Ultramarathon Race Strategy: All You Need To Know To Run A Successful Race

So you’ve followed your training plan to a T, strength trained religiously, tried to sleep and eat well, and sacrificed a lot of social engagements to prepare for your ultramarathon

Don’t worry, it is absolutely worth it. Whether it’s your first or twentieth, crossing that finish line is always worth the sacrifice. 

Most of us focus on preparing all the items above, like our long runs, speed workouts, and weightlifting. Still, some of us tend to get to race day in a panic, perhaps underprepared in other aspects of the big day. 

Yes, the training preparation is critical, but so is your ultramarathon race strategy day of. 

Sure, your training is in, and you are prepared for the mileage. Still, in an ultra, so many details can make or break your race. Therefore, planning for them beforehand can help make your ultramarathon experience happy and healthy! 

This guide will discuss the often overlooked ultramarathon race strategy and how you can help assure yourself a fantastic race, whether competing for a spot on the podium or getting that first 50k under your belt. 

More specifically, we will look at

  • Ultramarathon Race Strategy: Route Specifics 
  • Ultramarathon Race Strategy: Crew and Pacers
  • Ultramarathon Race Strategy: Nutrition and Hydration

Ready?

Let’s jump in!

man running on the mountains

Registering for your race is the first big step in taking on an ultramarathon. However, many fail to do the research necessary to run the best race possible.

There are endless details and usually a fifty-page pdf file explaining each piece of the race. 

Use this racers guide to your advantage.

Knowing what to expect allows you to prepare well. We will look at the main points in your racers manual and how to best create your ultramarathon race strategy with these details.

Ultramarathon Race Strategy: Route Specifics 

If you have looked at different race results, you will notice that the finish time of one race can be hours shorter or longer than the finish time of another.

Different from a road marathon, estimating exact finish times for ultramarathons is difficult with factors such as tricky terrain and vertical gain, that can affect running or walking speed.

The first part of our ultramarathon race strategy is to try and estimate roughly how long we will run the race and how long we will take to get from aid station to aid station to properly prepare with fueling and hydration. 

This information is crucial for your ultramarathon race strategy to know how you will organize your entire race. 

To create our ultramarathons race strategy, we will need to answer the following questions:

runners in the woods

#1: Is your race one big loop, various loops of the same trail, alternate loops, out and back, or point to point?

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these route types. Still, the important thing is to know which yours is so you can plan accordingly. You will need to plan logistics such as how to get to the start line, picked up from the finish

line, and everything in between. 

This brings us to our following questions:

#2: How many aid stations are there throughout the race? Where are the aid stations located? What will the aid stations be stocked with?

Knowing exactly where you will run into your aid stations allows you to plan the amount of fuel and hydration you will need from station to station.

If the aid stations are 5k, 10k, or 15k apart there will be a big difference in what you have to carry with you.

How many gels or energy bars will you pack, and will you need one 500 ml bottle, two, or a 2-liter hydration bladder? Will you be able to run with just a handheld or waist belt? Or will you need to bring a full hydration vest?

The most important thing is to never find yourself without fuel, so calculate well depending on your previous long run speeds and the distances between aid stations. Also, consider that as you advance in the race, you may slow down.

ultramarathon runner in the woods with a pack on

Also, the amount of fuel you will have to carry with you will depend on our next question:

#3: Will you be refueling with what is offered at the aid stations, or do you need to bring your own nutrition and hydration for the duration of the race?

As you have been fueling with specific items during your long runs and figured out exactly what works for you, the worst thing you could do is change that nutrition and hydration strategy on race day. 

You’ve worked too hard and come too far to end up with gastrointestinal problems along the way.

If you are lucky enough that the aid stations will have your specific products available, you can plan on carrying less and refueling at each aid station. This way, you can run as light as possible. 

If you cannot refuel at the stations in terms of eating and drinking their products, you either need to carry more things with you or have your items waiting for you with a crew or in a drop bag at the designated aid stations. 

Again, ensure you have enough fuel to get from one aid station to the next, and always bring along a bit more, just in case. We don’t want anyone dehydrating or bonking along the way.

runner on a jungle trail

#4: How many drop bags are you allowed, and where can you access them?

In many ultramarathons, drop bags are allowed along the way. A drop bag is a small bag you can fill with items and leave throughout the race for you to pick up when you swing by that specific aid station. 

Depending on the race, you may have only one drop bag available about halfway through, or in other cases, several. If it’s a multi-loop race, you may swing through the start/finish line a bunch of times and even be able to use the same bag for the entire race.

You can use drop bags to your advantage in a variety of different ways, such as to:

  • Leave your nutrition and hydration for the next leg of the race to travel lighter 
  • Leave an extra pair of sneakers, socks, and a blister kit in case of any foot problems throughout the race 

Leave any other emergency item you may need. You aren’t carrying it with you, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re lucky, you may even have someone there to help you and have your drop bag out of the pile and ready for you when you come through the aid station.

This can save you time and frustration as you won’t need to rifle through the masses. 

Now, here are some more details to help you estimate your time between aid stations and the whole race in general.

an ultrarunner climbing a mountain

#5: What is the terrain and vertical gain of your race?

When planning your ultramarathon race strategy, knowing your race’s vertical gain and the terrain is vital.

Look at the map and altitude profile provided to understand what is coming up in each section. This way, you can plan where you will push, where you’ll get your hiking breaks and where you can fly downhill. 

This will also help you define how much time you may take through each section to pack your nutrition and hydration accordingly.

If the terrain is rocky, muddy or technical single-track trails, your running speed will be much slower than if it is groomed gravel road or asphalt.

