How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon

You’ve run a marathon, maybe a few, and you’ve found yourself toying with the idea of an ultramarathon.

But what does it take to go from marathon to ultramarathon?

And do you have what it takes?

A marathon is 26.2 miles, no more, no less. Typically, you can expect a marathon to be a fairly flat road race – although of course there are exceptions. 

An ultramarathon can be defined as any run over the 26.2-mile marathon distance and either cover a specified distance, or are run over a predetermined period of time. 

This could be anything from a 50k, to the mind-bending Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race.

Ultramarathons tend to take you off-road, onto the trails, and into nature. The distances tend to cover a decent amount of elevation gain and varying terrains. 

Long-distance running has seen a huge leap in popularity in recent years, with marathon participation increasing almost 50% in the last decade.

For most, finishing a marathon is plenty enough to scratch the endurance race itch.

After all, it is an achievement to be very proud of.

Incredibly, however, ultramarathon participation has experienced an even bigger boom than the marathon.

HOW TO MAKE THE LEAP FROM MARATHON TO ULTRAMARATHON

According to an exhaustive analysis, ‘The State of Ultrarunning 2020’, participation in ultra-running events has increased a whopping 356% in the last decade alone.

Books such as Christopher McDougall’s international bestseller ‘Born to Run’, and ultrarunning celebrities such as Killian Jornet have helped to popularise the sport, drawing it away from the fringes. 

Check out McDougall’s Ted talk on Born to Run here:

It was only 100 years ago that the real idea of the ultramarathon was born. In 1921, South Africa’s Comrades Marathon was the only race of its time. 

Fast forward to today and you have the choice of tens of thousands of ultramarathon events spread all over the globe. The USA alone bosts a staggering 2,033 races per year.

So, you want to join the ranks of this growing movement of Endurance Monsters.

This list will delve into the details of what it takes to make that leap from a marathon to an ultramarathon.

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon

1. Know Your Why

You might have heard this phrase being thrown around self-help or running communities. 

But what does knowing your why mean?

Your ‘Why’ is a statement of purpose. It is what motivates you to get out the door and run, and what keeps you going when things get tough. 

It is very common for people to be roped into a marathon by a keen friend, or to just run one to be able to say that they have done one- another notch on the belt.

You can train for and make it around a marathon course without really having a clear reason as to why.

But when it comes to the ultra distances, that mentality won’t get you very far. When you push your body to run that far, you will unavoidably find yourself in painful, uncomfortable, and overall nasty situations.

Having a why will help to guide you through those times (times that will inevitably pass).

Everyone’s why is individual, but here are some examples of good ‘Why’s’:

1. You love running long distances.

2. You want to push your physical and mental limits.

3. You love spending hours in nature.

4. You want to connect with your body and mind and get to know yourself.

5. You want to live a healthy and full life.

If any of those ‘Why’s’ resonate with you, you might just be a future ultrarunner!

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon

2. Lose The Ego

During marathon training, you should generally not be running much further than a hobble back to the nearest transport link or back to your house. 

But running far and off the beaten track can land you in some questionable situations. A lot can go wrong on a 7-hour run.

Ultrarunning means eating lots as you run. You might find yourself overcome with intestinal issues, squatting in a bush in the rain.

It can also give you a pretty intense runner’s high. You might find yourself crying as you pass a group of ramblers (happy? Sad? Overcome with emotion? Who knows?).

You might even find yourself inhumanely muddy, sweaty and gross, on a bus back home after you had to cut a long run short because you ran out of food.

If these anecdotes sound overly specific, don’t look at me!

When you step up from a marathon to an ultramarathon, prepare to confront the gross side of being a human, and lose the shame.

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon

3. Human vs. Nature, And You Lose

In many ways, during an ultramarathon, you are at the mercy of the elements.

Many marathons are road races, and training for them calls for (comparatively) shorter runs.

Oftentimes, if you have a long run scheduled for Saturday, you’ll be able to wait until the rain passes before lacing up your running shoes and heading out the door.

During ultramarathon training, however, you can’t always pick and choose your perfect weather window, as your long run days could quite possibly mean an entire day running.

You will spend hours upon hours outside in nature.

It is a humbling realisation that as much as you try, you will not win a fight against the wind, mud, sleet, sand, or whichever obstacle the outside world throws at you.

Ultramarathon training means accepting the circumstances, gritting your teeth, and getting it done. You might even learn to love the pathetic fallacy of hill sprints in a thunderstorm! 

