterans, alike. It’s important to show up to the start line feeling positive, confident and determined to finish. I’ve found that starting a race with negativity and self doubt is like going out with 40 lb weights strapped to your back.
In fact, my worst races are always the ones that I am the most stressed about. I’ve found myself toeing the start line with negative thoughts or even comparing myself to other runners and find myself feeling weighed down. And when I start out negative, when things get tough (and they always do), it’s harder to pull yourself back out again.”
“Rousseau once said ‘patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.’ If you are considering moving from marathons to ultra marathons, training your mind and developing a strong sense of patience may well be your greatest challenge. To me, the term mental training is really a euphemism for teaching yourself to embrace a mindset. When I switched from marathons to running ultras I had to teach myself how to think differently. To abandon the mental shackles that controlled my perceptions and expectations about running and being a runner.”
OVERCOMING THE MENTAL ROADBLOCKS
There’s not a “one size fits all” technique to mastering your mental state during training or race day. In fact, experimentation and trying different methods is key …
“I recommend runners take it one day at a time, focusing only on that day’s scheduled run. Check that one off the list and move to the next. The same theory applies on race day. Instead of looking at all the miles ahead, focus on just getting through the next mile, or the next ten minutes. Then the ten minutes after that”
“How do you prepare mentally for an ultra marathon? First step – don’t obsess over pace, especially those coming from a marathon background. You need to throw away the GPS because, as Rousseau said, patience is bitter. Your ego will be threatened to learn that your mile pace, especially during 100 mile distances, will often not be much faster than a brisk walk.
Second step, understand that your pace and energy levels will vary wildly depending on the terrain, altitude, vertical gain, descent, heat, daylight, distance covered, and nutrition/hydration. You have to be prepared to roll with this, and don’t try to control it. The mindset that you control your pace and use a GPS to monitor it is like thinking you can fly a rocket to the moon with a compass. Think of it this way – when you’re running 100 miles, especially in the mountains, you are entering the stratosphere. What worked at ground level won’t help you up there.
Rather than monitoring your pace, focus inward, on maintaining a steady energy output. This is critical in training because to do this well you need to teach your mind patience and your body how to move efficiently for long periods. Finally, when running ultra’s there will inevitably be highs and lows. Understanding and believing that both will pass is part of the mental training you have to practice. If you can embrace these concepts, you will indeed taste the fruit, and it will be sweeter than ever.”
Your frame of mind during an ultra can make or break your performance. Remaining positive and confident throughout the race is important. Also, taking the race a mile at a time, and not getting caught up in pacing, will help lessen your suffering and ultimately get you across the finish line.
DIET AND NUTRITION
If there’s one area where more well trained ultrarunners blog it, it’s with nutrition. How you fuel your race could be the difference between crossing the finish line and ending the day early.
The problem is, nailing nutrition is no cake walk.
“As I often discuss with coaching clients, physical fitness, diet, and mindset are the pillars of ultramarathon preparation. I grew up around ultrarunning and came from a strong background of adventure racing, mountain biking, and collegiate running; the mindset and physical training came a little bit more naturally for me (which isn’t to say they weren’t hard then or aren’t still tough now). However, diet has been my challenge and evolution over the years. I went from a college kid who shoved down dorm food to a 20-something who ate whatever was cheapest to, now, a mid-30’s athlete, coach, and family guy who’s highly focused on nutrition.”
“The hardest part was to figure out the proper nutrition. Even so, you can practice food and fluids intake during training but it is very different in a race situation. There is for sure a time needed for working out the details – learning what works for you and what doesn’t. This becomes even more crucial if you work up to real long distances like the 100 miles or longer.”
“Nutrition is by far the hardest. I have a sensitive stomach and finding food that I can eat during a run is extremely hard.I tried things like peanut and nut butters, which just get stuck in your throat and you can’t swallow. I can’t eat anything greasy the day before a long run like pizza. I have found food items such as a plain bagel and black coffee an hour or so before work best for breakfast but that won’t hold you over very long. Fig Bars work well for me to digest slowly without being harsh on my stomach. Pickle juice – it’s amazing to prevent cramps. I learned the hard way to use it in very small doses
My favorite gels are Huma Chia Energy Gels. I can take these for hours and hours during a run and they won’t mess with my stomach at all. However, I wouldn’t suggest this, even though they are really tasty (kind of like your favorite jam) it does still get old after a while and your body needs protein as well on those extra long runs.
Some people however, can eat pizza, drink coke and be totally fine during a run! That is so amazing to me!”
“Second to the mental aspect, nutrition has always been the most challenging aspect of my training and racing. While I believe that nutrition matters for most races, in an ultra, I feel as though it’s almost more important than the training itself.”
