An ultramarathon is defined as a race longer than a typical marathon of 26.2 miles. This can be anything from a 50k run to 200 miles; or any distance in-between (they also cover weird events like the 4x4x48 challenge)!
Training for an ultramarathon is a huge challenge, and there aren’t many shortcuts. But the reason most runners put themselves through the ultra gauntlet is because it can be an extremely rewarding and transformative experiences – both in training and when running the event.
When you’re out running for several hours – often in remote areas – there’s less room for error, and less opportunity to ‘wing it‘ like you might get off with in shorter events.
In other words, running ultramarathons is all about diligent preparation.
That means focussing on:
- running and cross training,
- mental training,
- pace strategy,
- and knowing what to do when the wheels come off.
Running ultras became my passion early on in my running career, and led me to launch this site and become a running coach – now I love helping other find their path.
In this post, I’m going to walk you through all areas of ultramarathon training and preparation – as well as provide you with free, proven, UESCA-certified coach training plans.
Let’s jump in to the crazy world of running ultras!
The Differences Between a Marathon and an Ultramarathon
Given many rookie ultra runners are making the leap from the world of marathons, here are some of the main differences between the two disciplines. It’s important to note that “what got you here won’t get you there” – you can’t, or at least shouldn’t, just extrapolate out your marathon prep to suit your ultra distance!
1. Ultra running = Endurance, not Speed
When you make the step up to ultras, your priority should be to simply work on your ability to keep running for hour after hour.
Being able to run a fast marathon is completely irrelevant if you bonk at the 30 mile mark (something that’s extremely common in newbie ultra-runners).Sure, running a marathon requires a lot of endurance – but you’re usually also combining speed and a high rate of effort to get a great finishing time.
When it comes to ultras, you want to run at a lower intensity in order to sustain your energy for longer.
2. You Can’t Wing An Ultra
In half and full marathons, there’s a certain amount of leeway in there for you to turn up and wing it without having prepared properly. If you pick up an injury or hit the wall 2/3rds of the way through a city marathon, you can usually limp to the finish line. Sure, your finishing time won’t be anything to boast about, but you are still a finisher.
In ultramarathons, there’s no winging it.
You are either sufficiently prepared to run the race, or you won’t complete it.
That’s why training based on endurance is so necessary – you may not be the fastest, but if you’ve conditioned your body to run for endless hours, you’re in a much better space.
3. Ultras Take You Off Road
Most ultramarathons take place on trails and other weird, remote places.
Compare this to typical marathons which are city-based and often cover flat, easy roads.
First off, running on trails is slower than on tarmac.
An uneven surface means each step lands slightly differently, requiring more energy.
Throw in gradients, obstacles, climbs, rivers, and anything else, and running on trails is a lot more interesting than a typical road run.
Ultra routes are often more remote too – the aid stations might be sparser, and if you get into trouble you’re further from help.
All the more reason to be well prepared, and train to avoid injury or bonking!
4. Ultramarathons Are More Friendly
It’s often said that the ultra-running community are a tighter-knit bunch than shorter distance runners. They’re together for longer, sharing a more intense experience, and there’s less of us too.
In the tough stages of a long ultra, it’s easy to find yourself buddying up with strangers and spending hours running together.
Ultrarunning makes you closer to other people.
5. Ultramarathons Require More Self Sufficiency
Ultra-runners tend to be better prepared than your average runner.
They’ll almost always do their long training runs with a vest or pack which is loaded with fuel, water, and contingency supplies.
They know exactly how many gels to take, and when to take them.
They’ve got some kinseo tape and a painkiller stashed away incase things go wrong.
And they’ve spent time refining every piece of gear they carry.
6. Ultrarunning is as Much a Mental Game as a Physical One
Running ultramarathons is about exposing yourself to a state of discomfort for hours on end.
In fact, it’s been proven that ultrarunners think about physical pain differently.
In a study from Monash University, it was shown that ultra runners will voluntarily hold their arm in a bucket of ice water for much longer than non-ultra runners.
So are ultra runners born that way?
It’s more likely that ultra runners have gradually developed a higher pain threshold, through hours of running and training in discomfort.
As well as pain, ultra runners often have to deal with boredom and mental fatigue.
Running for hours on end when you’re tired or not in the mood is something they come to accept, and soldier on regardless.
How To Train For An Ultramarathon
You can’t prepare for an ultramarathon by taking a marathon training plan and extrapolating it to fit the new distance – you’d simply end up with too many miles on there (imagine running a 75 mile training run in order to prepare for a 100 miler . . . that would suck . . . ).
