Training for your first ultra marathon is sometimes an arduous task. It can be very overwhelming at first when you truly start to consider everything you need to consider on your road to personal endurance greatness. Thousands of ultra runners have been there long before you ever even decided to run one of these things. And during our time as ultra virgins, we’ve all had to swallow the same piece of humble pie along the road in order to see the light a little clearer. My goal here with this post is designed to truly lay it all out there and to help you get into an appropriate mindset in training for your first ultra.
“Get Started” Training Tips
1.) You are NOT Jurek or Karnazes
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen runners join the sport of ultra running with the frame of mind that they are as good, if not better, then DK or Jurek. They arrive at the starting line of their first 100 miler, that sounded like a great idea, with the idea that they can run this thing relying on their marathon training or because they read it somewhere in a book. Look gang, I’m sure you’re a talented runner and you can really take it to the road in that local 10K or marathon you’ve run every year for the last 10 years; But Ultra Running is a completely different animal that not only deserves your respect but your willingness to be a student before you can be a master. You are not DK or Jurek; so simmer down and get your brain in the mindset that you are essentially starting over from scratch again. Because… you are.
No, not the band. This is the Keep It Simple, Stupid! frame of mind. Look, running isn’t rocket science. It’s as simple as Left – Right – Repeat. Think about that for a few seconds and then continue reading….. ……. ……. …… Left – Right – Repeat…. ….. ….. …… ….. Ok, now stop reading your running porn about what shoe’s work best for you (the ones that fit), what kind of food the pro’s are eating (it’s different for you, eat what you can digest), what your splits were this weekend on your 16 mile training run (IT DOESN’T MATTER) and just K.I.S.S. ! Left – Right – Repeat. You don’t need to worry about anything else until you start getting the hang of simply finding the finish line a few times.
3.) Research, Research, Research
Yeah, a tip that contradicts the last. Something tells me you’ll get over it. But then again, I’m not talking about shoes or splits or food. I’m talking about the race you’re going to run first. What is your goal race? Find out as much as you possibly can about that race. The number of aid stations and how far apart they are. Are you allowed a crew or not? Drop Bags? What does the course look like. Once you have all of this information, it’s up to you to put it into practice. I learned long ago, “if you don’t do it in the game, don’t do it in practice.” I turn it around and say, “If you plan on doing it during the race, you better be doing it during training.” Find out as much as you can about your target race and mimic everything about the race as you can in training. Essentially, your training becomes actual dry runs of race day. Start experimenting with different food types. Start running at different times of day or even through the night. What headlamp fits you best and lights up your life like you hoped it would? What kind of butt lube keeps those cheeks moving without the deadly friction force of a rasp file against your cheeks? Find that stuff out!
4.) Mimic Course Conditions
Find a way to train on terrain the most closely resembles the terrain of your target race. Set up make-shift aid stations in the woods to simulate aid stops. A friend of mine was training to run a marathon completely barefoot. He actually put roofing shingles inside his shoes to simulate the abrasiveness of the pavement. He then wore these shoes to work, around the house, and on select training runs. This was all part of his plan to train by simulating the conditions on race day. If you’re ultra is on a road, you better be training on a road. If it’s on the trails, you better do most of your training on trails that closely resembles the actual course. Even better… GO SEE THE COURSE and gather your own recon.
5.) Ditch the Watch
It used to be in ultra running that the individual who finished in first place, got the same finishers award as the person who finished dead last. So ditch the watch! The very last thing you’ll hear an ultra runner ask another ultra runner is “what was your time?” That’s what they do in marathon land and below. In ultra world we ask “did you finish?” very few people actually care what your finishing time was, so in essence, neither should you. Ditch the watch and just run for the sake of running. This is your first ultra. Worry about interval training and getting faster at various ultra distances later after you’ve popped your ultra cherry. (See: Tip #1)
6.) It’s Not All Running
I’ve seen it a few thousands times at this point. First time ultra runners show up to the starting line thinking that they’re really going to run all 50 miles.. and I do mean run all 50 miles. That’s just not realistic. For your first ultra, you should definitely make it your plan to walk all the ups, run the downs and run the flats where you can. You’ll enjoy your experience much more and learn a hell of a lot more as well. Training your body to power hike and walk fast is some of the most important training you can do as an ultra runner. See how I emphasized the above point? Ask me how I really feel about the importance of what I just said. I’ll tell you more if you need it. Hey, you’re not going to run the entire thing; that’s actually a bit naive. So stick with the plan, slow it down Mr. Hall, ditch the watch, and practice your walking. “Mall walking” is not allowed! I know of 20 people who can actually run an entire ultra without stopping.
