The wondrous aspect of ultramarathons is that there is not a definitive ‘correct’ method to get ready or participate in the race. There are many things to be gained from training and completing a trail ultramarathon, and the effects will be immensely gratifying. It will quite likely alter your views on running, exercise, and being daring. Repeat with me: “I can do this!” Many feel scared when they hear the word “ultramarathon,” but it’s easier than a marathon on the road. You don’t have to be fast. You don’t have to be talented. You just have to be committed! If you take part in an ultramarathon, you are likely to observe that most of the competitors are ordinary folk of all ages and different shapes and sizes, and the large majority of them are having a great time! It is time to quit having reservations and overcome the primary step; CONVINCE yourself that you are CAPABLE of accomplishing this!
Completing your first ultra is a milestone occasion that educates us numerous significant lessons on life – doggedness, steadfastness, attention, introspection, determination, resilience, problem solving, and effort, just to give some examples. Furthermore, I would say that the trail-ultra community is one of the most welcoming, supportive, generous, and optimistic coteries of individuals that I am aware of. You will be quickly welcomed into our group as we all go through this process, despite whatever skill or experience we may have. This guide is an effort to discuss the fundamental concepts of preparation for your initial lengthy race, and completing it. Now is a perfect opportunity to read a diversity of sources, such as books, articles, and podcasts, and gain knowledge from them! We cannot replace our own knowledge gained from our own experiences, but we can always benefit from what other people have gone through. Remember, there is no “one way” to do this – we are all so different in our lives, our schedules, our fitness, our injuries, etc. I can confidently say however that we all want a few basic things in our ultrarunning experience:
- To have a purpose in our training – i.e., know the purpose of each run or workout and collectively see our fitness and confidence improve
- To avoid injury and show up to the start line healthy
- To show up on race day prepared with the information and confidence needed to run a smart race, problem-solve as needed, and FINISH!
I will be straightforward: Running 50 miles is a tremendous amount of distance. It’s not a large distance, but it’s still a noteworthy amount – fifty miles. I always tell runners that a 50K is still an ultra-distance race, but it’s “not that much of an increase” from a marathon. Because it’s not, a 50K is doable. Going a distance of 50 miles is a lot for the majority of us non-professional runners.
It’s likely that you only ran up to 50K in your preparation, so now you are going to come across an additional 19 miles that are unfamiliar territory. The best strategy for dealing with the unknown is to conserve one’s energy. Begin your race at a slow pace…slower than what you would naturally think to do. And then slow down EVEN FURTHER. This is intended to keep you from becoming fatigued for as long as it can.
There Will (Probably) Be Some Walking.
Many new ultra-marathoners may be astonished to discover that in events that are longer in distance, competitors may choose to walk. Some people may only be able to progress up steep climbs by walking, while others may choose to alternate between running and walking. Regardless of the individual’s level of experience, walking during the race is something that occurs on occasion, and sometimes frequently.
And guess what? No one is ashamed.
Going up inclines, or including a steady period of running and walking, will assist with alleviating weariness in your body and legs since 50 miles is a remarkable distance to run. I strongly suggest that those hoping to become ultra runners incorporate fast walking into their training program on a frequent basis. This will show your body the best way to become more proficient at moving, making sure that your breaks for walking don’t notably slow down your total speed.
It is widely recognized that nutrition is critical to succeeding in endurance sports. When talking about an extreme competition such as a 50-mile marathon or even longer race, having proper nutrition becomes essential. For the typical, not professional athlete, the time you spend running adds up to a whole day, or even more. When attempting to cover your first 50 miles by running, you’ll end up running for a few meals throughout the day, expending a remarkable number of calories in the process. This is not a situation suitable for consuming breakfast, partaking in a run, and then capping off the contest with a snack. You need a race day nutrition plan.
Foods specifically designed for endurance activities, such as gels, chews, or drinks, are very beneficial but over time you might find yourself becoming tired of them after around half a day. Take into account also adding “actual” food, which may take longer to be digested and make you feel fuller than certain food products made for sporting activities. Certainly, it is best to practice eating a slice of pizza while exercising prior to the actual race, instead of attempting to do so for the first time on race day at the 42 mile mark.
Other nutritional factors to consider during your first 50 miles:
When it comes to producing energy, the body uses carbohydrates taken in and stored in the body as well as fats stored in the body to power itself. The muscles usually only break down proteins into their component amino acids and use them to form glycogen only when absolutely necessary. The reason why the majority of sustenance items intended for endurance are generally simple carbohydrates is because they are a quick and uncomplicated energy source for the body to use.