Diet and nutrition is another aspect of ultrarunning that requires experimenting through trial and error to find what works best for your body. There are some basic guidelines, though, that can assist you with figuring out the right balance to nourishing your body during an ultramarathon.
“I follow an “optimized fat metabolism” nutrition style that teaches the body to burn fat as a primary fuel source at relatively high effort levels. This diet has become a key factor in my ultra preparation and general health – and an exercise metabolism test showed that it’s working. I took over 50% of my fuel from fat when maxed out on a treadmill, never reaching the so-called “crossover point”.”
“I learned the hard way, and on more than one occasion, that eating early and often isn’t just a fun thing to say. In an ultra, you truly need to eat early and eat often to make sure you’re fueling the body properly from start to finish. You’re running a deficit all day and it can be easy to forget just how much energy you actually need to get your body to perform the way you’re asking it to.”
“It is all about trial and error and finding what works best for your body, every ultra runner is going to tell you something different when it comes to what they eat during runs but they will all say the same thing in the end about testing food out on your long runs. Good luck! Get creative!”
There is incredible science and biology happening within your body during an ultramarathon. In order to be able to accomplish such a feat, especially if you’re in a 100 miles race, the body requires specific attention to nutrition that is unique to you. Just as these experts have said, keep these takeaways in mind: it’s important to learn now what your body needs, eat early and often on race day, and remember that it will take time to discover the right nutrition plan for you.
Then of course, there’s training …
“The most difficult and challenging area of preparing for my first and early stages of ultra running was the physical training aspect.
TRAINING: It’s a daunting task when you are inspired and motivated to tackle an ultra for the first time but have ZERO clue on how to prepare. While many assume that you “just need to run lots” this is simply not the case. Too much running can easily lead to overuse injuries, compromised long term health health and the inability to run with any kind of speed or power. For example, “just running lots” will not necessarily make you good at hill climbing, fast and efficient on the flats or be able to conserve energy and run effortlessly down hills. When I was preparing for my first ultra race, it appeared like training smart was one big puzzle. Knowing how to increase mileage safely, how to incorporate speed training into things and how to become better on hills was at first a mystery. Pair that with availability to train, life commitments, work and actually having quality workouts was something that I had to address right away upon entering the sport if I was too have any kind of longevity. And recovery….how much do you need?”
“What I discovered in learning how to train was that there was a lot of one size fits all (ie – cookie cutter) training programs out there which made me question how and why should everyone train the same when all runners are starting at different fitness levels, with different goals and with different strengths and weaknesses. It seemed like a sure way to get injured super fast. I also realized quickly that there were not actually a whole lot of coaches who understood the sport of ultrarunning as it was so new and therefore, there were not a lot of people coaching it with great expertise. However, I knew that I wanted a coach to guide me for the following reasons:
- Master Plan – someone who could see the end goal and work backwards in how to actually get me ready.
- Someone to tell me when to push and when to recover
- To have a daily plan to follow so that I knew what to do for training each day of the week. No more guessing.
- Guidance on how to train smart and make the most out of time allowance
So with those reasons, I did hire a great coach and mentor to guide me in pursuit of my ultra running goals. While I didn’t lack motivation, I actually needed someone to tell me to rest and relax, the other important side to training!
In fact, my involvement in ultra running over 12 years ago and having a coach is one of the main reasons that I pursued a career in the endurance coaching realm. I was inspired to guide others through this training journey and to share my experiences. To this day I remain committed to always staying on top of the latest in endurance research and how to work effectively with a wide scope of my athletes in my coaching practice.”
Ultra Running Myths, Debunked
There’s definitely some stigma surrounding the world of ultrarunning, and paired with that are a set of incorrect expectations and beliefs.
But what is really true?
Like any community, ultrarunning has it’s stereotypes — the weirdos, superhumans, and bearded sufferers. Then there’s the assumption that you can’t have a job, support a family, or do anything else while training.
“I think one of the most common misconceptions about ultrarunning is that it’s only for the superhuman types. Sure, you have to have mental strength and you have to train but it isn’t an impossible feat. At the end of the day, running for a long distance on trails is a pretty basic activity. You put one foot in front of the other, stay tuned in to your effort, make sure to eat and drink, and most likely you’ll be just fine.”
“I would say that the most common misconception is that you have to be a little crazy to be an ultramarathoner. I have met some of the most down to Earth, sane people that I have ever met through ultra running. It really helps to put a lot of life’s problems into perspective. I jokingly say that I stopped going to church because I found running. But that’s not it at all. I feel so at peace when I am out there on the trails, in God’s country. I have let all of life’s troubles wash away; it’s my therapy session. Once those wash away I feel that I am able to appreciate the world and all of its wonders. It brings me such joy to be free in nature. It has nothing to do with distance for me, but with wanting to be out there in the beauty of the world. Signing up for races is more of a way to bond with other runners, to all have similar goals, to cheer each other on through our accomplishments and have fun while doing it. But we all know that the trails are where are our hearts are. It’s not crazy to be out in the places where we feel the most at peace.”
