Ultra expert Elisabet Barnes explains why stepping up from marathons to ultramarathons is easier than you may think
Running a first marathon is an achievement to be lauded and celebrated. You worked hard on the day and in training. You visited the hurt locker. You ignored blisters and new nipple sensations. And you did it. But soon after, you may well start wondering, “Well, what next?”
Some will miss the structure of a training plan; others that sense of building mission; some the finish line euphoria that can last for weeks; and even – to be candid – the attention our efforts gained us. And for many of us, it will be all of those.
Running another marathon is an obvious follow-up, but the sense of achievement won’t be as big now you know you can do it. Triathlons are an obvious next step, but the gear is expensive and you’ll likely have to spend time wallowing in chlorine at your local swimming pool. Many of us therefore progress to ultramarathons and become hopelessly addicted.
An ultramarathon can be any distance beyond 26.2 miles. Some ultras are just a few miles more, with almost every distance from there right up to the world’s longest, the frankly loony Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, which goes round and round and round a block in New York. A few ultras are on Tarmac or a running track, but most are on trails, in hills, mountains and national parks. They happen all over the place. All of the time.
At the end of a first marathon, the idea of running even further may seem impossible. But it’s very, very possible and hugely rewarding.
Mind over matter
Some, including this writer, have found them totally addictive. The secret is simply to just go a little bit slower than your marathon pace, keep shoving the food in (alternative nutrition strategies are available) and you’ll realise you can just go on, and on, and on… for as long as your mind wants to.
And a shorter ultra on softer terrain isn’t as hard on the body as 26.2 miles relentlessly pounding tarmac is. Plus walk-breaks aren’t just acceptable, but are to be encouraged.
Crowds are much smaller, so no one’s going to mock your slow pace, gurning, or if you walk for a while. Many ultra runners will tell you a shorter ultramarathon is easier – and far more enjoyable – than a road marathon. It’s no surprise the sport is booming in popularity, with old races selling out in minutes and new races springing up all the time.
The step up is simple
A common assumption is that to run twice as far as a marathon you’d have to train twice as much. But that’s not true. If you’ve recently run a marathon, you’re almost ready. “Training for your first ultra builds nicely on the marathon training,” says Elisabet Barnes. “You don’t even need to increase the total time you train – the content of some sessions just shifts in focus. In an ultra you will run a long distance, so you need to do some long runs in training. But there’s no need to do mega distances or back-to-back long runs.”
Time on feet is more important than running at a particular pace or a certain distance. “Some of your long runs may last three to five hours, but at a slower pace than a marathon,” says Elisabet. “Between long runs (which you will do every 1-2 weeks), do shorter sessions during the week, as well as speed and strength work. Ideally, training also needs to be specific to the
race you’ve chosen. If the route is hilly, ensure hills are incorporated in your training. “Allow yourself some recovery after your marathon first and make sure your body responds to training,” recommends Elisabet, adding, “ You should feel motivated and physically fresh. Stick to shorter, easy runs in the first couple of weeks to allow your body to regain energy and absorb the marathon effort.
After this, as training becomes progressively harder, maintain the balance between hard and easy sessions (and weeks) and always listen to your body.” A good stretch routine, running drills and strength exercises will bring benefits in improved running form and could help prevent injury. “Also, why not try yoga, Pilates or similar fitness classes as cross-training? says Elisabet. “Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of sleep and good nutrition.”
Picking the right race
But how do you pick the right race for a first ultra? “Look for a distance that’s reasonable – 50kms to 45 miles is a good range. That way you are more likely to succeed and success breeds confidence. Choose a well established event that has good feedback, so you know it’ll be well organised and has appropriate support in place (the XNRG series of races are perfect for ultra newbies, xnrg.co.uk). Try to pick a race that has a well marked course, unless you are confident at navigation. Finally, once in the race, don’t forget to eat. Ultra running is as much about eating as it is about running…”
There’s also more equipment to think about. Most ultras have a mandatory kit list, depending on the terrain, time of year, length or the race and similar factors. Elisabet says: “Typically you will need clothes suitable to the weather, a waterproof jacket, a long-sleeved top. You’ll most likely need to carry water, so a race vest with capacity to hold bottles or a bladder is a worthwhile investment. It will also serve you well on long training runs and has room for equipment. Make sure it’s comfortable and doesn’t chafe. Additional items that may be required, or might be useful anyway, include a foil blanket, whistle, head torch and basic medical kit.” Shoe choice is important, and unless your ultra is a road race you’ll need a trail shoe. If conditions will be muddy or slippery ensure the grip of the sole is up to scratch.
Fuelling during an ultra is different from a marathon for most people. Elisabet says: “To sustain your performance over the distance you really need to eat and you’ll benefit from more solid nutrition (i.e. not just gels), and a mix of sweet and savoury.” Elisabet says, “Eat from early on in the race, little and often. Checkpoints are usually well stocked, so you may not need to carry much, but check what’s on offer. Well organised ultras typically offer sports nutrition products, sweets, fresh fruit, sandwiches, cake, crisps and nuts, but it varies. If you’re not used to eating during running, do so in your long training runs to find out what works for you. For your day-to-day eating, focus on a healthy balanced diet avoiding processed foods.”
It might seem that stepping up from marathons to ultras means there’s a lot more to think and worry about. So is it all worth it? “I had done many marathons,” says Elisabet, “but I was looking for something that could challenge me more. It appeared more interesting to push myself trying to run further, than trying to run a marathon faster. Some life events made me realise life is very short and you have to follow your passion while you can.
When you step up from a marathon to an ultra you discover a whole new world of running. Be warned, the sense of achievement when you finish your first ultra and the furthest distance you have ever run can be addictive! How far could you go?”