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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.