What Is Ultra Running? Ultramarathons Explained

It has certainly grown in popularity in the last few years, but what is ultra running?

An ultramarathon is a run that covers any distance longer than that of a standard marathon – therefore, any run longer than 26.2 miles, or 42.195 kilometres is an ultramarathon. 

No one is saying that running a marathon is easy, but there are some serious differences that separate the marathon from the ultramarathon. In this article, we are going to dive into what sets the ultramarathon apart.

If you’re interested in . . .

  • What the common ultramarathon distances are,
  • the common traits of an ultramarathon,
  • what ultra running does to your body,
  • what ultra running does to your mind,
  • why on earth do people run them?

…then keep reading!

What is ultra running

What Are The Common Ultramarathon Distances?

Technically, you could run 26.3 miles and call it an ultramarathon, but that wouldn’t be doing the discipline justice. 

Ultramarathon race distances typically start at 50k, barely 8k over the marathon distance. From there, common race distances jump up to 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles

Of course, there are races everywhere in between those figures, and outrageously, there are many races that go beyond the ‘standard’ 100 miler.

The longest ultramarathon, in fact, is a 3100-mile race that takes place over 52 days!

Check out these free training plans for common ultramarathon distances:

50k Ultra Training Plan

50 Mile Ultra Training Plan

100k Ultra Training Plan

100 Mile Ultra Training Plan

What is ultra running

What is an Ultra Marathon Stage Race?

Many of these 100 mile + ultramarathons take place over many days and are called ‘stage races’ or ‘multi-day races’.

During stage races, there are typically prescribed distances, or ‘stages’, that the athletes must run every day.

Each stage tends to finish at wherever the runner will spend the night. This could be a self-sufficient camp, or a higher class set-up, such as the Highland Kings Ultramarathon, which ends each day in luxury accommodation.

Famous ultramarathon stage races include:

Interested in running your own stage race? Check out our Stage Race Handbook.

What is ultra running

What is a Time Based Ultramarathon?

There are ultramarathon races with designated distances, but there are also those which are defined by a timeframe.

There are generally three different time frames used for time-based ultramarathons;

  • 6 hours
  • 12 hours
  • 24 hours

It is common for a time-based ultramarathon to consist of several loops around a shorter course of maybe a few miles. This way, runners can stop to refuel and rehydrate at an aid station at the end of the loop.

Common Ultramarathon Traits

1. An Ultramarathon’s Terrain

Whilst a marathon is typically run on the road, your standard ultramarathon race will be run in nature- over mountains, on forest trails, through deserts. 

This means that the underfoot surface can be challenging. It is not uncommon to have to use all four limbs to hoist yourself over a boulder during a race. 

Quite often too, during an ultramarathon, the course will have a significant amount of elevation gain, meaning that much of an ultrarunners race preparation will be spent on the hills. 

What is ultra running

Although, of course, there is no one size fits all description for ultramarathon terrain. There are indeed many races that are completely flat and on tarmac.

For example, the Berlin 100 Mile Ultramarathon, which follows the length of the old Berlin Wall and is entirely flat and paved.

2. Aid Stations

You can (typically) be sure to find an aid station or ten during an ultramarathon.

These are supply checkpoints during the route. They supply runners with food and hydration and there are usually medical personnel there just in case. 

They can be as basic as a jug of water and some sweets, but they are all a beacon of light during an ultramarathon. 

It is common for ultrarunners to psychologically break up an event into more manageable aid station sized chunks. 

For example, if a 100-mile race has an aid station every ten miles, it is often a good strategy only to think ten miles ahead.

What is ultra running

3. Support Crew

Some ultra races, especially the longer ones, allow runners to bring along a support crew on race day. 

A support crew is a trusted team of race day helpers. These will usually be made up of running buddies, a significant other, friends or family. 

A support crew’s role is to offer both moral and practical support to their runner. This may mean preempting when the runner may be hungry, or when they may need their bottles refilled. 

4. Pacers

Much like Eluid Kipchoge had a dedicated team of runners keeping him on track for his sub-2-hour marathon, ultra runners are often allowed pacers to keep them on track to finish. 

