Ultra marathons, any race longer than the traditional 26.2 miles, keep growing in popularity so we asked some experts for some advice on getting started.
The coaching team I work with at Centurion Running are some of the most experienced ultra coaches in the UK and between them have coached athletes to complete just about any ultra race you can think of.
Ultra running itself is more than just one race, but often a journey into a whole new sport that requires patience and plenty of self-reflection. For those starting out on their adventure we asked the Centurion Running coaches for their best beginner advice.
Even if you’re a salty old ultra running sea-dog (I know that makes no sense) there might be some gems in there to make your next 100 miler a little bit easier too.
Make a plan
“Make a plan and share it with your family,” says England international and Sports Science & Education graduate Edwina Sutton. “Like all things in life, being organised and thinking through where you want to go and how you are going to get there is key to long term success.”
Be it just for the training ahead or your long term goals, putting it down in writing and making yourself accountable to others is proven to help with motivation, focus and drive. We’ve already discussed setting SMART goals here.
“I have found having a plan with scheduled workouts, recovery runs, long runs, races and weekends off (shock horror!) is a great way to stick to your training,” continues the ex pro-triathlete and coach. “After all consistency is the key to ultra success, so allow yourself a healthy blend of life and training.”
The C word
It keeps coming up with my own athletes, but consistency is the key to endurance training. It’s a trial of miles that you just keep adding to over years and years and includes all the ups and downs. There is no one “killer session” that will equal ultra marathon success, but a much bigger jigsaw you must put together over time.
“Moderating your long runs to ensure you are always feeling pretty recovered within a couple of days is crucial to achieving consistency,” says Centurion race director and UKA coach James Elson. “Scale it back if recovery is taking longer than that.”
No long run will make your performance on race day, but one could certainly break it. Having a series of good long runs, with weeks of lower mileage when needed, can ensure you focus on consistency over the one big blast.
“I think most people come into ultras because they enjoy running so much they want it to last even longer, so make sure you keep enjoying it.” says GB international Sophie Grant. ‘A sign that you’re not recovering can be that training becomes a slog and at this point, it’s worth just dialling it back a little.”
“Its better to come into a race 10% undercooked than 1% overcooked,” says super experienced Neil Bryant. “ultra running isn’t about being in your fastest shape on the startline, but a block of consistent training, not necessarily certain big sessions, is going to make those race day miles easier.”
Variety is the spice of life
“Diversity is key,” states Edwina Sutton. “Just because your actual racing might be over a long distance, and thus run at a relative slow speed, don’t neglect all of your running gears. On a very basic level, the faster you can run a 5k race, the faster your ‘jogging’ pace becomes.”
Looking at the demands of ultra running, physiological fitness is still a key component, although not the only one. The best way to develop your physiological fitness as a whole involves working across a range of speeds and effort levels.
For marathon training the closer you get to race day the more specific your training becomes to that marathon, but you still don’t neglect the faster speeds. It’s all got a time and a place.
You might work on your speed endurance or higher end threshold training further out from your event and go through marathon pace work and get closer to race pace as the event gets closer. At any one time you can keep the faster work involved, variation is key to physiological improvements, but you wouldn’t want to be doing your 800m reps two weeks out from your first 100 miler.
Not just about the heart and lungs
It’s not just the speed and effort you can make specific. GB24hr international Elson points out that you should “focus your training as you get closer to race day so that you can closely match terrain, environmental conditions and footwear/ kit/ nutrition to that which you’ll have or face on race day.”
As mentioned above, your physiological fitness is just one factor and the longer the race, the more other aspects will impact your result.
“Practice everything, especially eating, as you can’t ask your body to do these long events without giving it fuel,” is the golden rule from UKA coach Grant. “If you want your best result, then the biggest area for improvement for 99% of ultra runners is improving your race nutrition.”
Whilst you might have heard of the ‘marginal gains’ from running on empty and increasing your fat-burning ability, for all beginners the improvements will pale in significance to the ‘maximal gains’ you can get from a successful nutrition strategy.
No amount of stubbornness or marathon fitness will keep you moving well in the latter stages of an ultra if you haven’t got the fuel inside. Take that drive and energy you might put into your final long rep or getting to that next checkpoint and put it into eating a sandwich. You’ll make everything easier.
All about relentless forward progress
The chances are you won’t run every step of your first ultra. Even the top elites are still walking sections of the steeper races and many incorporate hike breaks into all their racing.
“Expect to walk/hike” says Sophie. “Sometimes you’ll move faster doing this compared to running so practice this too.”
“Practise your hiking. Being able to hike at a good effort level, with purpose, but comfortable, is a huge weapon in your ultra armour,” continues Alps based Sutton. “This can incorporated into recovery sessions or hilly routes, get comfortable dropping down to a hike and then going back into a run and vice versa.”
We all work on different speeds in training and race pace is key to many distances. Ultra running is no different, but it might feel a little slow to do a workout at “100 mile pace” but keeping it easy for your recovery and easy running can help improve your efficiency at the pace you’ll likely move on race day. Especially in the second half.
Be a part of the community
The ultra running community is a wonderful group of people so be a part of it. From keeping a “leave no trace” attitude, to sharing miles with a whole host of eccentric and varied people, try to be a positive part of ultra running.
If you do want a head start into the world of ultra marathon then it’s always worth talking to others, either in the community, on the trail or working with a coach. We know a few good ones.
The Centurion Running Coaching team consists of James Elson, Robbie Britton, Edwina Sutton, Neil Bryant and Sophie Grant.
As qualified coaches, together with a vast wealth of personal experience of marathons and ultras across every type of format, terrain and environment, we are able to drive your running forward enabling you to reach your highest potential.