- What is an ultramarathon?
- How to prepare for your first ultramarathon
- What’s the best nutrition plan for an ultramarathon
- What should you bring for an ultramarathon
Running Essentials: How to Prepare for Your First Ultramarathon
Competing in an ultramarathon needs intense training and preparation. It’s not just a competition where you need to run—you also need to survive. And you need to completely change your mindset and prepare your body to achieve all these and more.
In this guide, we’ll help you prepare and survive your first ultramarathon with a list of tips, guides, and recommendations.
What is an Ultramarathon?
An ultramarathon is a long-distance running competition that can go beyond 26.2 miles or 42 kilometers. The typical range is between 50 to 100 kilometers—all covered in one competition. Given the distance, ultramarathons can last for 12 hours to 6 days.
Notwithstanding the typical distance and duration used by many organizers, there are two main types of ultramarathon: time-based and distance-based. Time-based ultramarathons require competitors to complete a certain number of hours during the race (6, 12, or 24 hours). In contrast, distance-based ultramarathons require competitors to achieve a defined distance (50K, 50 miles, 100K, or 100 miles).
The 100-kilometer ultramarathon race is recognized today as an official world-record event by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), a global governing body for professional-level athletics and track and field.
How to Prepare for Your First Ultramarathon
Given the demands of an ultramarathon, you need to complete and accomplish a lot of things—mainly physical and psychological changes—to survive and complete the long marathon. Here’s a guide to help you get started:
Lose and Maintain Weight
You can run faster and more efficiently if you have the ideal weight for a long marathon. Furthermore, you can train harder without carrying extra pounds. Weight loss, however, should be slow and steady. Your body still needs enough calories and energy to train and compete.
Aim for a moderately-paced weight loss journey—preferably a routine where you lose half-pound to one pound per week. Don’t force yourself to do everything in one go, as it may affect your health and performance. According to Harvard Medical School, a 30-minute run can already help shed 240 to 671 calories, depending on a person’s current weight. The range applies to 125-pound to 155-pound individuals.
During your weight-loss journey, remember that running and other athletic training is just half of the equation. You also need to examine your eating habits, sleeping patterns, and medications (if any). Running alone won’t help you lose and maintain weight. Aim to get the right amount of sleep every night and follow a 250-500 daily calorie restriction. When you reach the ideal weight based on your height, age, and other bodily factors, maintain it as hard as possible.
Go For Back-to-Back Long Runs
To mimic an ultramarathon, go for back-to-back long runs once a week. Don’t go overboard, as it might affect your physical health during training. Schedule a one-day long run before your recovery day and gradually increase your time or distance week after week.
You can also diversify your runs by dividing them into two days. For example, execute a 16-mile long run followed by a 10-mile long run the next day. Then, build up to back-to-back long runs gradually. Continue increasing the long runs until you’re close to the actual distance of the ultramarathon.
During these long runs, carefully estimate your time finishing an ultramarathon-like training. While you’re at it, record the distance where you think you can reach your peak performance and watch out for the time where you feel like your body’s slowing down. This can help you alter and improve your routine for the actual ultramarathon.
Prepare and Practice Your Nutrition Plan
Ultramarathons can last for over 5 hours or days, so you are, of course, required to eat and refuel on-site during the competition. Your body loses its energy storage when you do intense physical activities for over 70 minutes. With that, you need to come up with an efficient fueling and hydration plan and test it out during your training and long runs.
This part is a trial and error process because you won’t know how your body will respond to the different food and beverages you’ll consume during an intense marathon. Besides, nutrition is specific to each individual or ultramarathon runner.
Generally, you’ll want to refuel your body with 100 to 250 calories of carbohydrate sources per hour after your first hour of running, regardless of the intensity. After a three-hour run, add light snacks or gel packs to your food cache. Then, continue to consume food with the said calorie range hour after hour.
Experiment on the type of food and beverage your body’s familiar with during your training and especially during long runs. You can pack energy bars, light meals, and sports drinks. A healthier and more affordable option is to prepare your own meals and make a homemade sports drink. If you want to know the best food types to eat during long runs and marathons, read our comprehensive list.
Practice on a Race Course With the Same Terrain
Look for locations that have the same terrain and obstacles as the ultramarathon you’re competing in. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same but aim to look for a location that can equally challenge and test your survival skills and endurance.
Most ultramarathons are hosted on mountain trails, which have inconsistent surfaces—usually steep and rocky. The best way to anticipate these obstacles is to prepare and practice in the same terrain.
Aim to host your once-a-week long runs on mountain trails. If you don’t have access to huge mountain trails, try to incorporate hill training once every week or two weeks; the best examples are pavements or treadmills. However, note that authentic hill workouts can ultimately prepare you for the ultramarathon as it’s the perfect venue to build strength, stamina, and endurance.
The perfect pattern during long hill workouts is to run up the hill at an appropriate pace and make a walk or jog recovery down the hill after the intense climb. Repeat the process week after week.