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon

4. Slow and Steady 

Whilst running a marathon certainly requires a good amount of endurance, it is typically a combination of both endurance and speed which bags marathon runners great finishing times. 

When stepping up the distance from a marathon to an ultramarathon, endurance is the focus. Namely, running for hours and hours on end.

Although your training plan may include one day a week of speed work, your goal is to become an Endurance Monster. 

This means going slow. Much slower than you think. You’re going to want to keep your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) low. 

RPE is a measure of how hard it feels like you’re pushing yourself, on a scale of 1-10.

rate of perceived exertion

(Rate of Perceived Exertion Chart, showing the widely used 1-10 Rate of Perceived Exertion scale)

Although the RPE scale doesn’t directly prescribe any particular speed, keeping your RPE low over super long distances means that you will go slow.

Running and training for an ultramarathon is a bit like the tortoise and the hare parable. 

To cover an extraordinary distance, you have to go slow. Out on training runs, you will find yourself being overtaken by almost every runner.

Once more, when you get overtaken by an 80-year old, it is important to let go of the ego. Zooming out and thinking of the bigger picture is essential. Don’t get caught up in a competition with the jogger on the other side of the pavement!

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon

5. It’s All In Your Head

The longer the distance, the more the mind plays a role. 

During marathon training, your longest long run is likely to be a 20 miler. It’s generally a one-off, and whilst the mind does play a big role, marathon training doesn’t quite give the runner enough time for their mind to run wild. 

When you train for an ultramarathon, you could find yourself heading out the door for a 40 miler on a weekly basis. 

This means that you are left alone with your mind, in an uncomfortable situation for hours

Ultrarunners learn to deal with the mental side of physical pain, boredom, mental fatigue, and soldiering on when they have little motivation to do so. 

The good news is, all of the above are very much trainable. These may sound like supernatural powers, but no ultrarunner was born an ultrarunner

With consistency, anyone can develop their mental resilience

And this theory has been tried and tested by science!

A recent study conducted by Australia’s Monash University found that ultrarunners really do have a different relationship with pain.

The ultrarunners in the study voluntarily held their hand in a bucket of ice water for much longer periods than the control group, and notably reported lower levels of pain for the same challenges. 

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon

 6. Having a Plan

Sticking to a training plan is indeed useful for a marathon, and heavily advised.

But following some sort of training plan for an ultramarathon is indispensable. 

As the training volume cranks up from marathon to ultramarathon, having a plan keeps you on track. 

A good training plan means that you can be sure that you are building up your endurance and fitness at the right pace, balancing intensity with rest. 

Not too quickly, which can lead to overtraining, and not too gradually, meaning that you aren’t achieving your full potential. 

Having a training plan also takes a lot of the mental pressure and guesswork off training. You look at the day on the plan and do the training. Simple. 

Related: Ultramarathon Nutrition Guide: What to eat before, during, after an Ultra

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon

Grab a free training plan

Luckily, at Marathon Handbook, Thomas, our UESCA-certified running coach and ultra-runner, has developed Ultramarathon training plans to suit any runner looking to make the leap from a marathon to an Ultramarathon. 

The Ultramarathon training plans range from 50k distances all the way up to 100 miles, getting you race-ready as economically as possible.

Check them out!

50k ULTRAMARATHON TRAINING PLANS

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 1

50k Ultra Training Plan – Just Finish

This 50k Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are simply looking to comfortably complete their event.

With 6 months to prepare, we focus on very gradually increasing the weekly mileage at a manageable rate, so you don’t end up burning out.

Ideally you should be able to run 3-5 miles without stopping before you begin this plan, but you can choose to adopt a run/walk strategy too!

Who is it for?:  First-time ultramarathon runners, runners who want to complete an ultra with limited time to train each week, runners who just want to focus on comfortably reaching the finish line.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  If your only objective is to complete your ultramarathon comfortably, and you have six months (or more) to prepare, this is the plan for you!

The plan includes some optional speed work, but this is only if you’re comfortable and can squeeze it in – the objective is to get the required mileage in.   It includes 3 mid-week runs, to be performed at a comfortable pace, and one long-slow run each weekend to build your max mileage.   The plan includes one cross-training day per week and two rest days. 

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 2

50k Ultra Training Plan – Improver

This 50k Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are simply looking to comfortably complete their event.

With 6 months to prepare, we focus on very gradually increasing the weekly mileage at a manageable rate, so you don’t end up burning out.

Ideally you should be able to run 3-5 miles without stopping before you begin this plan, but you can choose to adopt a run/walk strategy too!