7.) You Are An Experiment Of One…Experiment
When it comes to everything else.. and even what I’ve shared with you here.. remember one most important rule; You Are An Experiment of One. What works for me may not work for you. What works for 150 other ultra runners, may not work for you. It is up to you to ultimately find out what works for you. What shoes work for you. What hydration pack works for you. What shoes work for you. What food you can stomach and actually works with fueling you. What kind of race strategy works for you. What kind of crew members work for you. What kind of pacers work for you. What kind of race works for you. What kind of skin lubricant works for you to prevent chaff. What kind of cartoon works for you after you’ve finished and are drooling on yourself. Get the picture here? You can ask a thousand ultra runners what works for them and you’re likely to get a thousand different answers. It’s up to you to utilize your training time wisely to figure all of this out for yourself. Use your time wisely and don’t look for handouts from others. And keep in mind… what you find works for you this year, very well may not work for you next year.
Hey, what do I know? I’ve been in this sport for 7 years. I’ve run in 38 different ultra marathons from 50K to 100 Miles. I’ve even run clear across a state, 125-miles, without stopping. I’m not here to lay it all out for you on a silver platter so I can watch you lick the butter fat from the edges of the plate when you’re done with the biscuits. Hell, my opinion is also one of a few thousand. But I promise you.. something you just read here, will help you be a better ultra runner.. guaranteed.
To Read More From Sherpa John visit his website at www.SherpaJohn.com
Great article, well written, to the point, and full of practical advice.
I have two comments:
First, I would add a discussion of miles per week training. This is topic that has lots of extremes (from guys like Anton that run 100+ MPW to guys that accomplish 100 milers on less than 50 MPW). I think a brief bit on it would be appropriate — even if it isn’t conclusive or for everyone. My personal opinion is that most runners invest too much time in running big miles at the expense of cross training, physical therapy, etc… I believe the the mid to back of the pack runner would do better investing their time in a balanced training plan (weights, bike riding, stretching) and lots of specific training (hills and long runs) than trying to run 1 hour every day.
My other thought is that the idea of dropping a watch and marathon trainers mentality is somewhat controversial and can lead to an “us versus them” mentality. It really depends on how you like to approach training and how you use the information. I understand and acknowledge the point of view that you are training for two VERY different types of races. And that MOST (but not all) people will be inclined to over do speed and even go out too fast in an ultra. But, speed training, heart rate training, and data gathering has a place in ultra training. Speed training is vital for improving anaerobic fitness and will help you prepare for an ultra even if you don’t go anaerobic during the race. It also helps to improve efficiency, gait, and strength. Personally I will do fewer speed session, but still mix them in. And, speed training can help a runner gain an understanding of where his or her heart rate zones are so that they can make intelligent decisions about how to pace for training and for the race. IF you are used to gathering this data and interpreting it, what is the harm in using it for ultra training, so long as you understand how to properly put it to use. People that are used to HR monitoring can take one look at their HR as they hike a 10% grade and understand why they cannot run it.
And I don’t personally see any harm in gathering data. I would caution people about reading too much into it or extrapolating too much on data point or series. For example, don’t compare a road marathon time to a 100 mile time in the mountains. But, comparing a mountain/trail 50 miler to a reasonable expectation of a 100 mile time isn’t a waste of time. And, gathering data can give you an appreciation for how much vertical you are training on, how many miles you are running, how much time you spend training, etc.. Then you can compare that as you prepare for future ultras and decide on what adjustments might make sense.
A HUGE thank you for reading AJ and for also offering up your comments. I truly appreciate it.