“One of the most common misconceptions about ultra-running is that it is an outlandish sport that irrational people do to satisfy some absurd obsession. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve gotten to know a lot of ultra runners over the years. What I’ve learned about them is similar to what I’ve learned about myself. As I’ve said before, we are just normal people. We are the electrician who crawls into your attic when you need wiring in your home. We are the parent who drives their child to water polo practice every day. We are men and women who report to an office everyday. More than anything, though, we are people who want something more in life. Something real, not just material. Something we have to dig deep within ourselves to obtain, and the deeper we dig, the more satisfied we are.”
“A lot of folks still think that Ultra Running is for “slow old people”; even so, that was a little true for the sport years ago but not anymore. There are plenty of young guys in their mid twenties moving up from road racing to Ultras and Trail Ultras. We are talking guys that can run 62-64 minute Half marathons and 2:14-2:18 Marathons. Also, a lot of people think all you need to do is run long and slow, not true. I train a lot like a marathon runner, just with long runs being longer and closer to race day, my training is more specific to the upcoming course (flat versus mountain, i.e.).”
To recap, ultra running is not just for the “crazy”, “old”, or “superhumans”. In fact, it’s a way for all runners- of various ages, personalities, fitness levels, and stages of life- to enjoy the world around them and find the peace and satisfaction needed from living stressful, busy lives.
Everyone has their own image of what training for an ultramarathon looks like, but the realities don’t usually match up to the expectations. Things such as the time required to devote and the mileage needed to run each week can be much different than what people assume.
“When road marathoners start considering a trail ultramarathon, they often think that ultra training looks a lot different than what they did for the marathon, and that it will take up a lot more time. In reality, they’re very similar.
Sure, you’ll want to increase time spent on the trail, and replace some of the speed work with extra mileage, but I’m a firm believer that if you can run a marathon, you have the strength and skills to run a 50K ultramarathon.
And you can do it while having a job, taking care of kids, and juggling everything else life throws your way.”
“New ultra runners and people considering the sport often assume that adequate preparation requires an incredible volume of running in time and mileage. “I can’t do it because I’m too busy,” they tell themselves. That’s not true. You CAN do it, and you might be surprised that you don’t need to go for 40-mile long runs in order to be an ultrarunner.
I train for 100-milers with 65-75 miles per week of running, and I always take one day fully off. Granted, these are hard miles at altitude with plenty of quality, but I’m not spending my entire life running and I still have time for work and family. Many of my clients have experienced success in long ultras on less training than that. Key to your preparation is intentional, structured training, and you might consider reading books and articles and/or working with a coach. Also, keep in mind that what’s right in training for your running buddy might not be right for you, so don’t shy away from doing your own thing when needed.”
“I hear one thing over and over from non ultra runners (many of whom are established or elite marathoners). “You must have to run a lot of MILES to be able to run a race that far!”
As a coach, I make it clear to my clients that it doesn’t take 100+ mile weeks, long runs of 30, 40, 50+ miles, or regular “back to back” weekend long runs to be ready to run an ultra. That goes for 100+ mile races too! Many of my clients have been fit and ready to complete (and complete it well) their first ultra from 50k up to 100 miles on just 30-35 miles / week with long runs that rarely crack 18-20 miles. Much less than most road marathoners. That’s not to say that ultra runners are lazy! If you factor in the time on feet and vertical gain into the training notes then it’s easy to see why “less MILES” is actually OK. As in any sport, specifically those with high impact like running, rest if especially important to benefit from the training. Don’t get caught up in the number of MILES you run, rather think about the type of miles you’ll be running during your goal race(s). Tailor your training to mimic that. Chances are your total MILES will decrease but your fun while training and time on your feet will likely increase!”
No matter how perfectly you train, shit’s gonna happen. That’s just a fact.
There will inevitably be surprises, hiccups, and unforeseen experiences along the way. However, first time ultra runners, and even spectators of the sport, tend to make assumptions about various aspects of the race. In fact, a commonly believed myth involves how runners run the race.
“Everyone thinks that runners “run” the entire way and this couldn’t be more far from the truth. In fact, Id say that 99% of the field walks in almost every ultra out there at some point. Yes, even the elites walk!
