Ultrarunning tips to help you break 26.2 miles

Do you run the entire race?” This is the most common question I get when people find out I’m an ultrarunner. It’s true that I run races where I’m on my feet for 12+ hours straight, sometimes for days on end, But do I run without stopping? The honest answer is no.

Even elite athletes walk ultras. Legendary runner Dean Karnazes, who has finished the grueling 100-mile Western States ultra multiple times, is a fan of walking the hills. And the formidable Jasmin Paris, who holds the UK Spine Race overall course record of 268 miles, powered through many sections.

Ultras are a very different beast than marathons. Personal bests, minute pace and positive splits have no place in ultra trail. For most runners, the goal of an ultra is simply to finish: the goal is the ride, rather than the time.

By definition, an ultra is any distance greater than 26.2 miles. In reality, this can range from 27 miles to 3,100 miles, in single or multi-day events. The field of ultrarunning is booming right now. Participation in the sport has grown 1,676% in the last two decades, with more than 600,000 people running ultras each year, according to a report by Run Repeat. And more women are running ultras too, with 23% of participants being women compared to just 14% in 1997.

So how do you train for an ultra and go beyond the marathon distance?

Here are my top four ultrarunning tips to help you put 26.2 miles in the rear view.

1. Walk like a turtle

The first thing to shake off is a rhythm mentality. Running a marathon is often a watch-watching exercise as you regularly check your pace and try to stay on track. You probably have a goal in mind and want to get there in less than five, four, or even three hours.
This will not work on an ultra. The vast majority of ultramarathons are off road and the terrain can be highly variable and incredibly technical. It may be crossing rivers, climbing rocks, or navigating twisted tree roots. And just when you thought you could pick up the pace on a long downhill stretch, you discover that the ground is dangerously slippery. Pace soon becomes irrelevant as it is impossible to maintain a uniform speed.

A much better indicator is perceived exertion, and you want to keep this easy, around five out of 10. The longer the ultra, the longer you have to wait in the first few hours. Running at first because you feel good will cost you dearly in the long run. A slow and steady tortoise approach will see you overtake the rushing hares in the later stages.

You will also inevitably get lost at some point, even on a well marked route. This is even more likely on training runs, especially when you first discover a route. This is all part of the joy of running ultramarathons, so always build in extra time.

2. Get your fuel right

A common expression among athletes is that an ultra is a food race, not a foot race. Eating little and often is the best strategy and the same goes for hydration. If you feed poorly, and after six or more hours on your feet, you are likely to cramp, vomit, or even collapse. A general rule of thumb is to consume 40g to 60g of carbohydrates every hour for the first four hours and then increase this to 70g to 90g per hour. It is very common to see a line of ultrarunners going up a hill while eating snacks, chocolate bars or fruit.

You will also need to drink about 500 ml (about 17 ounces) of water and/or an electrolyte drink every hour. This will vary depending on your constitution and external factors such as weather conditions.

Planning your fueling is the most important preparation you can do. Try real food and products during training and figure out what you need. It’s likely to be a combination of quick sugary foods like candy or gels, along with slower-release foods like pancakes or bananas, as well as salty snacks like peanuts and potato chips. On training runs, make sure you have enough water with you or know where you can refuel. The Refill app is a great resource for finding free water supplies.

3. Don’t skip strength training

When I completed my first ultra (six loops of a five-mile forest trail), my left leg got completely stuck on the final loop and I could barely move. When I was diagnosed with Iliotibial Tract Syndrome (IT Band), I thought my running career was over. But my physical therapist was much more optimistic and encouraged me to incorporate strength training into my running program. It completely changed my perspective. I now strength train religiously and have had no injury issues even when running multi-day events.

Running long distances puts a lot of stress on your body, but proper strength work will offset this and ultimately strengthen your muscles and bones. Strength training cuts sports injuries by less than a third and overuse injuries by half, according to a report from the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

4. Find a distraction to run

Being out in nature for hours on end can be exciting, but it can also be extremely isolating. Finding a way to distract your mind is vital, particularly in the final stages of an ultra, which, frankly, can be quite uncomfortable.

Having a running partner to talk to or share the painful silence with can be a blessing. Both of you are likely to have energy slumps, but these usually happen at different times so you can encourage each other and offer words of support or an alternative snack.
If you prefer to run alone, find a way to clear your mind by tuning in to nature or to keep your mind busy working on non-running issues. And if you’re running a race, split up the distance by focusing on running from point to point instead of concentrating on the total distance.

If you like to listen to something, make sure you have downloaded enough music, podcasts or audiobooks to last the (long) duration of your run. This is where having a spare battery to charge your phone comes in handy. Having Spotify running for more than three hours completely drains my phone, especially when I’m also constantly checking my OS Map app, so I always carry a spare battery.

But most of all, relax, take it easy and let the stress of the day melt away as you rack up the miles.

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