You’ve been pounding the pavement for a while now. Checked off a few race results you are proud of - is this your Ultra year? If the idea of an ultra marathon has been bouncing around your head, this is the year to do it. Head off the tarmac and onto some trails. Challenge your mind and body. Reap the reward of stunning vistas and rare accomplishment. Check out these events to start your planning: Whistler Alpine Meadows, Broken Goat (Kootenays), and Squamish50.
Set yourself up for success
Start with a 50K - not a 50-miler. It may be intriguing to eye up a 50-mile but that almost doubles a marathon. Building up with a few successful 50Ks will help your body adapt to the challenges of the ultra. You will need more time on your feet training and racing, you will need to take on new gear, new nutrition and hydration routines. You want to bite off enough for a challenge but not so much you can’t manage.
Consider the trail
There are some ultra marathons that take place on the road but most take place on trails. There are pros and cons to this. Trail runs are their own beast - in many ways easier than the road: you are forced to ease up on your speed and cadence to deal with the varied terrain, your body gets to use more muscles instead of focusing on the same movement over and over again, you get more mental stimulation to keep you going. And in many ways trails are harder than roads: more elevation, varied terrain so you have to mentally pay more attention, more isolation, sometimes varied weather conditions.
Reconsider your paceWhile marathons are often about improving your pace and your splits, ultra marathons are about the journey. This leads to a more relaxed, fun, collegial atmosphere. The varied terrain also leads to a more run-walk style. This change in style forces you to slow down. A trail race forces you to look at your body more than your watch. Gauge your effort and energy. When you have to account for altitude, grade and varied surfaces your body will tell you if you need to run or walk. Training should account for both power walking and running on varied terrain. It may turn out you can walk up a particular grade as fast as you can run it, and the walk will save you energy for later. A rookie mistake is to charge up all the hills in the first half leaving no resources for the last. One trail runner suggested it isn't uncommon to feel like you're putting out an effort equivalent to a four-minute kilometre pace in a road marathon, but are moving at a six-minute kilometre pace on the trail.
A trail race will provide challenges a road race doesn’t. You need to build up foot, leg and core strength to tackle uneven terrain and more severe grades. This doesn’t just mean having the strength to power up the hills but also the agility to descend safely. Find terrain at least once a week that is similar to course you will race. The distances don’t have to be long but they must push your body to adapt to terrain challenges. If the course is on rough terrain consider specific exercises and tools that will help you build ankle and leg agility and stability.
Adjust and practice hydration and nutrition
As a typical marathoner you may only eat gels, chews or liquids during your race. An ultra marathoner may find the varied pace allows for more substantial nutrition. Rest stops may include salty chips or crackers or juicy melons. The hearty food might be what your mind and body needs to keep going. Like all endurance sports, eat before you feel you needed it and repeat often, consuming calories every 30-45 minutes. Don’t forget some fuels need sufficient hydration for your body to absorb them. Depending on the race you may need to carry more of your food and hydration with you. Don’t rely on aid stops to get you through - like long-distance cyclists - take on the responsibility for the majority of your fuel. You don’t want to be 30K out in the forest and find the nutrition station doesn’t have what your body needs.
Reevaluate your gear
Your favourite pair of road shoes may not meet your needs for an ultra marathon. Investing in a more stable/water resistant trail shoe might be what you need to maintain agility over the course. You may find your feet swell in heat or altitude and you need to take that into consideration. If you are carrying more food and water, check out the different hydration packs available. Some runners like hip packs, others like vests. Try to tuck in some essentials: an ultralight, packable raincoat, a headlamp and the ultimate essential: a whistle. Train with your gear so you don’t have any surprises on race day.
Some training tips
- Gradual increase: As the events looms, increase your training to four-hour long runs. If you can, find trails -- this will reduce the likelihood of injury from repetitive foot strikes. The varied, softer terrain (as compared to the road) will increase your strength.
- Don’t focus on kilometres - focus on time: you don’t want to over train - focus on quality running. Accept that 10K on the road will go faster than 10K on a trail. Aim for 10-16 hours a week of good kilometres.
- Add a second run: As the workouts get harder add a short, 30-minute, easy recovery run to your toughest days. It is much needed time spent on your feet and will help with recovery. Keep your easy days easy to allow for a fuller recovery.
- Don’t aim for 80%: Focus on the quality of your running and hours on the trail. You don’t need to aim for the typical marathon strategy of completing 80-90% of the distance. If you are trained and have put in your hours you should be able to hit your distance.
- Focus your mind: Sign up, commit, train, envision yourself at the finish line. Focus on completing the training and the event regardless of time. If you are mentally fatiguing, slow down and breath in the place. You may never be there again. You might be one of just a few hundred people who will see that view this year. The rewards of an ultra marathon are more than a medal around your neck. Acknowledge the mental and physical accomplishment of the event.
- Recover: Your body has been pushing more than it ever has before, the long and more arduous training and the more strenuous events means you should extend your recovery time for 10-14 days more than you did for a marathon. Even if you are feeling good, keep your easy runs going for a little longer. You need to both mentally and physically recover.