"Winning isn't about finishing in first place. It isn't about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality." Killian Jornet, Salomon Athlete
The prospect of tackling your first ultra-marathon can be daunting, but as with all great challenges, astute preparation will make the task achievable. There’s no great secret to conquering distances beyond 26.2 miles, but that’s not to say there aren’t some useful tips to make the transition to ultra marathons easier.
Training long but smart
It’s a common misconception that in order to run ultra-distances you need to train at or near the equivalent distance of the race. You risk injuring yourself if you push up weekly mileage too quickly, and distances should only be increased incrementally based on how your body reacts. A great training session for ultras is the back-to-back run, whereby you run two consecutive days of relatively high mileage. The stimulus for improvement coming from running the second day on tired legs to simulate the sensations of fatigue experienced late in an ultra distance race.
It’s often easy to underestimate the value of cross training. Through supplementing your training with other sports such as cycling and swimming you can help avoid injury and also strengthen the body for the rigours of running long distances.
Run like an elite
Watching elite runners glide along with what appears to be zero effort is often mystifying, but at the same time achievable. They’ve developed their running efficiency to a high level through meticulous improvement in technique and form. This should be a priority for any aspiring ultra-runner. After all if you are to spend upwards of several hours running continuously, why would you risk wasting the smallest amount of energy through bad form? The basics of good technique come from adopting an upright body and strong core, leaning forward at the ankles with a fast cadence. These ingredients will help put you on the path to running efficiently and injury free. Try to be a student of the sport, observe how successful athletes are running and try to enhance your own technique accordingly.
In order to maintain this good form late into a long race your body need to be strong, particularly your core. A good strength routine pays dividends in the long run and means you can enjoy the journey much more.
Most ultras are predominantly off-road and often hilly or mountainous. With this in mind your training needs to be specific to the course you are looking to race. If it’s an all-out mountain ultra with plenty of elevation gain, you should train your ability to ascend by running lots of hills. Equally and possibly more importantly is descending, a skill that practice can reap huge benefits. There’s nothing worse than quads that are blown by descending on untrained legs.
Studying the course is paramount here to identify what challenges you look to face. It might be that there’s a long flat and fast runnable section on the course. To capitalise on this you should look to do some of your training accordingly.
Pacing an ultra, or indeed any race is a highly personal thing and you should look to capitalise on your strengths. Some like to go out fast at the start and often slow exponentially as the race unfolds. Others are more conservative preferring to go out easy and maintain an even pace throughout. There are arguments to merit both approaches, but it would be wise to run your first in the latter category. A sound mantra would be if it feels slow it’s probably still too fast.
In ultra-marathons, the need for quality kit is amplified as you’re going to be out on the course much longer. Problem solving on the fly is part and parcel of this sport, which is why you’ll want to equip yourself with the finest solutions.
Footwear is likely the single most individual and important purchase you’ll make and as a premium product the Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra ticks the boxes. Designed in collaboration with mountain running legend, Killian Jornet, the Sense Ultra is a super lightweight race shoe, yet with adequate protection to deal with the most formidable trails. Also remember to stay safe from the elements, it’s not like toughing out a short 10k, where in contrast in an ultra you may be on the hills dealing with inclement weather for many hours. The Salomon Bonatti Waterproof Jacket will keep you warm and protected from the elements, but won’t compromise performance being lightweight with motion fit.
Hungry for performance
Perhaps one of the most important ingredients for a first successful ultra is a nutrition strategy. It’s a good idea to practice this on long training runs to best replicate race day conditions. A combination of carbohydrates and electrolytes need to be balanced with good hydration to allow you to keep moving for many hours. The common issue arises when blood being pumped to the legs for running is needed to ensure the stomach can digest food. Everyone reacts slightly differently to this phenomena so trial and error is key. Some people thrive on gels and electrolyte supplements, whereas others lean more towards ‘real’ foods such as nuts. Either way a combination of the two is often ideal as a contingency should your body react unexpectedly on race day due to high temperatures or other uncontrollable influences.
Another aspect of nutrition to consider is what you routinely eat day to day. A healthy diet with lots of vegetables at its core can make huge differences in your performance and recovery. The main benefit being, if you’re recovering faster you can train more. Not least it will also improve your quality of life in general.
After all the preparation, you find yourself at the start line, feeling ready, and after a careful taper maybe even a little restless - Then the game truly starts. Your body will experience a number of sensations ranging from pain and fatigue through to moments of adrenaline-fuelled joy. The mind becomes both our biggest asset and adversary. The body will only hurt so much before it becomes a constant, yet the mind will fluctuate, willing us to stop when it all gets too much. Remember in these times there was a reason you started the race, and as desperate as you might feel at that moment, that reason will be waiting for you at the finish.
Few moments in your life provide the same euphoria experienced at the finish line of an ultra. Hold that thought when your mind is begging you to just stop and sit down. You didn’t start the journey towards your ultra because you thought it’d be easy, you most likely did it because you wanted to overcome something seemingly insurmountable. No challenge worth doing is easy, and that’s why the mind game is where these races are won or lost.
Most important of all is to savour the moment. It might be a struggle, you will have moments where you want to quit, but take the time to smile to yourself knowing that you’re doing something special. Pain is temporary, success lasts a lifetime.