#6: What is the expected weather?

Being poorly dressed for an ultramarathon can literally break your race. If temperatures are cold and you do not bring the necessary equipment, you could have a very bad day. Frozen, immobile hands are no good when you need to open an energy gel.

Alternatively, heat and humidity will require you to slow down and hydrate even more due to excess sweat loss. Either way, plan accordingly.

Check the weather forecast leading up to the race and get prepared. It’s always better to bring more than you need because you can always leave it in a drop bag or with one of your crew members. 

runner jumping over a tree trunk

#7: What required equipment must you carry with you during the race?

Some race organizers put together a list of required equipment for a race. I understand that this can be frustrating for some racers who are trying to run light and want to avoid carrying items they know they will most likely not use.

However, organizers do this for your safety, not just to make you carry more stuff.

For those trying to come in first, think of it this way, your competitors also need to carry the same required equipment, so you are all on an even playing field. 

If you are worried about weight, there are plenty of different options for gear. Yes, usually the lighter, the more expensive, but if those extra grams mean a lot to you, you can cut a lot out by purchasing a lighter jacket, lighter hiking poles, headlamps, and whatever else you may be asked to bring. 

Double-check to ensure you have all your required equipment because, before an ultramarathon, racer checks are usually done. If you don’t have the requirements, you may be penalized with time or, even worse, disqualified. 

Now, let’s move on to our outside help.

two trail runners celebrating

Ultramarathon Race Strategy: Crew and Pacers

#8: Does your race allow you to have a crew?

Most ultramarathons allow racers to have a personal crew to help them throughout the race. If you have ever watched the pros fly through Mont Blanc, it’s quite a team effort for some as it looks like they are stopping at a NASCAR pit stop.

A crew can be a massive advantage in your ultramarathon race strategy by saving you loads of time at aid stations.

Crew can have your new running vest loaded and ready to go before you even get there. They can also assist in any emergency situations that may come up, whether it’s to change your sneakers out or lead you to a bathroom asap!

If you are racing up front, your crew can let you know how far ahead or behind your competitors are, helping you adjust your racing strategy. 

Also, knowing your friends and family are waiting for you at specific points throughout the race helps with motivation. It puts a big old smile on your face when you come through. This will lift your spirits and make you run even faster.

There’s another excellent ultramarathon race strategy trick coming up next.

a pacer and their runner

#9: Does your race allow pacers?

If you are racing for the gold or trying to push through your first 50 miler, a pacer can be a significant advantage on race day.

Suppose you are trying to hit one of the first three spots. In that case, a pacer can help with your running speed, push you harder, or keep you from burning out and falling out of step with the leaders.

For a new ultramarathoner, a pacer can pull you from a dark place, as pacers usually pick up their runners towards the end of the race.

Having someone to talk to or just have next to you can truly help you get to the finish line. They can talk you through your difficulties, remind you to fuel up, and lead the way through challenging terrain.

As each race is different, check the pacer rules to figure out where and when they can run and their placement while helping you out.

ultramarathon runner opening an energy gel

Ultramarathon Race Strategy: Nutrition and Hydration

#10: Do you have your pre-, during, and post-race nutrition and hydration strategies planned out?

These strategies should already be practiced throughout training; however, if you still need to figure out your nutritional needs, here are some quick tips.

Pre-Race 

Three days before your ultramarathon, up your carbohydrate intake, especially the day before you race.

Eat foods you are familiar with and have eaten throughout training to avoid unwanted tummy trouble. Also, avoid any foods very high in fiber the night before the race. 

Some great easy-to-digest, simple carbs include pasta, potatoes, rice, and bread.

In addition, be sure to hydrate properly with sufficient electrolytes in the days leading up to the race so you start out fully hydrated. 

The Morning Of The Race

Even though it seems incredibly early, try and eat your pre-race breakfast two to three hours before start time. This will give your body the time it needs to process the food.

Some pre-race breakfast ideas could be a bagel, toast, jelly, or oatmeal. 

Because this is so far in advance, you should have an energy gel or tiny snack to eat about 15 minutes before your start. 

runner eating an energy gel

During The Race 

This is the strategy you have probably been perfecting for months, if not years, but if you are still deciding what to consume while competing, check out these tips.

Consume your weight in kilos in grams of carbohydrates for each hour of your race.

This can be in any form that has worked for you, energy gels, sports hydration with carbs, gummies, jelly beans, solid food like bars, or sandwiches.

If you compete, the lighter and easier to consume, the better. So think about easy-to-open gels, pre-mixed hydration, and nutrition powders in baggies or already in bottles ready to go. Anything to make your race faster and your aid stations stops quicker.

For hydration, during training, take a sweat test in similar conditions to what your race will have. Try and rehydrate with at least 80 percent of the fluid lost. 

No matter how difficult it is to consume fuel during the race, continue fueling. You want to avoid hitting the wall at all costs, and if you fail with your nutrition, you will surely bonk. 

You want to keep your energy level up so you can compete at your top performance for the duration of the race. 

Post Race

Have a protein shake or recovery drink ready for the very end of the race and consume it within 20 minutes of finishing. It will help with the post-race DOMS you will feel the following day.

There you have it! When planning your next ultramarathon race strategy, consider these items so you can experience your very best race.

If you need ultramarathon training plans to get started, we will be happy to help!

runner out in the fields
Photo of author
Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community she is known for her ear to ear smile even under the toughest race conditions. She loves sharing her knowledge and experience with everyone and has a great desire to motivate others to hit the trails alongside her. Run for fun!

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