I agree with you 100% on the MPW week discussion. Myself.. I’m the mid pack runner that has always put in 30-50 mile weeks.. with the occasional 70-80 mile week in preparation for a 100 mile run. I’ve had GREAT success with this and have yet to truly become injured in 7.5 years of running (knock on wood). I’ll make a point about the 100-200 mile weeks though… and my point comes in the form of a question, “How often is Anton hurt?”
In terms of ditch the watch.. I see your perspective on data gathering. That’s a different perspective then what I’m talking about though. I’m talking about all those folks who stand on the starting line of a race with their fingers placed on the “start” button of their watch ready to push and go. When I first started running ultras I was one of these people.. and it destroyed me. I spent more time and energy… let me rephrase… I wasted precious time and energy during races by doing math in my head to try and figure out my splits and what my finish-time “should be” based on my current pace. There are just WAY too many variables in an ultra-marathon for any of that to even be accurate.. especially during your FIRST ultra. So.. I offer my suggestion to ditch the watch and really just simplify your plan and enjoy running during your first ultra. Ultimately, if you can truly get in tune with your body, your pace and your effort level/heartbeat WITHOUT the use of a watch first… you will be that much better when you DO start obtaining data.
More good stuff! And I want to reiterate that I think your original article was both well done and helpful.
Regarding the number of miles run, I completely agree. The more I learn of other runners and read about the physiology of the body, there is very little to support the idea that running 100+ MPW is helpful, let alone good. I tend to base in the 50 MPW area and then try to peak with a few weeks around 70 (sounds similar to you). I would rather invest left over training time to weights, yoga, stretching, etc…
As for ditching the watch, I see your point. And I absolutely concede that the number of variables in an ultra make it a much more difficult race to predict. I would just encourage people to do what is comfortable for them (if you like speed work, then do a little) BUT to keep an eye on the bigger prize — the bigger prize being a finish and enjoying the journey. I will admit that in my first few trail races I have gotten so caught up in “racing” that I have not stopped to enjoy some of the amazing terrain I am racing in.
For someone contemplating their first Ultra – THANK YOU!
Kool Mitchel. I hope you go for it.
I agree this was a very helpful article and was going to speak on the very same topic of watches. I am running my first 50 miler and I am the guy coming from marathons. I ran with an experienced ultra runner the other day and the first thing he said to me was lose the watch. I felt chastised at first but the more I thought about it the more I see his/your point. As AJ stated I do use it for a number of reasons not only for timing myself. Distance, elevation gain and online logging. However, I am caught in the idea that I am going to control my splits and now see the dangers of the watch. My first 50 at 50 yrs old and I wanna win my age bracket in a very small field. Am I “that guy”? Probably lol. I dont want to stop using the watch yet because I really want to monitor my paces while I train, not to see how fast I can run but to slow myself down. I see my error now though and will forget the “splits” stuff. I have also changing my training to only the important runs, no junk with way more cross training with my max mileage topping out at 50-60 mpw. I can also train on the bear chase course which I do. Thanks this is a great site!
Bill, glad you like the advice. John works very hard to be helpful. Let the watch run… just don’t look at it. 50’s are measured in hours. Even my road 50’s are 8 hours and looking at a watch makes a long day even longer. The best advice I’ve heard lately is from Mike Mortin who ran a 13:20 100 miler at the age of 40 this year. He manages whatever is going on at the moment and deal with what’s right in front of him. Even on training runs of 5 to 8 hours it’s about situation management… fluids, fuel, pain, emotions, etc. Most often, monitoring time has only made a bad situation worse because I did not stop to take care of an issue, tried to push through and made the whole thing worse. Good Luck Bill, I hope you kick the crap out of it!
Great article. The tip about losing the watch is a great one. I’ve found that my enjoyment of running has gone down when I purchased a Garmin. This last Saturday I went out for a run with a group where I was definitely the slowest. My Garmin crapped right out due to low battery. But it was one of the greatest runs even if I did get lost many, many times. I have no idea how far I ran, my pace, or altitude. But I did watch the birds and squirrels while I took a quick break to eat a sandwich and helped a lady who had fallen.
Awesome Aleta. How kool that you had a good time AND helped a women. How kool… you rock!
