You want to run an ultramarathon, but….

There’s always a But, right?

But…

  • I don’t have enough time for the training
  • My experience isn’t there yet
  • It’s too hot this summer

Those are just a few of the excuses I hear on a regular basis. Excuses from people who genuinely want to take the leap into trail and ultra running, but something keeps holding them back. Something they can’t get past on their own.

The Truth About Your But

Notice I said “But,” not “Butt.” I don’t know anything about your butt…

Buts are easy to come by. Unfortunately for us, the But is one of the most powerful tools your mind has for resisting something big. Or life changing.

Here’s the thing, while that But may sound valid on the surface, it’s nothing more than an excuse not to start training. An excuse born from fear.

I’m not going to sugar coat it, deciding to run an ultramarathon is scary.

Why?

Because it’s going to be a challenge. And because at first you have no idea where to start.

How to Start Training For an Ultramarathon

Stephanie Marie Howe knows a lot about ultrarunning. Her accomplishments alone would take up my entire word count for this post.

But to give you a few recent highlights, Stephanie won the 2014 Western States 100, came in 3rd just last weekend at the 2015 Western States 100, and 1st at the 2015 Lake Sanoma 50. She’s a North Face sponsored athlete, one of the top female runners in the sport.

During a recent interview I did with Stephanie for the Trail Runner’s System, I asked her,

“What advice would you give to someone thinking about running their first ultramarathon?”

Here’s a short clip from that interview where she addresses that question:

3 Steps to Preparing for Your First Ultramarathon

In the video above, Stephanie brings up 3 important steps in preparing for your first ultramarathon.

  1. Get comfortable on the trails
  2. Perfect your nutrition
  3. Train for the distance

My goal with this post is to provide you with enough information to get started in these 3 areas. All in an effort to eliminate that fear we talked about earlier, and give you direction on how to begin.

So let’s breakdown Stephanie’s 3 steps to preparing for an ultra:

1) Get Comfortable on the Trails

This is a big one, and one we spend a lot of time on here at Rock Creek Runner, but it should be noted up front that not all ultramarathons are run on trails. There are road, track, beach, and even snow ultramarathons. Most ultras, however, do stick mostly to the dirt.

If you’re interested in an ultramarathon, it’s safe to assume that trail running will be a big part of your adventure. For that reason, getting comfortable on the trail should be a top priority in your training.

What to keep in mind:

  • Not all trails are created equal: If you’re new to trail running, start easy and work your way up to more technical trails. Before signing up for a race, do research on the types of trails that make up the route. Train on similar trails to the course as often as possible.
  • Train on both roads and trails: For many new ultrarunners, training exclusively on slow, technical trails isn’t going to be an option with a busy schedule. There’s nothing wrong with adding roads into the mix as well, as long as you’re still spending enough time on the dirt to be comfortable come race day.
  • Add drills into your training: There’s no substitute for the real thing, but if you don’t have trails available to you on a daily basis, do the next best thing: pretend. One great way to work your trail muscles (the muscles not utilized as much during road running) is through drills.

Pro Tips:

  • Sites like ultrasignup.com rate the difficulty of races. If you aren’t comfortable on technical trails, try to avoid thougher races.
  • I have a great intro to trail running eBook you can pick up for free here.
  • Safety is a top frustration for many new trail runners. Here are a few tips for staying happy and safe on the trail.

2) Perfect Your Nutrition

When it comes to key differences between a road marathon and a trail ultra, nutrition might be the #1 distinction.

During a road marathon, 1-2 energy gels and water at the stations will be all most people need. That all shifts when you’re out on the trail sometimes 2/3rds longer during a 50k. You read that right, for many runners, adding 2-4 hours to their marathon time is a reasonable trail 50k goal. Yikes…I know.

To give you a firsthand example, my first 50k was 2 hours and 17 minutes longer than the marathon I ran just a few months prior. And that was one of the fastest 50ks I’ve ever run (because of the course, not my abilities)!

When you’re on the course 5, 6, 7+ hours, just for a 50k, a gel and a few cups of water aren’t going to cut it.

Know your nutrition strategy going into the race, and stick to it from the moment your foot crosses the starting line.

What to keep in mind:

  • The aid station buffet is real: Have you heard stories of ultramarathon aid stations being stocked with things like sandwiches, bacon, soup, quesadillas, and junk food? Well it’s true, and ultrarunners love to brag about it. Remember that most of these foods will not do much for your performance, especially during a 50k. Stick to what you know, what you’ve tested, and what will keep you moving forward. If that means popping a gel every 30 minutes, there’s nothing wrong with that. Hit the buffet once you’ve crossed the finish line.
  • No nutrition plan is right for everyone: If someone tries to tell you exactly how to fuel, don’t bother listening. The only way to know exactly what works for you is to test it out yourself.
  • Drinking is part of your nutrition strategy: Sports drinks are not only good for keeping you hydrated and pumped full of electrolytes, they can also be an easy way to take in additional calories and carbohydrates. My favorite high calorie mixes are Heed and Tailwind.

Pro tips:

  • Use the 2 or 3 longest training runs as practice races. Wake up at the same time you would on race day, start running at the scheduled start time, and mimic what you plan to eat on race day. These practice runs give you an opportunity to test out your nutrition strategy and fine-tune it for race day.
  • Not all sports drinks will sit well in your stomach. Choose a drink that is low in sugar, but high in electrolytes, calories, and carbohydrates. And don’t forget, TEST IT!

3) Train for the Distance

While 31 miles might not sound that much longer than 26 miles, keep in mind what I said earlier: You’ll be out on the trail much longer.

To prepare, train for the added time on your feet, and the additional stresses, both mentally and physically, that come from running on tired legs.

What to keep in mind:

  • Train for time, not just distance: What I mean here is to avoid only focusing on mileage throughout your training. Instead, switch some of your long runs to a predetermined number of hours. Instead of a 20 mile long run, plan to run for 4 hours.
  • Run a back-to-back: The back-to-back long run is a popular tool for ultrarunners. It teaches you to run on tired, achy legs, and introduces new mental challenges you wouldn’t get from a single run. I discussed back-to-back long run strategies during a recent podcast episode.
  • Keep a steady effort: On the road we talk a lot about pace and splits, on the trail that’s a lot more difficult. Pace can vary significantly depending on the terrain, so train yourself to focus instead on maintaining a consistent effort throughout the run. If your effort goes too high early in the race, you’ll struggle during those later miles.

Pro tips:

  • Use shorter distance trail races as practice races. If you’re training for a 50k, find a local trail marathon or even half marathon to test out pacing strategies and get a feel for racing on the trail.
  • Because the distance will feel so long on race days, I break it up by aid station sections instead of miles. During a 50 miler, for example, you may have 8 aid stations on the course. Focus on ticking off those check-points instead of the countless miles.

No More Buts

Fear of the unknown.

That’s probably the #1 reason people don’t commit to their goals, and what’s scaring you into your next But excuse.

Enough with the Buts. It’s time to look that fear straight in the eye and yell “BUT OFF!” Ok, I might be going a little overboard with this whole But thing…

The first step in getting over that fear is making a plan and starting to prepare.

That’s what this post is all about. Giving you the tools to get started.

Running, no matter what the distance, is hard. But once you break down the steps and start to prepare, it will suddenly start to feel a lot easier.

And those Buts will lose their appeal. Are you ready to take that step?

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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