It has been argued that consuming protein while partaking in physical activity can block the breakdown of muscle proteins and increase the production of proteins (source). Put simply, taking in protein as you run a 50 miler could help to reduce any potential damage to your muscles and give you a head start in recovering the damage you do receive. Considering the length and exertion of a 50-mile run, having a source of protein in your diet at some time during the day might be beneficial.
If you are planning on including a protein source when running 50 miles, make sure you test it out prior to doing the activity in training. Protein sources are difficult to digest and can be the cause of digestive system troubles, which is the last thing any ultra runner needs when they’re on the run.
I’m going to be careful not to give an overly strong opinion on the use of caffeine during an ultra, given that it is a stimulant and can, in certain circumstances, act as a performance enhancer. Though it carries risks like raising blood pressure or heart rate, it can also have positive effects like improving power output.
As a person who participates in ultra marathons, I can attest to the fact that late in a 50-miler, caffeine can help to stimulate both your mental and physical performance. Try out consuming caffeine during your training sessions before you try it during a race.
Take Care Of Your Feet
All runners are aware that blisters and areas of friction can be problematic. Running an ultramarathon is significantly harder than running a half marathon, especially in regards to the pain of blisters. Obviously, sore, blistered feet will have a major negative influence on an ultrarunner’s performance if not properly taken care of.
Footcare, much like nutrition, varies from person to person. It takes time to figure out the correct mixture of footwear, footwear and antiblister items that works for you. Footcare should be prioritized from the start of a race and should be kept consistent until the race is finished. Putting off treatment until an open sore appears from friction is commonly too late.
A drop bag is a useful tool that helps runners get to items they need during a competition while not having to physically bring all the items along in their hydration pouch the whole time. You can use this to make sure that you are getting the right nutrition and you can switch your clothes depending on the terrain or the climate without having anything loaded on you. This can be especially useful when running a 50 miler, since 50 miles is a great distance to run.
A whole team specifically for a 50-mile race is not as popular as a crew for a 100-mile event, but it wouldn’t be a bad plan to have a non-competitor friend or partner to encourage you during your initial 50-mile race. That person could take an active role such as making sure your nutrition is up to date and not wasting time at the aid stations, or just be a comforting presence by simply being there and offering to give you a ride back home after the race (because most likely you’ll need a lift back home afterwards).
Picking the Right Race
In the mountains, or flat? Lots of fire roads, or all single-track trails? Close to home or a destination race? There is no ideal choice when deciding which trail ultra to do first. I believe that one of the most crucial characteristics is that one should be inspired and motivated by the race. Could it be that the attraction of racing on a scenic mountain path entices you? Maybe close to somewhere in the middle where you can get together with a few pals? You need to have a strong desire to do your first ultra, so pick one that will fit that ambition.
My personal opinions on picking your FIRST ultra:
In Virginia, there are a great deal of 50k trail ultramarathons one can select from. Going on a long journey out of the state for competitions usually involves some kind of tension, so it’s essential to try and make your initial race as uncomplicated as possible. Picking a competition located an hour or two away by car makes the process much easier for both you and your relatives.
Don’t worry about elevation change/mountains
You may not be aware of it, but for your first ultra, it would be beneficial for the terrain to have significant changes in elevation. This implies greater strength in walking to break up the continuous running. Assuming that you can fit this into your exercising program, which might be difficult in a spot like the beach, as an example.
How Much Time Do I Need to Prepare?
Boy, this one is a can of worms! I can say that the outcome for each person will vary widely. Are 16 weeks enough? Maybe a year? Maybe 2? Learners participating in David Horton’s jogging program at Liberty University display rapid progress, advancing from the point of little to no running to the point of being able to do an ultramarathon after only sixteen weeks. In contrast, some of my buddies have taken a full three-to-four years to finish an ultramarathon due to physical issues and changes in their lives. So really, there is no set time, but here are some general guidelines:
- I don’t think it’s wise to go from not running at all, to running a 50k in less than 6 months. Sure, a lot of people can do that, especially if they are fitted with other athletic pursuits. However, it simply takes time for your bones, ligaments, and tendons to adapt to trail running. Ramping up the mileage too soon is likely to leave you injured. I think it would be great to have about 3-6 months of consistent running before starting a 16-week 50k training program. What is “consistent” running? For the most part, run 3-4 times a week, at least 3-5 miles per run, or let’s say about 15 miles a week.
- You do NOT have to have run a marathon before considering a trail 50k! A trail 50k will be easier on your body and in my opinion, newer runners will better be able to avoid injury training for a trail 50k than a road marathon (this is because there is less specific repetitive stress on a long trail run vs. a long road run).
- Most important, when you decide it’s time to go for it – just listen to your body. Realize that despite being as careful as possible, your body may or may not be ready. If you are finding yourself hurt and frustrated, back off and fix what is wrong or go for it next season. The mountains will always be waiting and will always be calling!