A pacer will run alongside the ultrarunner during a chunk of their race, often during a time which they know will be a struggle – the 3 AM shift during a 100 miler for example.

It is the pacers job to keep the runner going.

Elite runners might have a pacer to hit a particular pace which they want to achieve, whilst for your standard ultra runner, a pacer might just be the difference between finishing and dropping out.

What is ultra running

What is Ultra Running’s Effect on Your Body

What is ultra running if it’s not tough on your body?

What is Ultra Running’s Effect on Your Stomach

One of the biggest challenges that ultrarunners face during a big race is food-related.

When you cover such big distances, you inevitably have to eat as you go, or you will run out of energy and crash, fast.

During an ultramarathon, aid stations tend to offer a very wide array of foods, from sandwiches, to sweets, to pickles.

But eating as you run can lead to unfortunate gastrointestinal issues.

This is because your body does not deem digestion a priority as you run. Because of this, blood is often diverted away from your stomach and to your muscles to keep them churning away the miles.

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

What is ultra running

What is Ultra Running’s Effect on Your Feet

Thanks to the challenging terrain associated with ultras, mud, sand, rain…, and not to mention the sheer number of hours spent out on the trails, blisters are common.

Ultrarunners have tried everything to mitigate them- from wearing toe socks, to investing in wide toe shoes, to slathering anti-chafe cream on their toes. But sometimes, blisters are just an inevitability.

What is Ultra Running’s Effect on Your Eyes

This is a strange side effect of ultrarunning, but if the race is held in windy or dry conditions,  the cells that pump a protective liquid layer over your cornea can get damaged, leading to blurred or reduced vision.

What is ultra running

What is Ultra Running’s Effect on Your Mind

To run ultra distances you need to train your mind as well as your body. 

During ultramarathon training, runners build up their mental strength alongside their physical endurance as the distances get longer.

It is during an ultramarathon when an athlete may have to dig deep into their mental reserves built during training.

Aside from the mental toughness aspect, ultra distances are quite literally mind-bending. 

It is not uncommon for ultrarunners to experience hallucinations whilst runningIn fact, for many ultrarunners, these are part of the fun!

Courtney Dauwalter, ultrarunning champion, and proud ultra hallucinator spoke in an interview about some of the things she has hallucinated during an ultra.

Aside from her encounters with pterodactyls and giraffes, she tells the story of a colonial woman churning butter;

“One time I was running along and next to the trail a woman was churning butter, like a colonial woman. she wasn’t real, she wasn’t there.”

What is ultra running

Why Do People Run Ultramarathons?

Good question. What is ultra running’s pull?

This is obviously very personal and every ultrarunner has their own reasons. But here are some common ones:

  • Making friends– Many people stick around in the ultra community because of the bonds they form. Ultrarunners are a pretty fun bunch, and being in challenging situations with other people is a solid bonding experience.
  • Getting out and about– Ultra running forces you to spend a large chunk of time outside, often in nature. This is bound to make you a happier, calmer person.
  • Personal fulfilment– Running an ultramarathon is something you can be seriously proud of. It takes a lot of persistance and hard work. Being able to achieve something that was previously completely beyond your capacity is incredibly fulfulling.
What is ultra running

More On Ultra Running:

Now that you know what an ultra marathon is, the next step is to do one!

Even with access to all of our Free Ultramarathon Training Plans, you may still be feeling a bit overwhelmed with the concept of an ultramarathon. This is totally normal, so don’t worry!

If you like the idea of running an ultramarathon but are worried about getting injured, after some training guidance, or wondering how you’ll be able to balance the training with your schedule, we’ve got you.

Our UESCA-certified running coach and ultra-runner Thomas Watson has developed the Ultra Runner’s Playbook online course.

When you enroll, you’ll get access to hours of exclusive video content, downloadable guides, cheat sheets – and direct access to Thomas to ask questions and discuss any issues!

Photo of author
Maria Andrews is a runner, adventure lover, and UESCA certified Ultramarathon Coach. When she's not running around the woods or plotting adventures, she's spending time with her nearest and dearest, cooking up a storm, or working on Marathon Handbook's sister website, yogajala.com :)

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