Training for an Ultramarathon

An in-depth guide to ultramarathon training. Long runs, training specificity, back-to-backs, mileage, speedwork, and overtraining are all covered.

By on October 15, 2007 | Comments

ultramarathon training[This guide is written for someone who has completed a marathon. If you find this article useful, you may be interested in my book Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons. While more than a decade later, I feel like everything in this article is still relevant, this article remains up primarily as it was the catalyst that made iRunFar what it is today. Since then, I’ve compiled a much more comprehensive Ultimate Guide to Ultramarathon Training article that you should check out!]

There are two key things to focus on in training for any ultramarathon, but first, what does training for an ultra look like? Well, training for an ultramarathon looks an awful lot like training for a marathon. In fact, at the shorter side of things, anyone who has trained for a marathon is likely pretty well trained for a 50k ultra over similar terrain. There is the caveat that training to finish the Chicago Marathon would not prepare you terribly well for, say, the Noble Canyon 50k or the Promised Land 50k.

On The Long Run
If you’re relatively new to running you can follow any of the prominent marathon training programs with one modification and be pretty well set to run almost any ultramarathon.* That modification is the long run.

When looking at ultra training on the weekly level nothing is more important than the long run. You don’t need one every week, but the more the better. If you’ve run only one or two marathons, you’ll need to start building up your long runs from shorter distances. Hopefully, you can start the training program by substituting longer long runs than the schedule would call for. Many marathon training programs call for long runs every other week. See if you can get long efforts in most weeks, though it’s not a bad idea to alternate longer long runs with shorter long runs. If you are training for 50k, try and log a few runs in 25 miles area with as many 20ish mile runs as you are comfortable. For 50 miles, try 25 miles a couple times with maybe one effort around 30. Though far from impossible, I would not recommend a 100 miler as a first ultra, not because it’s impossible. Rather, I’d recommend using some shorter races such as a 50k and either a 50 miler or 100k as part of the build up to a 100 miler. You can, of course, do a bunch of 20-30 mile runs, a 30+ miler and a 40-50 mile run on your own if you feel the need to be an ultra virgin when you hit the 100 mile starting line.

Since I just discussed long runs, here’s a quick note on running back-to-back (B2B) long runs. Some ultra-training programs swear by them. I’d say that they don’t need to be a regular part of a first time ultrarunner’s training. In fact, unless one is running their first ultra after many years of running, I think there’s too high a risk of injury or illness in running B2Bs very often, but I’ve got no hard basis for that.

That said, one strategically placed 3-6 weeks before your first ultra has some benefits. It’s great to have a little experience in dealing with heavy, unresponsive legs and a beat psyche before race day. It’s also a great way to get in a bunch of miles. I would caution that one should be alert for injuries (not to be confused with soreness or tiredness, which are what you should be learning how to deal with) on the second day and in subsequent days. Be sure to take a good recovery after the B2B.

I do think B2Bs are useful in advanced ultra training, both when run for a “bonk run” (depleting glycogen stores the first day, not replenishing, and then going out for another long run in an already depleted state the next day) or normally. I know some studs who have an annual B2B2B on the Angeles Crest 100 course four weeks before running Western States. Most important, it will get you used to running tired – it’s definitely worked for them.

[From personal experience, if I can only hit the trails for one day of a B2B, do it the second day. That’s much preferable to tiring your legs the first day and then being faced with faster road miles the second. Ugh.]

Specificity of Training
After the long run, the most important aspect in training for an ultramarathon is specificity of training. I am in no way suggesting that you need to run on the course every day or every weekend. Not at all. Indeed, you can be well prepared for a particular ultra having never stepped a foot on the course prior to race day. What I mean is that you should be prepared for the footing, climbs/descents, and possibly the conditions you’ll face on the course.

The footing component to specificity seems fairly obvious. It would be beneficial to have run on a trail prior to starting a trail ultra. On the flip side, running all your miles on forest trails might not be the wisest thing going into a flat road 50 miler! Even being familiar with the type of trail can be quite useful. For instance, it would be great to have recent experience on rocky trails before hitting the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 or to have logged miles on sand before hitting the Marathon des Sables. Be sure to check what footing is likely to be at the race. I’ve heard many stories of folks who thought the JFK 50 was completely benign only to feel like a fish on a bicycle on the rocky Appalachian Trail section.