I want to thank all of you for your support in reading the article but also for contributing your feedback. I will admit that sometimes my feedback comes across as a bottle of ajax (“Here..drink this”).. I’m empowered to know that there are folks out there with open minds and a desire to see the bigger picture.. regardless of if they agree with it or not. So thank you. 🙂
Funny, I have yet to begin thinking of training for an ultra…ok, big lie, since I am *ON* an ultra site; but I tell people doing 5 and 10K’s and 13.1, and 26.2 mile races to lose the watch too. My take is, “This shit is fun goddammit! We do this as our hobby. We aren’t paid(most of us anyway) to run, so why make it into work?” Left–Right—Repeat as needed, you finish when you finish and not a second before nor one second after. My best races are when I help someone finish theirs. Period. I don’t have any PR’s…couldn’t tell you what my times are for any of my races…Don’t care.
Am I gonna run an ultra? Don’t know. I am retiring from racing this weekend after the Rock ‘n’ Roll in Portland. What I do from there, the gods will show me a path, and I’ll just run there and see where it takes me. Thanks for the fantastic article, and the clever turns of phrase.
Natty. You’re awesome! People keep asking me how many marathons and ultras I ran. Honestly, I stopped counting… Although I do remember last year’s count. One marathon last year gave us an extra week in Tahoe. Another was to help pace someone at Philly. I’m just there, doing something I like and trying to be grateful that I can while helping others when I can.
A fantastic no nonsense article, I am aiming for my first 36.5 mile ultra next year and your article has finally sorted the wood from the trees, I will be sure to use the K.I.S.S. strategy, luckily where I live in there are plenty of hills to train on (Inverness UK). Also your idea of ditching the watch is a fantastic idea especially as I rely alot on my when training for my half marathons. I only took up running in 2010 to overcome depression and have since become hooked on it, wide open spaces and inclement weather make it all worthwhile.
Great article – thank you! I’m signed-up for my first Ultra, a 69 mile two day event next July. I do tend to over analyze my data but only when hunting down a PB. I will be taking my watch on all my training runs (for logging purposes) but most of the time will only be running to my heartrate, to ensure I down go either too fast/slow, but at the same time feel right in myself.
I’m struggling to find how are those 50 m/p/w are best split into a training plan?
And how many miles should a long run be if the two day event is split as 30 miles day one, 39 miles day two.
great article, my self being a proud clydesdale i have srted to learn to love the longer distance i dream of my self one day soloing badwater. but that will come when the time is right,,,best thing i ever did was loose the watch and garmin and jsut srated going for time, sart at X finsh at X so forth and so forth…
I am training for the NorthFace 50k in KC in Nov 12. I am in the military and traditionally run 5 miles a day everyday. I love all the advice and completely understand that everyone’s body reacts differently. My question is, when I increase my mileage, should I do that for daily runs stating with 10-15% a week per run, or should I run just continue to run 8-10 everyday and sprinkle in an occasional 15-20 miler? Just curious what the masses think.
Christopher. I would increase weekly mileage by 10 or 15% total per week and let us help you decide where to put that mileage. For a 50k finish (not racing) I would try to build up to a 24 or 25 mile run… no matter how slow it is. Actually, the slower the better given that it’s longer time on your feet. Here’s the key… at the first sign of any overuse or injury shut the running down dead in the middle of the run and wait 48 hours before considering another run. This is absolutely the key to the start line healthy. A tweak is a great sign you doing too much or doing something wrong. Ignoring it is the best way to an injury that prevents you from even running the race.
just read this. Doing my first ultra next year, the Wall 69 miler over two days along Hadrians Wall here in England. I cant wait. I love to eat, walk, drink and view the sights as they pass, also run slow…ultra is the thing for me.
I am a click away from entering the same race. At 45 years old I have only run half marathons and a marathon when I was 18. The challenge of 69 miles in two days genuinely excites me and at my age, that is something special. If I have a big enough glass of wine tonight I will enter and start training and thinking of an explanation for the Mrs when she looks at me like I’m a total idiot. Good luck with your training.
