Extreme sports test your body’s limits but can also be the most incredible sense of accomplishment. The ultramarathon is the holy grail of these activities. It takes tremendous willpower and endurance to complete one. But what exactly does it involve? Also, how should you train for this event?
You’ll find out in this article. But first, we’ll cover everything you need to know about an ultramarathon, including the basics, recommended training, and everything else you need to prepare.
- What Is an Ultramarathon?
- What Are the Different Types of Ultramarathons?
- What Equipment Do You Need for an Ultramarathon?
- How Do You Prepare for an Ultramarathon?
- Work on Injury Prevention
- Stay Fueled
- Rely on Positive Psychology
- Anything’s Possible if You Put Your Mind to It
What Is an Ultramarathon?
An ultramarathon is a race that spans a distance longer than the standard marathon. In other words, any run that’s longer than 26 miles (42 kilometers) is considered an ultramarathon.
Ultramarathons typically consist of stage races. These are stages or distances that the participants must complete every day. Each section finishes where the athletes spend the night, like self-sufficient camps or higher-class accommodation.
All ultramarathons share the following characteristics.
Regular marathons are held on roads, but that’s not the case with ultramarathons. Instead, these events are generally run over mountains, deserts, woodland trails, or other natural environments.
As a result, the surface under your feet can be challenging. You may even need to use all your limbs to scale boulders or other obstacles during your race. In addition, the elevation of the course typically increases as you progress. This means much of your preparation should be spent on hills.
Most ultramarathons occur in natural settings, but some events run on tarmac. The Berlin Ultramarathon might be the most famous example. The trail is entirely paved and flat, making it somewhat easier.
Some ultramarathons, especially the longer ones, allow you to participate with a support team. This crew of helpers generally involves your trusted running buddies, such as your family and friends. They offer practical and moral support, providing food and water whenever necessary.
Aid stations are usually a must-have on an ultramarathon trail. Coupled with your support crew, they serve as supply checkpoints for hydration and food. You can also find medical personnel in case of an accident or injury.
Apart from recharging your batteries, aid stations can help you devise your running strategy. For example, if there’s a checkpoint every five miles, you can focus on more manageable chunks rather than the entire race.
Professional runners have a team that keeps them on track throughout their marathons. The same goes for ultrarunners. In addition, you can be accompanied by pacers that will guide you to the finish. These individuals run alongside you during a particular stage, which is usually a period when you know you’ll struggle. Much like support crews, they help you overcome various obstacles on the track, physical or mental.
As you become more experienced, you can hire elite pacers to help you hit a specific pace. They make sure you don’t go too fast or too slow.
What Are the Different Types of Ultramarathons?
A huge benefit of ultramarathons is that they cater to various levels of preparedness with different races. Learning about these differences is part of discovering everything you need to know about an ultramarathon.
The 50-kilometer ultramarathon is an excellent way to take your first steps into this event. There’s a relatively fast-paced nature, but you still experience what pushing your mental, and physical limit feels like. This type is widespread, so you have a good chance of finding one near your residence.
Most runners consider 50 miles the minimum distance for this event. It combines nearly two full standard marathons, resulting in a time-consuming and demanding event. However, it pushes your abilities to a whole new level and allows you to strengthen your mental game like never before.
These ultramarathons generally occur on trails, but you can also find some road events. The pace is slower, and they have many aid stations.
Unlike 50-kilometer ultramarathons, these events require you to adapt to many environments and weather conditions. For example, the trail might be flat at one stage, but after 10 miles, you may find yourself on a steep hillside.
A 100-kilometer ultramarathon is an excellent option if you want to move away from 50-mile races. It gives you a taste of what more extended events look like. Naturally, you’ll need more gear for these runs because they generally take place during the day and night.
The 100-mile ultramarathon is the ultimate test. Some find this feat impossible, while mental giants consider it just another accolade under their belt.
It’s no wonder this event is the most challenging ultramarathon. The distance, sleep deprivation, and beating your legs take are unfathomable. In addition, mental exhaustion and stomach issues are common.
Reportedly, the feeling of completing the race eclipses all the adversity. It requires you to unlock physical and mental capabilities you thought were impossible. As a result, crossing the finish line can be a life-changing experience.
The principle behind time-based ultramarathons is simple: cross as many kilometers or miles as possible in a set timeframe. This can be 6, 12, 24, 48, or even 72 hours. The stages involve 1-3-mile loops, and supplies are readily available. While this is a blessing, it can also be a curse if you get too comfortable. For example, you may find chairs more attractive than the trail, which can be a huge distraction.
What Equipment Do You Need for an Ultramarathon?
Completing an ultramarathon doesn’t require only your peak physical performance. You also need proper gear. Therefore, when researching everything you need to know about an ultramarathon, equipment will be one of the essential topics.
Shoes are the most crucial equipment for your ultramarathon. They should be cushioned, and the outer sole should feature high-quality lugs that let you grip loose terrain effortlessly. Look for small yet breathable tops that minimize the risk of rubbing. They should be tear-resistant if your race is taking place on rocky surfaces and lightweight to prevent fatigue.