Many ultras take place in mountains. It would seem to make sense that one should be prepared to climb these mountains before toeing the line, right? Right. Well, that’s true and you should log some climbing miles before the race. You’ll very likely be mixing running and walking during climbs depending on the terrain and your fitness level. If the race has shallow inclines that you plan to run, practice running up shallow inclines. If there are relatively steep climbs, remember to walk some hills during your training runs even if you don’t feel it’s necessary. This is practice for race day. (Walking training can very important to someone training for their first… or 100th 100 miler.) If you plan to run up all the hills, no matter how steep, then have at ’em during your training.

One of the most overlooked aspects of training for an ultramarathon is training for the downhills. There are two reasons for training for downhills, one is to run faster and the other is to finish. Regarding going faster, many new trail runners either flail about when coming down a hill or are overly tentative. Both of these approaches to downhill running are inefficient. For a trail ultra, practice running down some relatively steep hills to help either refine your form and give yourself more confidence on the descent. If you often run hilly trails, there’s no need to design special runs for this – just be aware of the downhills in your training. If your race will have technical downhills, try to hit some technical downhill during your training.

On the other hand, if your race has many thousands of feet of descent, training for downhills can seriously improve your chances of finishing or finishing well. If memory serves me correctly, “dead quads” are the most frequent reason for a runner not finishing the Western States 100. I wouldn’t doubt that for a minute. During my first 100 attempt at Western States in 2004 I remember the misery I was in while walking down (yes, walking down) to No Hands Bridge after mile 90. Though I could run up the final climb at Robie Point, I could not run downhill on my blown quads. As the physiology of downhill running muscle trauma is outside the scope of this entry, it’s enough to know that downhill running involves a different type of muscle contraction than we would experience during running on flatter surfaces… on which we tend to do most of our training. Before running my first mountain 100 in a given year, I go find the most convenient very long downhill (in my case 1650′ of descent over 2.6 miles) and run multiple repeats of it. I comfortably run/walk the climb and then push the downhill portion. During my first session of the year, I might run only two or three repeats, but by later sessions I try to hit four or five repeats.

Conditions – Night/Heat/Cold/Snow/Etc.
Again, it makes sense to be prepared for what you’ll face on race day. If you’ll be running a race that will have you on the course at night, practice running at night on a like surface (i.e., road, trail, grass). If it’s likely to be 90F and humid or 100+F, be sure to get some heat training sessions. If it will be frigid (think Arrowhead or Susitna), then try to run enough in the cold to figure out what you’ll need. If the course is likely to have snow on race day (even during a hot year, there can be many mile soft snow cover left on the early portions of the Western States course), think about going out for some snowy runs the winter before. I think you get the idea.

On weekly mileage, the good news is you’ll be fine whatever your weekly mileage is so long as you get your long runs in. Really. I ran my first 100 while I was working full time and going to law school. I averaged, at most, 50 miles a week in the 6 months leading up to the race. I’m convinced I could have gotten by with less. During the week, it’s great to get in whatever you can get in, but get out there one day during the weekend and log those miles.

That said, other then long runs, nothing beats consistent significant mileage. You don’t want to over do it, but one of the best ways to run better at any race length, and especially for ultras, is to run more. If you can get out there 6 or 7 days a week, you’ll be doing yourself a favor. (Obviously, if you know your body can’t handle more than 5 days or your schedule won’t let you, don’t try to run days 6 and 7.)

I find that consistently running everyday or nearly everyday creates training momentum. Once I’m running consistently for two or three weeks, I tend to follow through and stick with consistent training. On the other hand, if I’m inconsistent early in a comeback from injury or a rest period, I tend to stay inconsistent. Also, I find that after any period of inconsistent training (excluding pre-race tapers or brief recovery periods), I feel pretty bad until I’ve hit 10-14 days of consistent training at which point my legs go from feeling heavier and heavier to feeling strong.

