It seems a very long time ago since I ran my first ultra, the New Year’s Day Fat Ass 50 in Vancouver, back on January 1, 2004. Well, I think it was 2004, but I’m not too sure, given I wasn’t keeping track of my running back then. However, I have recently delved into the world of coaching ultrarunners, and it’s been a great reminder of what I have learned over the last 10 years or so of running ultras, and what might seem obvious to me now was certainly not obvious to me 10 years ago.
So if any of you reading this are relatively new to running ultras, then here are my top tips to ensure that you have fun and success at your ultras and come back wanting more!
More Mileage Is Not Necessarily Better
When I trained for my first 100k race, I was in slight panic mode and thought that I had to run as much as possible and get in some really long runs in training. While it is possible that you are going to have to up your mileage a little, it is not necessary to have week after week of huge miles. In fact, too many training miles can be detrimental and lead to long-term fatigue, injury and becoming a slower runner overall. In building up for a marathon you may well run at least 22 miles on your long run in training, but if you go that close to the percentage of race distance when training for a 50 miler you’ll take too long to recover from your long training run to reap the benefits. Some mileage is important, but so is quality, so keep some shorter faster workouts in your training.
Check Out The Specifics Of Your Chosen Race Carefully And Well In Advance
Ultramarathon courses vary widely, and the more you can train specifically for your chosen race terrain, the more successful you will be on race day. If it is a very hilly course, you might need to incorporate hiking into your training, but if it is a very flat course then you’ll want to practice pure running in your training. There is nothing worse than checking out the details of a race course the week before the big day and realizing that although you have trained hard, you have done the wrong kind of training.
Practice Your Nutrition Strategy
It is possible to get through a road marathon on a couple of gels and some water, but if you plan to do the same for an ultra then you will likely end up under-fueled, not do your fitness level justice and suffer unnecessarily. There is no need to get obsessed with a complicated and overly scientific nutrition plan. Simply focus on noticing what you can eat comfortably when running. The key is being able to get calories in, in whatever form, without getting an upset stomach.
Choose Your Gear, But Don’t Get Obsessed By Gear
Yes, if you are going to be running the 200-mile Tor des Geants mountain race, then it is sensible to get quite particular about your gear choices, but I wouldn’t recommend that race as a first ultra! More likely your first ultra might be something like JFK 50 miler, for which not much more is required than a pair of running shoes, a pair of shorts and maybe a jacket if it’s a cool day. Choose shoes that work for you, not the latest ones sported by your ultrarunning icon, and decide whether you are going to use a hydration pack or handheld bottles. That’s pretty much your gear decisions taken care of. Now you can focus your time on training rather than shopping!
Again, less can be more – especially when you are new to ultrarunning. Yes, you might see Kilian Jornet knocking out a Hardrock CR one week and a VK race the next, but just like you wouldn’t copy the training and taper plans of a 2:03 Kenyan marathoner, nor should you think that what works for Jornet will work for you. If you’ve done the traditional three-week taper for road marathons in the past, then stick to this plan for your first ultra. Your legs will appreciate it once you get into the unknown territory of the final miles.
Ask For Advice, But Make Your Own Decisions
Ultrarunners are by and large a very approachable group who are passionate about their sport and are usually more than willing to help a newbie. Don’t be afraid to reach out to local run groups, race directors or to ultrarunners online with your questions. Listen to their answers and then make your own decision.
Volunteer At An Ultra To Learn The Ropes
So you think an ultra is just a matter of running five miles more than a marathon? Well, when was the last time at a road marathon that you saw someone eating PB&J sandwiches, hiking up a hill with trekking poles or scurrying out of an aid station for fear of missing a cutoff? By volunteering at a race you will get answers to questions that you didn’t even know that you had. The best position to volunteer at is an aid station where you can chat with other volunteers, who are often seasoned ultrarunners, and where you get to see what runners go through mid-race, rather than just seeing the glory of the finish line!
So good luck to all of you building up for your first ultra. It’s an exciting and rewarding experience. Just remember: even if your race doesn’t go quite as planned just keep putting one foot in front of another and you’ll earn that finisher’s medal and a PR, whatever your time may be!