Who is it for?:  First-time ultramarathon runners, runners who want to complete an ultra with limited time to train each week, runners who just want to focus on comfortably reaching the finish line.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  If your only objective is to complete your ultramarathon comfortably, and you have six months (or more) to prepare, this is the plan for you!

The plan includes some optional speed work, but this is only if you’re comfortable and can squeeze it in – the objective is to get the required mileage in.   It includes 3 mid-week runs, to be performed at a comfortable pace, and one long-slow run each weekend to build your max mileage.   The plan includes one cross-training day per week and two rest days. 

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 3

50k Ultra Training Plan – Compete

This 50k Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are simply looking to comfortably complete their event.

With 6 months to prepare, we focus on very gradually increasing the weekly mileage at a manageable rate, so you don’t end up burning out.

Ideally you should be able to run 3-5 miles without stopping before you begin this plan, but you can choose to adopt a run/walk strategy too!

Who is it for?:  First-time ultramarathon runners, runners who want to complete an ultra with limited time to train each week, runners who just want to focus on comfortably reaching the finish line.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  If your only objective is to complete your ultramarathon comfortably, and you have six months (or more) to prepare, this is the plan for you!

The plan includes some optional speed work, but this is only if you’re comfortable and can squeeze it in – the objective is to get the required mileage in.   It includes 3 mid-week runs, to be performed at a comfortable pace, and one long-slow run each weekend to build your max mileage.   The plan includes one cross-training day per week and two rest days. 

50 MILE ULTRAMARATHON TRAINING PLANS

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 4

50 Mile Ultra Training Plan – Just Finish

This 50 Mile Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are simply looking to comfortably complete their event.

With 6 months to prepare, we focus on very gradually increasing the weekly mileage at a manageable rate, so you don’t end up burning out.

Ideally you should be able to run 3-5 miles without stopping before you begin this plan, but you can choose to adopt a run/walk strategy too!

Who is it for?:  First-time ultramarathon runners, runners who want to complete an ultra with limited time to train each week, runners who just want to focus on comfortably reaching the finish line.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  If your only objective is to complete your ultramarathon comfortably, and you have six months (or more) to prepare, this is the plan for you!

The plan includes some optional speed work, but this is only if you’re comfortable and can squeeze it in – the objective is to get the required mileage in.   It includes 3 mid-week runs, to be performed at a comfortable pace, and one long-slow run each weekend to build your max mileage.   The plan includes one cross-training day per week and two rest days. 

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 5

50 Mile Ultra Training Plan – Improver

This 50 Mile Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are looking to challenge themselves – perhaps to set a new PR, or simply to run their best race.

Designed to be run over 6 months, the plan features one speed day per week, and more mileage than the ‘Just Finish’ plan – so you’ll have a stronger base and better running economy.

Who is it for?: Established runners who want to challenge themselves, and perhaps set a new PR. If you’ve already run a distance event such as a marathon and want to improve your performance, check out these training plans.  

Our Improver training plans balance training and miles with rest days and (optional) speed work; only include the speed work if you want to improve your base running speed.

If you’ve got some distance running experience, and want to push yourself a little, this is the training plan for you.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 6

50 Mile Ultra Training Plan – Compete

This Compete 50 Mile Ultramarathon training plan is for experienced runners looking to push themselves!

It features six days of training per week, including two days of speed work, long runs, and recovery runs (which get gradually longer in length).

Who is it for?: Experienced runners who want to set a new PR and perform well competitively.  

If you’re planning to race and gain a good position, this is the plan for you. Our Compete plans feature the most intense training regimes – there’s a lot of miles in there, different challenging workouts (speed-work), and typically only one rest day per week.

You should only attempt the Compete plan if you are starting from a solid running base, and have the time commitment and drive to really challenge yourself.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  

100K ULTRAMARATHON TRAINING PLANS

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 7

100k Ultra Training Plan – Just Finish

This 100k Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are simply looking to comfortably complete their event.

With 6 months to prepare, we focus on very gradually increasing the weekly mileage at a manageable rate, so you don’t end up burning out.

Ideally you should be able to run 3-5 miles without stopping before you begin this plan, but you can choose to adopt a run/walk strategy too!

Who is it for?:  First-time ultramarathon runners, runners who want to complete an ultra with limited time to train each week, runners who just want to focus on comfortably reaching the finish line.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  If your only objective is to complete your ultramarathon comfortably, and you have six months (or more) to prepare, this is the plan for you!