One thing that can be sacrificed from the marathon training regime when training for an ultra is speedwork. If you’re looking to set a course record or make the national 100k team, you should be running track intervals or tempo or fartleks. If you are new to ultrarunning and enjoy hitting the track, go for it. It won’t hurt and it can help. The primary reason that I highlight that speed work is not absolutely necessary for ultramarathons is to make it clear that if fitting speedwork is a major stressor or is leading to injuries, you can cut it. Consistent, injury-free training is a major benefit when training for ultras. Personally, I still enjoy pounding out some fast miles on occasion and in times when I have firmly established an endurance base, I regularly add speedwork to my training mix.

Note that some emerging research is showing that high intensity intervals (such as 8 x 20 seconds all out with 10 seconds rest) may significantly improve VO2max, a prime indicator of endurance performance. However, in the case of an experienced marathoner looking to complete his or her first ultra, working on leg strength (by running, not weight lifting) is of primary importance.

Maybe the most important piece of advice I share with any new runner or a runner new to ultrarunning is don’t over do it. Rest when you need to. Listen to your body. If you need to take a day off, do it. If you need to take three days off, do it. Actively rehabilitate with ice, heat, rest, compression, massage, and, in very rare instances, anti-inflammatory drugs, which should be discontinued as soon as possible.

Besides acute physical breakdown, be aware of illness and stress. Don’t wear yourself out trying to force too much training or to fit 36 hours worth of stuff into every 24 hours. You’ll drive yourself and those around you nuts. You won’t enjoy it. You’ll be miserable. Be reasonable.

If you go through a great training period and start to feel worn out for a couple days in a row. You may be over training. Take it easy for a week. Even during the peak of training for a focus race, if I feel burnt out I will take off until I want to run again. Then I wait another day or two and then start running. Your enthusiasm for running is key to getting through the training and key to getting to the finish line!

Talking With Others
As I mentioned in How to Choose a First Ultramarathon, you can learn much about ultras from those who’ve run them. You can learn about races, training, gear, etc. For this reason (aside from friendship) experienced ultrarunners can make great training partners for those new to ultrarunning. If you don’t have other ultrarunners in your area who you can meet up with or your schedule won’t let you, seek out ultra advice online. Follow the ultralist, checkout out the relevant forums at Cool Running and Runners World, read ultrarunners’ blogs, volunteer/pace/crew at an ultra where you can meet/watch/learn from other ultrarunners. Whether online or in person, you’d be surprised how approachable many ultrarunners, even the very best, are.

Some people think that it’s silly to hire a coach. That hiring a coach is a waste of money. That anyone can coach themselves. Until recently, I was one of the people who thought like that, but then I was being silly myself. There are plenty of reasons one would hire a coach. A coach could be useful to someone new to running that would not be able to formulate a training plan to fit their own needs. A coach could be useful if you have no other ultrarunners to learn from or regularly bounce ideas off of. A coach can be someone who holds you accountable if you need it. A coach can help keep your from doing too much, if that’s your tendency as it is with many ultrarunners.

If you deal with professionals in a big city, you’ll like know a bunch of people who have personal trainers. These personal trainers surely provide assistance with lifting technique, stretching, and the like, but just as importantly, the student is accountable to trainer. In fact, I think that for a busy person (and who isn’t) one of the most important things an ultrarunning coach do is collect a log on a regular basis.

If you are considering an ultramarathon coach, we suggest you take a look at iRunFar’s review of ultrarunning coaches. It’s worth noting that iRunFar offers coaching services to a limited number of students at the moment.

Non-Running Aspects of Training
Aside from the miles you put in, there are many other aspects of training for your first ultra, many of which I hope to make full entries about in the future. For instance, you need to consider the running vs. rest of life balance. (Hopefully, you figured this out while training for marathons, but it’s a bit harder with the importance of long runs for ultras.) Test nutrition, hydration, shoes, and other gear to find what does and doesn’t work for you is also something you should figure out during training. How you get yourself out the door on miserable days or when you’re tired is also important. Consider finding someone to buddy up in training for an ultra or find a local club that you can join for some runs.

* As I noted later in this post specificity of training can be an important factor in training for an ultramarathon. For some races, such as Hardrock, Badwater, or Marathon des Sables, specialized training is a very big factor.

[Update: 11/27/09 – clarified use of anti-inflammatory drugs to limited instances; revised thoughts on speedwork, especially intense speedwork.]

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.