Tempted to challenge yourself to a distance longer than a marathon? Here’s what you need to know before you sign up for an ultra…
How fit do you need to be to run an ultra-marathon? It’s a lifestyle issue as much as anything else… you need to be able to commit the time to the training and also make sure you choose the right ultra-race for you. Here’s some advice on how to get race-fit and a round-up of some of the world’s most incredible ultras…
If you’ve had a great experience training for and completing a marathon, or you’ve completed several marathons and want to challenge yourself further and take your running to the next level, you may fancy tackling an ultra-marathon. An ultra-marathon is any distance over a marathon, which means anything over 26.2 miles. There are shorter options to choose, so it’s worth doing your research and looking around at the options available. It may be advisable to consider starting with a shorter distance of around 50km (31.25 miles) to see how your body holds up over the longer distance.
Ultra-runners often insist that having a positive mind-set is a huge part of being able to complete such a long distance. If you believe you can do it, and you’re willing to put in the training, then there’s no reason why you can’t give it a go.
Ready for an ultra?
The good news about ultras is that they actually suit slower runners and everyone, bar the elite athletes, will walk at some point during an ultra-race, so it isn’t just one long, relentless, breathless slog. However, what makes an ultra such a challenge is convincing your mind that it’s actually possible to push your body past its limits. It’s often said: ‘Ultras are 80 per cent in your mind’.
You need to commit to a structured training plan. Running coach Richard Coates from Full Potential (www.fullpotential.co.uk) encourages anyone thinking of doing an ultra to speak to their family first and get them on board. “A lot of runners tell me they want to do ultras and the first thing I say is: ‘Great, but have you got agreement from your family?’ Sometimes they laugh and I say: ‘Well, have you asked them? Seriously, you need to chat it through with them.’”
If you’re already marathon fit, how long should you allow to train for an ultra? It depends on the distance you’re covering, but shorter ultras will need at least 12 weeks of training provided you’re already fit, but a major ultra like Comrades Marathon (approximately 89km or 55.6 miles) will need at least 21 weeks of training. If you want to run an ultra, it could be within your sights, but it’s slightly different to running a marathon. Other skills come into play. You need a reasonable level of skill when it comes to navigation, you need to change your running pace and you’ll need to have a lot of spare time on your hands, or at least be very organised with your time management. Here’s some key points:
• You’ll need a lot of time to train. You will be running for hours. Longer runs at the weekend could be up to 65km.
• You’ll need to slow your pace. Many ultra-runners walk on the harder, more challenging parts of the course. Just think about completing the course and don’t worry about whether or not you feel like you’re running too slowly.
• You’ll need to get used to eating on the go – get used to absorbing proper food while out training, such as Malt Loaf, sandwiches and wraps.
• You’ll probably have to carry your own gear – many ultras require you to take essential items and transport them with you while you run, including a backpack with food, a change of clothes, water and overnight items if you’re doing a race over a set number of days
• Find out if there’s a cut-off time for your race – many ultra-races have a cut-off time and checkpoints along the course that you need to reach in a certain timeframe.
• Check terrain and temperatures – make sure you feel confident with the terrain and the likely weather conditions. Temperatures can vary massively during an ultra – with the Marathon des Sables in the desert boasting searing temperatures, while the Antarctic Ice Ultra offering sub-zero temperatures. Choose a climate you know you’re more likely to prefer. It’s also worth remembering that you’re going to be out running for hours and maybe even days, so you’ll need to carry a range of clothing to suit changing temperatures.
• Make sure you have checked the terrain of the course and try to train on similar terrain. Some ultras will take place on rocky terrain, others muddy trails, some even involve wading through rivers. Know the course before you commit.
• Check to see if there’s high altitude – while it’s difficult to know how you’ll respond to high altitude until you experience it, if you think this may be a struggle then it’s one to avoid.
• Check if navigation is needed – ultras tend to take place off-road, on trails and in remote areas, so you normally need to have some skills when it comes to navigation to ensure you don’t get lost.