Running Your First Ultra Marathon
I don’t know why I wanted to run an ultra marathon. Why would any sane (ish) human want to even consider it. A marathon is a terribly long way and an ultra is even further…..You cover a lot more ground than merely miles under your feet: The views, memories, pain, discomfort, joy, elation, weird food, smiles and tears are all longer, harder and brighter during an ultra.
For example, my first ultra marathon was on the Cotswold Way. The plan was to run the 100 mile route in two days. That didn’t happen. Being the beginner I was at long distance running, I totally messed up my underwear choice. At mile 17, I was getting some serious chafing. At mile 40 it looked like an invisible horse had been put between my legs. At mile 46 I was flagging down a vehicle and asking for a lift. Fail. A little learning, some better choices and the correct underwear!! Many ultras later here are some top tips
Tip For Running Your First Ultra Marathon
An ultra marathon is any distance over a marathon (which is 26.2 miles). The most common distances are 50 kilometres (31 mi), 100 kilometres (62 mi), 50 miles (80 km), and 100 miles (161 km).
- Keep moving. Do things on the move. Drink, eat, change clothing on the hoof. It will help clock up the miles.
- Find a friend. Training and racing with a partner is more enjoyable and often you’ll run further and harder as a team.
- Walk. Everyone does it but nobody talks about it. On an ultra marathon you are never going to run all of it. Practise walking fast on the uphills and jogging on the flats and downs. As a rule of thumb if you were to place a tennis ball on the slope and it rolls back towards you, then walk. Pushing with your hands on your thighs just above your knees, can reduce your heart rate on hills by 10% compared with running. Walking can be as quick as running on steep terrain and when it’s not steep, use it refuel and rehydrate.
- Walking poles make a difference. Good use of poles on the uphill sections makes a huge difference.
- Train on similar terrain as your ultra. If you’re running a mountain ultra – then train in the mountains. If you’re running in the fells of the Lake District, then make sure you put the time into fell running off the beaten track. If you’re not confident in running on your own in the mountains then book onto a trail running course.
- The bedrock for any endurance sport is your aerobic fitness. You need to be able to run sustainably, for hours at a time, at less than 75% of max heart rate. This heart and lungs efficiency is only built up over time by lots of long steady runs. There is no shortcut for this. Get out and get training.
- You also need good muscular endurance in your legs. It is just as important to train for long descents which put more pressure on your knees, and is a different muscular movement.
- Relative Robustness – this is the amount of time that your body has spent getting used to an activity or similar activity. If you are running an ultra marathon from being an office worker it will take longer to be ultra-fit than someone who has spent their life working on their feet. Ten years as builder would be better preparation than 6 months training for someone with a sedentary occupation.
- Most people suffer from the same, repetitive injuries; runner’s knee, Achilles tendinopathy, calf strain. They will all get better but if you have a lingering injury or it happens more than once you need to know why. Get a good biomechanical assessment from a Physiotherapist to identify any potential issues that could be avoided.
- Don’t ignore pain; if you develop a niggle when running, change what you’re doing. Run on your toes more, shorten/lengthen your gait. Keep a few strips of K-tape handy and stick them on. In fact, also keep a roll of Dream Tape to hand, this will get you out of most ankle sprain dilemmas. (Remember to learn how to use the tape).
- Spend time on one leg; ankle stability is crucial. If you can’t hold a single leg stand with you eyes shut for an indefinite period of time, then train until you can. Hop up, down, forward, backwards, sideways on different surfaces. This is essential of you have ever sprained your ankle in the past.
- A great training session to improve muscular endurance for trail running is the Water Carry. Load up a tight fitting rucksack with 10-20% of your body weight in filled water containers. This helps activate more muscle fibres going uphill. At the top, pour the water out and run down without the weight and ease the loading on your knees.
- Your kit will get hammered so play around with gear and shoes on training runs so that everything is well tested before longer runs and races.
- Chamois cream – cyclists use it to stop chafing. This can be a real lifesaver on long runs.
- Over time as with any endurance sport try to get your body adapted to burn fats for fuel as well as carbs. “Train on fats, race on carbs”.
- A little electrolyte in your water can make a real difference.
- Eat normal food. Start eating on your training runs and find out what works for you. Just because you’re running a long way doesn’t mean you need to have 5 gels an hour – you’ll be very ill. Normal food works.
- Keeping weight to a minimum makes a difference. Use kit that is ultra lightweight where you can. Learn how much water your body needs and carry just enough. Drink on the mountain when you can. Carry a small compressible cup and keep it accessible when you can drink on the hill.
- Use sun cream like P20 that lets you sweat easily.
- Weather changes with altitude. This becomes even more important when you are wearing just thin lycra and a t-shirt. You might set off from the valley in glorious sunshine and then find the weather becomes suddenly cold and wild on the summits. Carry a lightweight warm layer, windproof top and running waterproofs as necessary. Lightweight hat and gloves weigh very little but cut significant heat loss when the temperature drops as you climb.
- If you’re running through the night on your event, make sure you experience this in your training. It can be a lonely place in the heart of the night. You’ll also get colder than you had bargained for, especially just before sunrise.
- Help your body recover after training. Cold baths are good for reducing inflammation. Hot baths and saunas work wonders for easing muscle aches and helping recovery. Fascia rollers can get to those parts that stretching can’t. Electrolytes or even just some magnesium supplements after training can stop muscle cramp.
Running an ultra isn’t as hard as you think. Most events have long cut off times, plenty of food stations and friendly racers around to talk to on your way. Another option is to do your own ultra self supported. Our National trails – https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ – are a perfect place to start. Each trail has marked start and finish points and trail markers at every junction, making navigation simple. This allows you to enjoy the views and keep your map in your pocket. The routes vary in length from the Yorkshire Wolds Way, at a pleasant 79 miles to the whooping 630 mile South West Coast Path. Choose your number of days and distance, now off you go.
Get out there and get training. You can do anything if you put your mind to.
Here’s a list of events:
The Hardest Half – https://davetalbot.net/malvern-hills-trail-half-marathon/
Welsh 3000s (50 km and 4000 meters ascent) – https://davetalbot.net/welsh-3000s/
50 km / 100 km / 100 mile – https://www.climbsouthwest.com/events/
100 mile ultimate challenge – https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/