The plan includes some optional speed work, but this is only if you’re comfortable and can squeeze it in – the objective is to get the required mileage in.   It includes 3 mid-week runs, to be performed at a comfortable pace, and one long-slow run each weekend to build your max mileage.   The plan includes one cross-training day per week and two rest days. 

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 8

100k Ultra Training Plan – Improver

This 100k Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are looking to challenge themselves – perhaps to set a new PR, or simply to run their best race.

Designed to be run over 6 months, the plan features one speed day per week, and more mileage than the ‘Just Finish’ plan – so you’ll have a stronger base and better running economy.

Who is it for?: Established runners who want to challenge themselves, and perhaps set a new PR. If you’ve already run a distance event such as a marathon and want to improve your performance, check out these training plans.  

Our Improver training plans balance training and miles with rest days and (optional) speed work; only include the speed work if you want to improve your base running speed.

If you’ve got some distance running experience, and want to push yourself a little, this is the training plan for you.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 9

100k Ultra Training Plan – Compete

This 100k Ultramarathon training plan is for experienced runners looking to push themselves!

It features six days of training per week, including two days of speed work, long runs, and recovery runs (which get gradually longer in length).

Who is it for?: Experienced runners who want to set a new PR and perform well competitively.   If you’re planning to race and gain a good position, this is the plan for you.

Our Compete plans feature the most intense training regimes – there’s a lot of miles in there, different challenging workouts (speed-work), and typically only one rest day per week.

You should only attempt the Compete plan if you are starting from a solid running base, and have the time commitment and drive to really challenge yourself.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  

100 MILE ULTRAMARATHON TRAINING PLANS

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 10

100 Mile Ultra Training Plan – Just Finish

This 100 Mile Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are simply looking to comfortably complete their event.

With 6 months to prepare, we focus on very gradually increasing the weekly mileage at a manageable rate, so you don’t end up burning out.

Ideally you should be able to run 3-5 miles without stopping before you begin this plan, but you can choose to adopt a run/walk strategy too!

Who is it for?:  First-time ultramarathon runners, runners who want to complete an ultra with limited time to train each week, runners who just want to focus on comfortably reaching the finish line.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  If your only objective is to complete your ultramarathon comfortably, and you have six months (or more) to prepare, this is the plan for you!

The plan includes some optional speed work, but this is only if you’re comfortable and can squeeze it in – the objective is to get the required mileage in.   It includes 3 mid-week runs, to be performed at a comfortable pace, and one long-slow run each weekend to build your max mileage.   The plan includes one cross-training day per week and two rest days. 

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 11

100 Mile Ultra Training Plan – Improver

This 100 Mile Ultramarathon training plan is designed for runners who are looking to challenge themselves – perhaps to set a new PR, or simply to run their best race.

Designed to be run over 6 months, the plan features one speed day per week, and more mileage than the ‘Just Finish’ plan – so you’ll have a stronger base and better running economy.

Who is it for?: Established runners who want to challenge themselves, and perhaps set a new PR.

If you’ve already run a distance event such as a marathon and want to improve your performance, check out these training plans.  

Our Improver training plans balance training and miles with rest days and (optional) speed work; only include the speed work if you want to improve your base running speed.

If you’ve got some distance running experience, and want to push yourself a little, this is the training plan for you.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks. 

How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon 12

100 Mile Ultra Training Plan – Compete

This 100 Mile Ultramarathon training plan is for experienced runners looking to push themselves!

It features six days of training per week, including two days of speed work, long runs, and recovery runs (which get gradually longer in length).

Who is it for?: Experienced runners who want to set a new PR and perform well competitively.  

If you’re planning to race and gain a good position, this is the plan for you.

Our Compete plans feature the most intense training regimes – there’s a lot of miles in there, different challenging workouts (speed-work), and typically only one rest day per week.

You should only attempt the Compete plan if you are starting from a solid running base, and have the time commitment and drive to really challenge yourself.

How Long?: Six months, or 24 weeks.  

Maria Andrews

Maria Andrews

Maria Andrews is a runner, cyclist, and adventure lover. After recently finishing her Modern Languages degree and her first ultramarathon, she spends her time running around and exploring Europe’s mountains.

2 thoughts on “How To Make The Leap From Marathon To Ultramarathon”

  1. Hi Maria,
    I am running my first 100k ultra in 2 weeks that article really hit home. Great motivation, thank you so much for making me realise it will be painful but OK!
    Cheers
    Pete

    Reply

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