The Differences Between Ultras And Stage Races

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Ultramarathons and stage races with sub-ultramarathon stages—think stages races like the 6-day TransRockies Run, which covers 120 miles—each have their own unique challenges. Physical exertion, for example, over a multi-day race is different than an all-out effort over a single day or so, and training for consecutive days of sub-ultramarathon distances will differ in certain respects from training for a single, 50-mile effort. At the same time, preparation for, and recovery from, both events, share some commonalities. It is thus no surprise that many ultramarathon runners find themselves running stage races.

But in what ways, exactly, do these events differ or remain similar? How should your preparation for an ultra differ from your training for a stage race? Should you employ similar race tactics in both races? Should your nutrition plan stay the same for both races? Does recovery take longer for one or the other? Is the atmosphere and culture the same at both events? Which event is right for you?

Read on to hear from top-level coaches and proven ultramarathoners and stage racers—Emily Harrison, Ian Sharman, and Ian Torrence—and from world-class ultramarathoner Anna Frost who, along with Harrison and Torrence, is a former TransRockies winner, on the differences and similarities between ultras and stage races with regard to training, racing, nutrition, recovery, and overall atmosphere.

Training

Frost: “Back to back long runs are my favorite way to clock the miles and endurance training without over doing the body in training for both types of events. When I am focusing on ultras I like to do a few more longer slower days (i.e. 8hrs+) and when I am doing stage races I like to focus on doing back-to-back higher intensity sessions (i.e. 3x 3-5hrs tempo)”

Harrison: “I have some [coaching clients]that I work with doing TransRockies off of 50k-type training. So we’ll do some small back-to-back [runs], nothing too crazy. Maybe if someone is more advanced or more comfortable with ultra training in general, I’ll have them do longer back-to-back long runs. Overall mileage in training will stay about the same [for an ultra and a stage race]. I like to get on course-specific terrain as much as possible, just getting in course-specific work, which will vary depending on the race.

Sharman: “For any multi-day, I would immediately start throwing in more multi-day long runs. That means more back-to-back long runs, two, maybe three days of long runs. Not every weekend, but several of those in the build-up. Forcing the body to get to used to getting up the next day, feeling a bit sore, and easing out of it. The more you do it in training, the more your body adapts to that. [Training volume] wouldn’t really change. I think the stage race, in terms of the fitness and endurance level required, is about the same as for an ultra. I don’t think ultra experience is needed to run a stage race though. I think it helps—you have more experience and more fitness—but I think you could be just a marathoner and still finish a stage race like TransRockies.”

Torrence: “I think training for a stage race like TransRockies, where you don’t have any ultra-distance stages, I think it’s a little bit more forgiving. When my athletes are training for a multi-stage event, I’ll stack three hard efforts in a row, but they don’t have to be these large, voluminous, mileage type days, but they’re faster paces at considerable distances like 12 to 18 miles. You don’t have to have these huge back-to-back long days. So, the training is a little different for a stage race in that regard and for some people that might be a little more doable. But if I have a client that wants to do a TransRockies-type event, I have them train for a 50k and then run a 50k three or so months before the stage race. And the goal is just to finish the 50k, but they learn a lot in the process, increase base mileage, and practice fueling and recovery during the training.”

Racing

Frost: “With stage races it is important to not leave everything out there on the first day because it is very hard to recover from that. But it is possible to go out at a solid pace each day of a stage race as long as you focus hard on good nutrition and hydration during the race and recovery afterwards. With an ultra it is much more important to keep a pace that can go the miles. Patience is the key.”

Harrison: “I think stage racing is tricky because you want to take advantage on the days you’re feeling good, you want to try to run well but also not tank yourself on those first days. There is really a fine line between going overboard and taking advantage of being fresh. I try to be conservative early on and then just recover well after each day and get ready for the next one. You don’t want to put yourself in a hole—just like early on in an ultra.”

Sharman: “I think the main thing really is to hold back just a little bit. If you can use up less energy, and damage your legs less, you’re probably going to be better placed to put big gaps on the competition in the latter stages of a stage race, just like in an ultra—if someone goes out hard, gaps you a little bit, it doesn’t matter; it’s the latter stages that provide the biggest opportunity to go at a reasonable pace and gain a lot of time back. Someone who is well trained can push, something like a 50k effort for a 20-mile stage sounds about right. So not easy, but definitely not near to that maximum effort.”

Torrence: “Ultras are hard, but most of them happen in a day—50k, 50 mile, 100k, and then you start to tread that one-day line with the 100-mile distance. But they’re done. The thing with a stage race that I’ve found most difficult is the adrenal fatigue: you have to get psyched to run every morning for multiple days. Running at a high end of six days in a row is pretty fatiguing. The fatigue catches up with you and you have to rally each day to run hard again. In a one-stop ultra, you’re rallying during the race, but it’s a shorter span of time and you don’t have to turn around the next day and do it again.”

