The sport of marathon running has become increasingly popular. In the United States alone, there are over 350 marathons with over 400,000 participants each year.
For these people, running 26.2 miles represents a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that they will cherished for years to come.
Then, there are those people for who 26.2 miles is not enough. These people want more and lots more.
These people are called ultramarathoners. Technically, an ultramarathon is any race longer than a marathon.
The most common distances are 50 kilometers (31.1 miles), 50 miles, 100 kilometers (62.2 miles), and 100 miles. Some races even extend up to several thousand miles.
The most common question that ultra marathoners receive from non-runners and even experienced marathoners is how do you train to run for such long distances?
The answer is: Not much differently than a marathon runner trains. In fact, ultra marathon training is often described as being easier than marathon training.
Most ultra marathons are run on trails, which are much more forgiving on the feet and joints compared to the road surfaces of most marathons. Also, ultra marathons are run at much slower paces.
In fact, only the elite ultra marathon runners can run every step of a 50-mile race. The other 95% of the field incorporate walking breaks throughout the race.
So the combination of slower speeds and softer surfaces makes the recovery from ultra marathon running less stressful than the road marathon.
Dozens of different training programs have been developed for running ultra marathons and most of them suggest that you run too much.
In fact, you can become a very good ultra marathoner by following the same training program that marathoners do with a few small exceptions.
The typical marathon-training schedule 1 to 2 months before a major race looks similar to this:
- * Monday: Off
- * Tuesday: 5-mile tempo
- * Wednesday: 10 miles easy
- * Thursday: 6 x 1 mile repeats
- * Friday: 8 miles easy
- * Saturday: 5 miles easy
- * Sunday: 20 miles
Including warm-ups and cool downs, this schedule totals about 60 miles a week. Next, let’s take a look at a realistic, yet effective, ultra marathon schedule.
- * Monday: Off
- * Tuesday: 5 miles easy
- * Wednesday: 10 miles easy
- * Thursday: 6 miles easy
- * Friday: OFF
- * Saturday: 25-50 miles
- * Sunday: OFF
Do notice that the overall weekly mileage is actually quite similar between the two programs.
You will also notice that the ultra marathon schedule calls for easy runs every day with no spadework.
Since ultra marathon races are run at such a low intensity (elite athletes included), the type of training needed to excel is purely aerobic work.
Anaerobic training yields little practical benefit when you’re 30 miles from the finish line and hard speed work makes it difficult to recover in time so that you’re fresh for the weekend long run.
Finally, the ultramarathon schedule offers an extra day off. This component is critical to ensure that you are fresh for the weekend long run and to minimize injury risk.
About the weekend long run. This is the bread-and-butter of the training program.
You will see that I provided a mileage range for the Saturday run. If you are training for a 50K race (31.1 miles), then a 25-mile long run is plenty.
If, on the other hand, you are targeting a 100-mile trail race, then the long run should peak at closer to 50 miles.
The long run should be performed in similar conditions as the race itself. If your target race will be run at high altitudes (as many of the ultras in the western U.S.), you will need to train at high altitude.
If the race is hilly and rocky, train on hills and rocks. Don’t worry so much about your other runs during the week.
These runs are just to help maintain your aerobic fitness, to help maintain your running efficiency, and to help stay lean. However, the weekend long run should simulate race conditions as much as possible.
Keep in mind that, unless you are an elite runner, you shouldn’t run 25 to 50 miles every weekend.
Actually, once every 3 to 4 weeks is ideal for most people. Otherwise, you run a high risk of burnout and injury.
Finally, remember to walk on the long runs. Ultra runners must embrace walking in order to succeed. In fact, if you’re one of these runners who think walking is for wimps, you’re going to be in big trouble.
Even the elite runners walk periodically during races. If walking is good enough for the elites, then it’s good enough for you. How do you know when you should walk?
There are several guidelines that you can follow depending on the type of terrain you are running on.
- * Flat surfaces: run 25 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat until running becomes too difficult
- * Hilly surfaces: run flats and down hills, walk all up hills
- * When all else fails, a simple, but tried and true, method is to run until you feel tired, then walk until you feel fresh, and repeat.
By incorporating a weekend long run that builds up to 25 miles, you can easily finish your first 50K.
Making the leap to 50 miles is a bigger step, but still doable once you can build your long run up to around 35 miles. In fact, a 50K race with a couple of miles of jogging beforehand makes the perfect long run for 50-mile training.
The 100-miler is a different beast altogether and many runners fail at this distance many times before succeeding.
A 50-mile race serves as the ideal long run although numerous other factors must be dealt with in 100’s including food and drink strategy, sleep deprivation, staying on the right trail especially at night when the mind can become exhausted, pain management, running socks changes, proper vitamins and energy rich foods during the run, etc. The list is a long one.
Preparation for an ultra marathon also requires ultra nutrition. A special emphasis should be placed on consuming a diet that is abundant in phytonutrients rich fruits and vegetables.
Whole grains are a must along with proteins derived from lean meats, beans and lentils.
The consumption of healthy fats is necessary as fats provide larger amounts of energy per calorie. While some may depend upon vitamin supplements, it is best to get proper nutrition through whole foods.
Overall, the ultra marathon can be an intimidating goal at first, but the training is easier than for marathon running in many respects.
Furthermore, the slower pace, softer surfaces, and usually beautiful scenery on the trails make ultra marathon running a rewarding endeavor.
Remember, if you can run a marathon, you can run a 50K only at a slower pace. Then, once you’ve made the leap into ultramarathon, the sky is the limit.