Incorporate Strength Training
Ultramarathon runners are not just fast and efficient runners; they should also be strong runners. After all, you’ll encounter steep terrains and various obstacles during the competition. You need to incorporate strength training to strengthen your body and avoid injury.
Aside from long and mid-distance runs, add gym or workout sessions focusing on squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, calf raises, box jumps, and jump squats to your training. These examples can activate muscle fibers in your body, improve your running form, and help maintain strength without exhausting your entire muscular system.
While all the strength-training programs we’ve mentioned offer physical benefits, you should still tailor your routine based on your ultramarathon goals. You don’t have to try all types of strength training exercises and follow a packed workout plan. Diversify your program based on the muscles you need to improve and your current weaknesses.
Take Recovery Days Seriously
Recovery days are just as important as your preparation, training, and long runs, so always schedule at least one recovery day every week—preferably right after your long runs or hill training. You can even take it easy and just rest completely for two days on the last weekend of your training.
According to the Michigan State University, “rest and recovery is an important aspect of an exercise program, especially for high-level athletes”. Recovery allows the body time to repair tissues and strengthen itself in between workouts. Aside from physical benefits, it also offers psychological benefits by targeting stress, pressure, and anxiety.
Immediate or short-term recovery, which usually lasts for hours, should be applied during training and long runs. It can include low-intensity exercise after running and during the cool-down phase. Long-term recovery should be applied to the seasonal training schedule of high-level athletes or seasoned ultramarathon runners. It can include days or weeks of recovery within an annual athletic program.
Train With Other Athletes or Running Buddies
An ultramarathon is not exactly a group effort, and it doesn’t require one. However, you’ll feel more motivated if you have a running partner; much better if it’s another athlete or ultramarathon runner who can give you advice and point out your strengths and weaknesses.
“Exercising with a virtually present partner can improve performance on an aerobic exercise task across multiple sessions”, said Brandon Irwin, a Michigan State University researcher, in his study. Irwin proved the numerous benefits of adding a training or workout partner to an individual’s routine. According to him, it can build rapport as individuals feel a connection with their partners, and they don’t want to let them down. This, he emphasizes, explains the relationship between performance and the strength of the bond.
You can listen to your training buddy’s advice or pep talk. Alternatively, you can just both enjoy a fulfilling day of training together. Silence and companionship can do wonders.
Compile Your Ultramarathon Gear and Essentials
Prepare all the essential gear for your first ultramarathon with injury prevention in mind. Wearing the right gear and preparing the essentials will help you reach your peak performance, prevent injury, and make you run as comfortably as possible.
The list of essentials, of course, includes a good pair of shoes, your nutrition pack, a change of clothes, protective clothing like jackets and raincoats, and a head torch. Other non-mandatory but equally efficient items are poles, headphones or earphones, a GPS watch, and a power bank.
You don’t have to carry all the things that you think you’ll need during the ultramarathon. The essentials are non-negotiable, but you can leave heavy items behind and look for alternatives. Think about the weight you’ll carry throughout the competition. Take a wise approach and prepare drop bags that can give you an advantage.
Visualize and Practice All Your Routines Before Race Day
An ultramarathon is a lengthy activity that you need to prepare for. And part of that preparation is the discovery of effective routines and strategies. You’ll discover your own during your training and journey.
Starting from your nutrition and re-fueling strategy, also develop strategies for rest and recovery, waste excretion, and application of training gear and other essentials. You can come up with a perfect and efficient routine that you can follow during the ultramarathon.
To test the effectiveness and efficiency of your routines, apply them during your long runs. For example, you can train in the gear you’ll wear for race day and see how comfortable they fit. If you find issues, you can replace them or develop a new plan before race day.
Be Influenced By Positive Psychology
We’ve mentioned that it’s crucial to incorporate strength training into your workout routine. This time, let’s tackle the importance of mental training. You need to be both physically and mentally strong for an ultramarathon. Mental toughness is crucial in any type of competition, but most importantly in demanding activities like ultramarathons.
To help achieve mental toughness and let positive psychology intervene, learn to process your goals, do some positive self-talk, and visualize the race and your goals through imagery.
You will surely experience an array of emotions during training and at the actual ultramarathon, so as early as now, build your resilience and self-confidence. You wouldn’t join an ultramarathon for nothing. You have goals, so focus on them and eliminate your negative thoughts. By simply changing your perspective, you can improve your overall performance.
Ultramarathons are some of the longest and toughest sports competitions in the world. Ultramarathon runners go through a lot of stress and pressure during these grueling tests of human endurance. It is not for the faint of heart. Beginner runners or new athletes are also not advisable to try it. As such, we highly advise all aspiring ultramarathon runners to think twice before they sign up for this type of competition. It’s best to start from the beginning and improve your endurance through regular marathons.
Regardless of the demands and challenges involved in ultramarathons, we assure you that they are 100% rewarding. They can improve your strength, psychological well-being, and athletic form. Sign up when you’re ready and prepare to face the challenges.