Multi-hour runs warrant a reliable hydration system. The most common solution is a hydration belt that stores up to two standard bottles. The downside is that the unit can bounce, especially when fully loaded.
Handheld bottles are an excellent choice for shorter runs. In addition, some models have pouched handles that enable you to store food, credit cards, or other precious items.
A hydration vest might be your best option. It features minimal bouncing, making it perfect for carrying additional water, food, and clothing. However, remember that it can be bulky, so be sure you can bear the weight.
You shouldn’t need a running jacket in the summer, but it’s usually a must-have at any other time. The main thing to look for is a lightweight design. These garments help reduce fatigue, which is key to completing long-distance events.
Breathability is paramount too. Look for jackets rated at 40,000-50,000g/m2 because they can keep you cool and dry even if you’re running in a deluge. This way, you can focus on your performance only and not worry about catching a cold.
The final feature you need to consider is the fit. Make sure your garment has an excellent cut and fits you well. Preferably, find a jacket with an elastic waist and cuffs that adhere to your body impeccably.
Wind and Waterproof Shorts or Pants
Deciding whether you need pants or shorts is simple, as you only need to consider the weather. From there, choosing the suitable model requires you to consider several details.
Your garment primarily needs to be lightweight. It should weigh no more than 3-4 ounces so you can move your legs comfortably.
Resistance to the elements is also critical. Ask the vendor if the fabric can withstand high winds and downpours. If not, you risk compromising your performance with a low-quality garment.
Like jackets, your shorts or pants should also be a great fit. Again, you can look for features like taped seams, articulated knees, and elastic waists. If you go for pants, make sure they’re zipped on the outside of the ankles, enabling you to quickly take them off over your running shoes.
Moisture-wicking caps work great in practically any weather, including cold, heat, and rain. They expel sweat, meaning you don’t have to constantly wipe your forehead. Look for a lightweight option (up to 1.5-2 ounces) with side panels and a sweatband. This ensures optimal fit and performance.
Monitoring your body throughout your training and races is imperative. Invest in a robust fitness tracker. It should gauge several metrics, but the heart rate is the most important one. It lets you assess your body’s stress, measure progress, or figure out if you’re getting sick in time to take corrective action. Some devices don’ require chest straps, but these are usually less precise than conventional strap-based gadgets.
Another thing you need for your ultramarathon is a pair of sunglasses that can endure the rigors of this event. They shouldn’t weigh more than 0.5 ounces and fit you nicely without bouncing around your head. Consider photochromic lenses if you’ll be running in dark or low-light conditions. This cutting-edge technology reacts to various lighting levels, becoming fully tinted when it’s sunny and clearer in dark settings.
How Do You Prepare for an Ultramarathon?
You can’t run an ultramarathon without getting ready. So here are a few tips to help you prepare for this event. While these don’t cover everything you need to know about an ultramarathon, it’s an excellent place to start.
Establish a Base
The key to optimal ultramarathon training is gradually setting a base running rate and increasing it by incorporating interval and speed training. Many people need at least six months to prepare for their race, but you may need more time depending on your experience and fitness.
Before starting the training, you need to be able to run for approximately an hour. After that, raise the weekly time or distance by up to 5-10% per week to improve your skills.
The first couple of months should be focused on adding mileage with long and easy runs. Then, approximately three or four months from your race day, incorporate a hill workout and a tempo or interval run once a week. Finally, two months out, consider adding technical events replicating the race terrain, especially if the race occurs in a natural landscape.
Furthermore, run within your aerobic capabilities to avoid straining your body. If you’re just getting started, you’ll need to cover the trail more slowly than you’re used to. It might feel sluggish initially, but remember, you can’t rush things. Otherwise, you risk injuring yourself and prolonging the training period.
As you make headway, stay on top of your splits (the time it takes to run a certain distance). If you start fast but slow down drastically near the finish, you should start the race at a slower pace.
Stay Consistent with Long Runs
Skipping one or two long runs is fine. But if you let this trend repeat, you’re missing out on an excellent opportunity to enhance your fitness and endurance.
As ultramarathons are lengthy, it’s unrealistic to practice the distance the day before the race. So instead, perform back-to-back runs. For instance, you can follow up your 15-mile Saturday run with an 11-mile Sunday session. Use this method until you can complete an ultramarathon.
Practice on Course Terrain
As discussed earlier, many ultramarathon races are run on mountain trails, which entail inclines, descents, rocky terrain, and other precarious surfaces. Practice is the most effective way to prepare for the challenge. Aim for at least 1-2 runs per week on the course trail. If you can only access flat ground, hitting the gym’s incline treadmill is the easiest substitute.
Hill workouts build up your strength and stamina better than flat trails. So, they’re a must for your training plan, especially if the race takes place on a hillside or mountain.
Here’s what your workout can include:
- Incline: 6%-10%
- Length: 5-10 kilometers
- Run ten 30-second stages
- Jog or walk down the hill to recover
Another thing to consider is your heart rate. It needs to be relatively low for as much of the run as possible. Here’s a routine that can help you manage your heart rate on hillsides:
- Moderate slopes: 10 steps of walking followed by 20 steps of running
- High slopes: 20 steps of walking followed by 10 steps of running
Work on Injury Prevention
Any activity requires optimal injury prevention, including ultramarathons. The following are three types of training that are critical to avoid injuries.