Instead, you’ve got to adapt to the new rules of the game, and approach ultra running as it’s own beast.
Here are my best tips for ultramarathon training:
1. Mental Re-framing
When you embark on your ultra running journey, its prudent to reflect on how you think about running in your head.
Ultramarathon training is going to require you to run endless miles, training several times per week, often in conditions which aren’t ideal.
Often short distance runners think of run training as something they’ve just got to ‘get through’ – a work-out they’ve got to check off by going and powering through their 20-30 minute run.
Ultra running is different.
With ultra running, you’re often running for hours on end.
When you set off out your front door, you’re going to be gone for so long that it isn’t helpful to be thinking about ‘the end of the run’ already.
You’ve got to embrace the run, be present, and not see it as an inconvenience – otherwise you’re going to find the whole pursuit a total drag.
That’s why it’s helpful to think of your day in two categories: running time, and non-running time.
Thinking about your workout as simply running time means you’re not counting the miles so particularly, you’re not focussing on the aches, pains, and when you can stop.
Instead you’re accepting that you’re in a state of “running” and that you may as well get comfortable there.
When in ultra training mode, I find it useful to think of running time in hours.
“I’ve got 2.5hrs of running time today” is more digestible than “I have to run a 25km training run today.“
2. Become an Endurance Monster
Ultrarunners are simply human beings who are capable of running for several hours, or even days, without stopping.
In other words, they’re Endurance Monsters.
Once you realise your goal is to become an endurance monster, it helps to inform a lot of your approach to training and pacing strategy.
Here are some of the traits of an Endurance Monster:
- Endurance Monsters are always humble and conservative
- Endurance Monsters always keep some energy in their back pocket
- Endurance Monsters train at a variety of speeds and distances, but always race at a sustainable pace
- Endurance Monsters know how to manage their fuel, water, and electrolytes as they run
- Endurance Monsters don’t worry if they’re taking longer in a race than they thought they would.
I’ll expand on each of these a little more as we go along!
3. Get Comfortable With RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion)
Nowadays there are more ways than ever to track and measure your training efforts.
With tools like Heart Rate Zone training, Strava, and runners get more metric-oriented, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game.
However, there are a few issues with being too metrics-focussed when you’re in ultramarathon training mode.
For starters, when training on trails, no two runs are the same, and your routes won’t be uniform – they’ll include climbs, descents, obstacles, and changes in terrain. All of this affects your effort level and speed.
Furthermore, there are internal factors which can affect your performance – whether it’s sleep quality, attitude, mental exhaustion from other parts of your life, physical exhaustion from the volume of training you’re committing to, cardiac drift . . .
. . .there are a wealth of factors which influence your performance, and can mean that training simply based on metrics such as speed or heart rate zone can be a race to the bottom.
If you have a pre-defined pace or HRZ for your training runs, you can quickly find that it takes more effort (both physical and mental) than you’d like to meet those targets, and it can be deeply discouraging.
While I think these metrics are great tools and I use them myself, I encourage ultra runners-in-training to focus on Rate of Perceived Exertion.
RPE is a measure of how hard it feels like you’re pushing yourself, on a scale of 1-10.
1 being super light activity, like a slow walk, and 10 being high-intensity, flat-out, almost-throwing-up beasting yourself.
If it sounds subjective and a little vague, that’s kind of the point.
To give a personal example: some days going for a 1-hr, 6mile run can feel like a 3 out of 10. Other days, it’s a 4 or a 5. This depends on how rested I am, my state of mind, how enthusiastic I am for training that day, where I’m running, the weather and underfoot conditions, and a whole raft of other things.
As noted above, everyone’s pain threshold is slightly different – so each runner will have slightly different idea of where each boundary lies.
As an ultra runner, you want to get to comfortable with running at a low Rate of Perceived Exertion.
Adopting this slow-burn approach will allow you to run for hours on end, becoming the Endurance Monster you were always meant to be.
4. Cross Train for Strength and To Bulletproof Your Body
There’s this classic idea of a distance runner whose only training is booking mile after mile over rolling trails. It’s romantic, it’s a bit majestic . . . but in reality it usually doesn’t hold up.
In the long run, runners who don’t cross train will have cross training visited upon them.
What am I talking about?
Running is a form of extremely repetitive motion along one plane.
Your body is made up of extremely versatile and flexible muscles, joints, ligaments . . . your kinetic chain, let’s call it.
