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8 Tips for Getting into Ultra Running

I’ve run dozens of ultra marathons, ranging from 30 to 100 miles. How many regular road marathons have I done? Zero.

While having marathon experience is great for making the transition to ultras, it isn’t required. I did my first ultra on a whim and have been hooked to it ever since. For a lot of people, though, getting started is hard. Here are eight tips to help you take the leap:

1. Develop a Training Plan

If you’re overwhelmed by the very idea of running 100 miles, let alone putting a training plan together, turn to the internet. It is pretty easy to find a (free!) plan, there are tons of them out there. I used a random plan for the first two years and modified it to fit my needs. Elements I found essential include:

  • Back-to-back, long, easy-to-moderate-pace runs. If my next event is a 50-mile race, my longest training run will be about 25 miles one day, followed by 15-20 miles the next day. The second long run is great for simulating the second half of the race.
  • Speed work (intervals) is often overlooked by ultra marathoners, but it’s so important for increasing your aerobic capacity and endurance. Plus, it’s a great workout to do if you’re strapped for time.  I do everything from 6 x 1 mile intervals to a stepladder of 2-4-6-8-10-8-6-4-2 minutes with half the interval time as rest in between.
  • Hill repeats. These can be substituted for intervals. Pick a steep hill that will take anywhere from 1-5 minutes to climb and boogie up that thing. Repeat at least five times.
  • Pace/tempo workouts: One of my favorite workouts. I run at half-marathon pace for 1.5 hours over varied terrain (hills/flats/rolling/etc.). It’s a challenge, but is one of the best ways to get into race shape and learn to accept the discomfort that comes at the end of a race.

2. Gather Some Essential Gear

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Part of the appeal of ultra running is that you don’t need a whole lot of gear. The few pieces I routinely use include:

  • Hand-held water bottle: Great for runs between 10-20 miles when all you need is some water and minimal fuel. Most styles have a stash pocket for a couple gels or a bar.
  • Running pack or vest: I wear a pack for anything longer than three or four hours.  A bladder size of 1.5 L is usually adequate. For all-day runs without a water source for refilling, consider a larger bladder or carrying an extra bottle.
  • Rain jacket: There are tons of great waterproof, lightweight, compressible jackets on the market.  I keep mine in my pack year-round and routinely pull it out in crummy weather. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in the rain without a jacket when you’re 20 miles from the car.
  • Lightweight gloves: I hate cold hands.
  • Visor/cap: Sun protection is a must, year-round, so you don’t end up looking like a leather handbag.
  • Headlamp: I’ve started running more at night and am loving it! The calmness in the dark is unique. I’m also more aware of my body and technique. A headlamp is also a must for all-day adventures—it gives me peace of mind to have it in my pack.

3. Make your Runs Interesting

Long training runs can be daunting. Use them as an opportunity to explore. Picking a peak, lake, or viewpoint can make running more of an adventure and less about just getting in shape. Have a favorite hike or backpacking spot? Run it instead! There’s a misconception out there that ultra running is all running. I hike a lot of uphills during a 100-mile race. During training I try to run the uphills as much as possible because it’s one of the best ways to increase strength, but if it gets too steep or running is inefficient, I hike. So don’t rule out a trail just because the entire thing isn’t runnable. Scrambling over difficult terrain is not only fun, it improves your balance and technical skills.

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4. Set a Goal

Setting a goal, from finishing your first ultra race to being able to run a challenging trail, is a great way to stay motivated and dedicated to training. I can still remember how great I felt after I finished my first 100-miler. It didn’t even matter how I placed in the race. Clichéd as it is, being able to accomplish something that seemed so out of reach was amazing. Granted, I was physically destroyed, but mentally I was pretty stoked! Plus, the pain eventually went away.

5. Don’t Go It Alone

Running is a fantastic solitary activity; nothing can clear the mind like a solo run in the woods. However, it’s also a great way to spend time with friends, and running with them can help motivate you to finish and distract you from the discomfort. If you struggle with consistency, sign up for a race and enlist a friend to do it with you.  Or if all of your friends would rather be playing video games (I’d say just find new friends, but …) find a local running group for training runs.  You’ll be more likely to stick with it if you share your goal of finishing a big race.

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6. Figure Out Your Fuel

Do you find the idea of eating energy bars and gels for 24 hours straight stomach-churning? Me too. (If it goes in like goo it will come out like goo, TMI, but true.)  I eat an assortment of foods during a race, relying more on solid foods for the longer (+50mi) races. Sweet potatoes, avocado on bread, nuts, yogurt, chicken soup, chocolate, dried meats are all things I eat when racing … just make sure you’ve tried it in training before a race. If I’m out running all day I try to take a bite of something every 20 minutes, that way I don’t get behind on the calories. Don’t forget about electrolytes, either. Most runners will need to supplement with salt or electrolyte tablets if they’re out for more than five hours and/or if they’re sweating a lot in warmer temperatures. And of course, refuel within 30 minutes of a run with a mix of carbs and protein.

7. Mix Things Up

I don’t run every day. Doing other activities wards off boredom and prevents overuse injuries that come from focusing only on running. For me, it’s about staying active and being outdoors, so I’ll go mountain biking, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, etc.  I never run on a treadmill or indoors because I find it extremely dull. I’d rather run in pouring rain!  Don’t be afraid to take months off from running, either.

8. Take Days Off

Every week I take one day off from running. On this day I also avoid doing anything too taxing. If you’re logging in lots of miles, your body needs a day to repair itself and rest. In the summer I use it as an opportunity to go on an easy hike with friends, catch up on life crap (errands and housework! aargh! the bane of my existence, but it must get done somehow) or sit on my butt on the beach.  Plus, taking time off makes you more amped to go out the next day.

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