Besides increasing your neuromuscular coordination and skeletal support, strength training also enhances your growth hormone and testosterone. All of this helps your body fix muscular damage, decreasing the risk of getting hurt.
Strength training involves a lot of things, but you generally want to use a weight you can lift for about 8-12 reps (70% of your one-rep max). Ideally, this lifting style should be performed 2-3 times per week. This means you should follow up three running workouts with one strength session. It can improve your running economy (efficient use of oxygen), delay muscular fatigue, advance top speed, and raise anaerobic capabilities without producing extra muscle mass.
You’ll want to incorporate various multi-joint exercises when setting up your strength program. Choose 4-5 exercises and perform them in three sets of 8-12 reps. Most importantly, increase the weight gradually to improve your strength and minimize the risk of injury. Here are some of the most effective exercises you can include in your regimen:
- Push press
- Romanian deadlift
- Kettlebell carry
- Weighted step-up
Cycling is another excellent activity for preventing injuries. But, again, low-impact training lets you build optimal fitness you can take to your trail.
The best way to incorporate cycling into your program might be to replace a long run with a cycling session. It allows you to add intensity or volume (frequency times duration), which you may not be able to do on foot. In addition, your bicycle enables you to safely ramp up your volume by around 30-50%, increasing your endurance and making you more resilient.
Cross-country skiing works wonders for ultramarathon injury prevention. It’s another low-impact activity that goes easier on your body, allowing you to limit exertion and stay healthy. In addition, the classic and skate techniques activate a large number of muscles. This enables you to practice various movement patterns that translate to your races while strengthening your core.
One of the most significant benefits of this activity is that it keeps you away from treadmills during winter. As a result, you get to exercise in the fresh air and avoid the mental burnout caused by tedious gym sessions.
As for the optimal training frequency, try to include cross-country skiing 2-3 times per week in colder months.
Ultramarathon training consumes a vast amount of energy. Therefore, you need to replenish your supplies to keep going and take your endurance to the next level. Eating and drinking properly is the only way to do so.
Don’t forget to fuel up throughout your runs. If your session lasts 60-75 minutes, the body empties its glycogen stores, which can make you hit the wall. To prevent this, refuel yourself with effective carbs, like endurance gummies and gels.
Nutrition is person-specific. Generally, you want to refuel your body with 100-250 calories per hour using carb sources after your first 60 minutes of running. For instance, you may need to consume 2-3 gel packs in a three-hour session.
Ultramarathons can easily last more than seven or eight hours, so you’ll need to eat every hour to have enough strength to finish the race. In addition, you’ll likely get tired of gel packs, so you should incorporate other sources, like bananas, raisins, special sports drinks, and chia seed gels.
Many professionals recommend consuming liquids initially and eating solid foods later on. Some of your best solid foods include carb-rich snacks like pickles, chips, and salted baked potatoes. The salt can help you replace the sodium lost through sweating.
Feel free to experiment with various foods. Some professionals are known for eating weird snacks while racing, including cheeseburgers and pancakes. If something similar clicks with you, don’t stop eating it because it’s unconventional. Don’t go overboard with fast food, as it can mess up your diet.
You’ll learn by trial and error which snacks work best for your body. As a result, you should understand what, how much, and how often to drink and eat by race day.
Rely on Positive Psychology
You don’t want to run an ultramarathon because it’s easy. You want to run the race because it’s hard. At some point in your training, you may hit a wall and have no more strength to continue. Smart workouts can help you delay the crisis, but regardless of your schedule, you’ll face a choice: do you give up or keep pushing?
You’ll need to make this decision before the start of each training session. Then, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the fatigue, embrace it during your long runs. Don’t let your hill intervals overwhelm you with pain and suffering. Instead, remove the power they have over you. Remember, it’s only temporary. Once you finish your training, you’ll be stronger than ever.
Ultramarathons are just like life. They’re condensed into bite-sized chunks. Therefore, you can’t reach the finish line without the journey. You’ll need to accept the journey and not succumb to the pain.
Too much exercise is counterproductive. If you don’t let your body recover, you’ll fall off your training regimen and be unprepared for your race.
Sleep is vital for recovery due to the various processes that occur while resting. In addition, the body releases certain hormones to help repair muscles, adapt to exercise stress, and maintain your immune system.
You’ll need to focus on duration and quality of sleep. This isn’t the right time to burn the midnight oil trying to complete projects left on the back burner during your training. Instead, go to bed early and regularly get about 7-9 hours of sleep for approximately two weeks before the race.
To improve your sleep quality, turn off phones and tablets at least an hour before bed and cool the room down to 65-70 F (18-21 C).
Anything’s Possible if You Put Your Mind to It
Preparing for an ultramarathon takes time. Apart from achieving your best physical shape, you’ll also need to polish your mental game. There will be setbacks, but don’t stop grinding. Remind yourself why you want to complete the race; nothing will stand in your way.