However, when the only exercise your kinetic chain sees is running, it can lead to some imbalances. Some muscles become super strong in one direction, others are neglected and weaken . . . this leads to posture issues, imbalances, and eventually . . . injury.
Running doesn’t embrace the full range of motion of these muscles and joints.
Imagine a basketball player who only ever practices her jump shot. Or a golfer who only ever trains with a driver, and neglects the rest of their clubs.
That’s what the effect of training exclusively by running is like. You end up good at one narrow range of exercise.
And it’s not just that cross training helps work out those weaknesses. It can also improve your running game.
Specified cross training can strengthen and activate the muscles you need in ways running doesn’t.
Focussing on the hips, glutes, legs, and core can make you a stronger and more efficient runner.
Talk to any old running hand at the start line of an ultra, and most of them will explain how cross training was forced onto them due to an injury, but it’s now become a staple of their training schedule.
Cross training isn’t about getting ripped, it’s about improving your running game and becoming a more balanced athlete.
Get to the gym, or yoga studio, and make it part of your training.
5. Ultra Running Gear, Fuel, and Hydration
Making the right choices when it comes to ultra running gear is essential – you’re going to be using this stuff for hours on end, so you need to know it inside out, and be comfortable with it.
Same goes for your fuel and hydration.
Use your ultra training to trial different products – be they gels, trail mix, beef jerky, or whatever else takes your fancy – then start to develop a strategy based on what works for you.
If you’re planning to take one gel per hour during your ultra, then you need to trial this strategy during one of your long training runs.
The last thing you want is to get 40km into a 100km event and realise that gels give you the runs!
Same goes for your hydration strategy.
Figure out how you’re going to carry your water or sports drink, how much you typically consume per hour, how to refill your reservoirs, etc.
It all sounds like small stuff, but it’s the kind of thing that ends people’s runs every single event.
Sweat the small stuff in preparation, so on the day you can focus on getting to the finish line.
6. Embrace The Trails
The majority of ultramarathons take place on trails.
If you’re a shorter-distance runner, maybe you’ve previously booked most of your miles on sidewalks or tarmac – now is the time to get out into the wilderness and get comfortable on the trails.
You’ll likely find your pace is a little slower on the trails – each step requires a little more energy as you have to adapt to the varying underfoot terrain.
It’s also important to get used to running hills – both up and down. If in doubt, try to keep a fairly constant RPE. There’s no harm in walking up hills – see it as a strategic break!
7. Get an Ultramarathon Training Plan
A good training plan is your road-map from your current state to becoming ‘ultra-ready’.
Your training plan should reflect your ability and goals, and be tailored to prepare you for whatever distance you’re getting ready to run.
There are a myriad of reasons to follow a training plan, such as:
- Research has shown that runners who follow a training plan are more likely to complete their training, and sucessfully finish their event.
- A proper training plan will include a structured increase in mileage, with sufficient time for rest and recovery in-between.
- Training plans can be great motivational aids – print them out, stick them somewhere prominent and mark off each day’s workout as you complete it.
Looking for a training plan?
Feel free to browse our ultramarathon training plan library – they’re totally free, and are available in PDF and Google Sheets formats (they’re totally customisable so you can map it around your schedule).
(By the way, I’m a UESCA-certified running coach and also have completed my fair share of ultras (including bagging a couple of podium finishes)).
I’ve developed these plans by working with several other coaches and they’ve now been used by over 10,000 other ultra-runners to help them prepare for their events.
And they’re free – check them out ?
8. Take Your Training One Step Further
I hope you’ve found the steps in this article useful, but the truth is they’re only the beginning.
Ultra running is a huge universe of learning – whether we’re talking about running technique, pacing strategies, cross training, gear, or nutrition.
If you’re looking for more information, consider checking out my Ultra Runner’s Playbook.
The Ultra Runner’s Playbook is your ultimate guide to ultra running!
With over 5hrs of video content and a ton of downloadable material, we cover:
- Detailed daily training plans for ultramarathons, based on running ability
- Ultra training modalities broken down; in other words, how to train smart
- Ultra running strategies for success
- Expert videos and guides on . . .
- Having an ultrarunning mindset
- Balancing training with your other time commitments
- Maintaining motivation throughout your ultra journey
- Having an ultrarunning mindset
- How to become an injury-free ultra-runner
- Strength and resistance training for improving performance and reducing injury
- Fuelling and nutrition for ultrarunners
- How to achieve your ultramarathon goals
- And plenty more expert interviews, articles, and guides!
Check out the full curriculum today, and thanks for taking the time to read our articles!