Nutrition

Frost: “Eating in an ultra, especially up at high altitude, can be very difficult and often liquid energy is the best way to keep fueled. If the stage days are short it may only require quick energy like gels during the race. Hydration and electrolytes are crucial for both. And carbohydrate/protein recovery is essential.”

Harrison: “I would say nutrition for a stage race like TransRockies is easier than for an ultra. There are some stages that can be two hours long, and you’ll need to take something in, but it’s very doable to get by without having nutrition perfect. And you have that opportunity to refuel between the stages, and start each day topped off with your glycogen store. I think you should still get in as many calories as you can without having issues during a stage race—that would be great. But if a stage is 90 minutes or less, you might not need to focus so much on the [in-race] calories.”

Sharman: “Your stomach is less likely to get screwed up, so you can probably get away with more things. But the way I think of it is that you aren’t just eating for today’s energy; you’re eating for tomorrow and the day after as well. So you’re getting calories to get you through the day’s event and the whole week. There’s a bit of recovery eating during the stage race and after each stage, getting calories within 30 to 60 minutes, but it’s definitely easier in a stage race than for an ultra.”

Torrence: “Because the stages are shorter, nutrition is easier and simpler. You can get away with less in terms of fueling; you can take care of yourself between stages. After each stage, you need to eat until you’re full, sit there for a little bit, eat again, and then if you can, do it a third time before you go to bed. That way you can top everything off day after day. Then during the actual stage, you can get away with less. In ultras, the big determining factor is being able to fuel: you get dehydrated and you have to keep fueling for hours and hours, and that’s more difficult.”

Recovery

Frost: “After a 50-km or 50-mile race I usually bounce back quite quickly although I do take at least a week easy. After a 100 miler I take at least a month to recover. Stage races can be a great training tool as long as you keep to the plan of recovery, and if you do, you could carry on training right afterwards. But if you race a stage race at 100 percent effort, then I would usually take 1-2 weeks easy.”

Harrison: “I think the recovery, for me personally, would take longer after a hard 50-mile race than a stage race. Just because I have probably pushed a little harder and put my body in a little more of a hurt locker. The stage race would definitely make me tired—and that’s a huge week of running, for sure—but I think I can still recover, at least physically from muscle soreness and the way my legs are feeling, a little bit quicker.”

Sharman: “I think the difference in recovery between a stage race and an ultra depends on a few factors. If you’ve had a really hard race in either type of race, a situation where you’ve been pushed to your absolute limit, you’re going to be trashed at the end. But I would think that, typically speaking, certainly a 100-mile race is going to be more damaging to you than a TransRockies-type of event. But maybe—to give a rough equivalent—the effects of something like a 50 miler might be equivalent to a 120-mile type stage race. If it’s an ultra or stage race, and it’s a focus race, there is going to be time off afterward. But people will also use a stage race as a big training week rather than as an ‘A’ race. It can be really great 100-mile training. You could run TransRockies as training for a 100 miler a month or two later.”

Torrence: “I think it’s easier to recover from a TransRockies-type stage race than, say, a 50 miler or 100 miler. The efforts during the stage race are shorter, you’re able to recover between efforts, and that goes a long way.”

Atmosphere 

Harrison: “Stage races tend to draw crowds that don’t necessarily have a background in ultra running, so it brings in different personalities, from other areas of running. It’s cool to see that, it’s a different feel.”

Sharman: “I think the other thing to tell people is, if they haven’t tried a multi-stage, it’s a very different style of race. It’s a lot of fun; it’s a very social event. You aren’t running all day long—I think of it as like a runner’s perfect vacation: you get your run in, you’re in some epic location, and then you get to hang out with people. It’s a little bit different from an ultra where people finish at different times and then disappear. At a stage race, everyone stays around and there are lots more things that are done together and you tend to make a lot of friends that way.”

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About Author

Eric Senseman is a member of the Scott Running team and also receives support from Darn Tough Vermont, Sundog Eyewear, and LÄRABAR. Find his quips on Twitter (@goodsenseruns) or learn more about his running and writing on his website, Good Sense Running.

3 Comments

  1. I find it odd that you choose a exclusively focus on a stage race like the TransRockies, which tends to break from the format that is more popular internationally — 6 days, 250K, and includes a 80k day. The preparation for such a race is much different than a stage race where the longest distance is around a marathon, especially when the 80k day is 5 days in.

    • Eric Senseman on

      You are very correct. The focus of this article was limited and sought to draw a distinction between stage races with non-ultra-distance stages and stage races with ultra-distance stages because, indeed, they require different preparation, racing tactics, etcetera. I focused on stage races with non-ultra-distance stages because I had recently run TransRockies myself, and because including a discussion about how to prepare for stage races with ultra-distance stages would have made the article far too long. Perhaps I’ll write a second one that looks into the differences between ultras and stage races with ultra-distance stages. Thanks for the feedback.