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Preparing for your first Ultra Marathon

ultra runner

Photo by R.Niall Bradshaw // CC0 1.0

The feat of covering hundreds of miles on foot in a single journey has its roots all the way back in ancient history. The modern equivalent of this – ultrarunning, which is done out of desire and not necessity – has become one of the most popular sports in the past decade, with over 1800 races currently being held annually across the globe.

Preparing for your first Ultra Marathon

Running an ultra is an experience unlike any other, so naturally when training for it you can’t just follow the same program that you would for a standard long-distance run. If this is your first time tackling an ultra, it’s important to remember that there’s actually no one single way to train for it. There are many approaches that you can take to get you across the 50k+ distances, but you need to be consistent and you need to be committed. With that in mind, here’s an overview of the things you need to be doing when preparing for your first ultra.


First up, mindset. If you aren’t mentally prepared to finish the race, it’s highly unlikely you’ll physically finish it. The right mindset is a vital component of any solo discipline, whether that’s rock climbing or playing poker, so don’t discount it when it comes to prepping for your first ultra. Even if you’ve run your fair share of long marathons, ultra marathons are a different animal entirely – so much so that they could even be considered as separate sports. With an ultra you have to focus on being 100% committed to finishing it. As well as being physically gruelling, ultras are long and tedious and there will be moments when dropping out seems like the greatest idea in the world. You have to visualise yourself crossing that finishing line, in spite of exhaustion, sunburn, dehydration or just plain boredom.

Switch up your training

You don’t need to train yourself to run an ultra – you already know how to do that – but you do need to train yourself to get through and finish an ultra. Don’t be afraid to get your walking game up to par with your running skills. In all honesty, you’re probably going to be hiking or walking for the majority of your first race, so you’ll need to develop an effective and efficient technique at a slower pace. Get out into uneven terrain as often as you can, tackle steep hills and go off-road and off-path. Do you research on the course so you can get specific when simulating the terrain and environment in which you’ll be racing. The more informed you are at the start of your training, the better you’ll be able to prepare yourself for the main event.

Strength train to prevent injuries (and cross train for variety and endurance)

All competitive athletes should be strength training, we don’t need to sing the virtues of it in this particular article. Your strength training focus for an ultra marathon should be on injury prevention. Basically, you want to build up balanced musculature and really work on strengthening your connective tissues and joints. There are some great informative articles out there that you can check out for inspiration, including Strength Training for Runners (Stephanie Violett) and Building a Trail-Worthy Body (Rhielle Widders). Cross training gives you more training volume, which you’ll need for endurance, without increasing the risk of running-specific injuries or over-training. Plus it’s great to add variety into your weekly schedule, especially if you pick an activity that you really enjoy.

Get used to eating on the go

ultra nutrition

Photo by Unknown // CC0 1.0

Unlike long marathons, ultra marathons are unique in that you will have to consume calories over a longer period of time. You may have been able to get away with ingesting the bare minimum during a 4-hour race, but when that timeframe stretches into 10, 20 or even 30 hours of non-stop motion, everything you eat will have an effect on your performance. Dial in that nutrition as early as possible; experiment with the foods and drinks that you’re thinking about consuming during long training runs and pay attention to the effects of them on your body and mind. If you’ve got the budget for it and figuring out what to eat isn’t your forte, it’s worth investing in some expert guidance from a qualified sports nutritionist during your preparatory stages.



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