So, that said, if people train the walk/run and become very efficient at power walking (or as I call it, power walking with purpose) chances are good that they have the capability to complete an ultra! All of my athletes who are training for an ultra spend a great deal of time learning how to be efficient at power walking. This includes training the hip flexors in that range, how to intake calories while walking fast and how to really move uphills with power and speed, all while walking. The longer the race, the more power walking that happens. In fact, in many cases it is much easier and faster to walk then it is to run. I challenge many of my athletes to test this theory. I ask them to power walk up a hill beside someone who is running and to notice if they are maintaining the same pace while determining who is expending more energy. In addition, it is important for ultrarunners to become good at transitioning back and forth between run/walking and to not get lulled into just walking when they could in fact be running.
So, when someone says that they ran 100 miles, chances are pretty good that they actually mean that they walk/ran 100 miles!”
What To Know Before Running Your First Ultra
Regardless of the amount of articles you read, or the amount of runner friends you interview, you may still have questions and experience surprises on race day. Here’s what you can expect:
“My first ultra was awesome, until it wasn’t… the first 50k was smooth, effortless, and exhilarating running 30+ minutes ahead of 2nd place. The kicker? I was running a 50 miler! I had gone out wayyy too fast, been carrying wayyy too much water, and I should have researched the course a LOT more.
I went off course around mile 37 and did an extra 5 miles. Not only did it frustrate me that I lost the huge lead, it also made me wish I knew the course better. Around mile (for me) 42 my hips were killing me. I rarely trained with a pack or even a handheld for that matter but on race day I wanted to “make sure” I had enough fluids. The added weight from my 100 oz H2O bladder threw my gait off and after 4-5 hours of running I was paying for it.
To top it all off, the pace I was going was far from sustainable. It would have been great for 50k but the additional 30k (where the race begins for most in a 50 miler) turned into a struggle. I went from being on-pace for a sub 8 hour 50 mile debut on a mountainous course to walking / limping / dragging my aching body across the finish line (55 miles later) in around 11 hours.
So what did my experience in that first ultra teach my now more experienced self?
“When I ran my first ultra, I literally knew nothing about them. I was in my early 20’s, had completed a handful of marathons and paced a friend running his first 50 miler and thought, that was fun, I should try that. Two months later, I had signed up for my first 50 miler.
I approached the start line with casual ease, wearing a cotton tank top and shorts, carrying a handheld water bottle and wearing a hat that I had worn during training runs. I didn’t have special trail shoes, a watch, or even a drop bag. It was just me, myself and the trails. And honestly, I had a pretty great race. I was even decently fast.
That said, I did experience a pretty epic bonk around mile 42. It was purely a nutrition problem as I hadn’t eaten much at the start and likely wasn’t eating much during the actual event. I wish I had known just how important nutrition is when it comes to racing and wish I had been more prepared when it came to taking in calories and drinking water.”
“I wish I had known how hard it can be physically and mentally for a long time. You know if you ran a 10k let’s say you start to hurt with 2 miles left, so you are talking 10-15 minutes of suffering left? Even if you are only running 10 minute pace that is 20 minutes of mental and physical struggle.
In an ultra, you could be at mile 70 in a 100 miler and it is getting dark and you have 30 miles left to go in the dark woods, which equates to many hours of suffering. You can’t prepare for that, you just have to experience it.”
“I wish I had known just how important a strong crew team was. I had a last minute crew thrown together, wrong coordinates were handed out, missed crew stations happened, I ran out of water, it was a rough go of it. I wanted to quit the race. I had started walking, sat down for a long while, and had basically given up until a young lady, also named Katie, found me on the course. She gave me water and food and helped me get to the next aid station. Once we reached the aid station I stopped my watch, sat down, called my mom and told her I quit and to come and get me. As soon as I hung up, everyone at the aid station started cheering me on, saying I could do it, and that I should at least go to the next aid station. I called my mom back, told her to met me at the next aid station. Started my watch back up I ended up running with Katie the last 18 miles. I thought that time spent at the aid station, letting them convince me to continue on took forever, it turns out it was just over 1 minute according to my watch and official time. I never realized before how something as simple as a little encouragement can go such a long way and that having the proper support can be a huge game changer.”
MAKING THE LEAP TO AN ULTRAMARATHON
If you’re wanting to make the leap into the ultra distance world, don’t be overwhelmed. Hopefully, after reading this article and hearing what ultra running professionals have to say about the sport, you feel more prepared to run your very first ultramarathon. Even though each racing experience will be unique- for every runner and for every race- the wisdom from someone who has succeeded can better equip you with what to expect and plan for. Ultra running is just like any other endeavour – you need to take the time to learn, plan, and prepare. But if these bloggers can make the leap and succeed, you can too!
THE ULTRA BLOGGERS
NordicTrack is grateful to the bloggers that participated in this project and shared their knowledge on ultrarunning! Visit their websites to read more about their experience and adventures as ultrarunners!