Hey Chris I am booked in for the Wall next June 22nd! I am running it for charity as a pair in Expert mode,,, GULP. I have ditched the watch!!! Coming from a competitive triathlon and Iron Man distance racing it is a pleasure to be out in the elements not worrying about my splits!!! See you in JUNE 2013 !!!!
I am doing the North Country Ultramarathon in Michigan next year. It’s a 50 miler, and it’ll be my first. I’ve completed 2 marathons this year, and just felt like taking a leap into the ultramarathon distance. In reading this, and the comment about losing the watch, that’s gonna be a tough one for me, but it’s definitely given me something to think about. I’d definitely be that guy, checking his stopwatch, seeing if each mile was at the pace i was spose to be at. It does start to get hectic and not as fun this way, and I really think I may just put the watch away, and maybe just check it every hour or so and see where I’m at. Thanks for all the good advice. A lot of those tips were aimed right at me, I have that macho, I wanna run the whole thing fast mentality. And the more and more I read about ultras, the more I see that almost everyone has to put some walk breaks in. So thanks for all the great tips!
So great to hear so many of you deciding to “ditch the watch.”
A little story: During my first 100 Miler, McNaughton Park 100 (IL), I was checking my watch pretty constantly. It was a loop course, 10 mile loops, and after every loop I got a glimpse at the race run time. Now.. after 40 miles of this (or 4 loops) I found that I was incredibly exhausted. Why? Think about how much MENTAL energy you waste by checking your watch.. and then.. running through the splits. Then asking questions. Am I ahead? Am I behind? What will my finish time be if I can keep this up? Why am I slowing down?
Running Ultras is every bit as mental, as it is physical. Now.. many of you will bring the watch back once you get the hang of ultra running and try to do some speed training, better your times, etc. That’s great! But for now.. when you’re just starting out.. save your energy for something worth-while.. like… RUNNING.
Awesome article and a series of comments.
I am a cross-country skier. I do 40-55K ski races (in classical technique), which means 3:30-3:45 hours of intense, continuous effort. Kinda like a running marathon, I think. I train in the off season: trail running, hiking, biking and other stuff.
I have little-to-no interest in road running races, including road marathons. But I like trail running and am really drawn to and intrigued by long- distance trail races, like trail ultras.
I want to do a 50 mile trail run next summer.
Soooooo, my question is this (open to all of you who want to respond): is it crazy to just train for and then do an ultra (a 50 mile race) without ever doing road races or shorter distances? Or is it prudent to “build up” to it (i.e., marathon, then trail marathon, then 50k, then 50 miles).
Some people are capable of jumping right into ultra distance, like 50-60 mile races. This is possible for those with a strong endurance background and solid understanding of sports nutrition/hydration. So yes, you can do that if you think you’ve got the foundation. It’s an individual thing… but it sounds like you might fit the bill for taking on ultra distance without running short course races. Of course, one always learns a great deal by participating in shorter races and this, too, helps them find success.
I agree ~ the experience can help you to be more comfortable and relaxed on race day but outside of that, it is all about training, not how many races you’ve completed. Lots of people told me it was crazy that I never did a 5k or 10k before I ran my first half marathon. Ofcourse I did lots of 5ks or 10ks people ~ I just didnt waste money signing up for a race to get myself a tshirt for my training runs 🙂
There are 1/2 marathons and marathons on trails if you feel like signing up for one of those instead of a road race but as long as you put in the miles and are ready, I don’t see why you can’t run a 50 mile race as your first.
What state did you run across?
left – right – repeat… Ok, I’ll stick to that for now 😉
Thanks for the info everyone, especially SherpaJohn! I’ve only recently become involved with endurance sports and am enjoying all sorts/types. It started a couple years ago when I lost about 50 pounds to compete in my first ever triathlon. I’ve done a couple triathlons, some cycling and even cross country ski races.
I must have tried running at least a dozen times with no luck; shin pain, hip pain, no endurance. Then this last attempt, it just ‘clicked’. I just enjoy running though I am not the fastest. As luck would have it, I am likely to be in the UK next year during the G2E weekend. My family just moved back from England last year and I can’t help but consider this run from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It must be spectacular! I’ve never done this long of a race…the closest would be the 13.1 miles at the end of a triathlon I did last year so I am definitely out of my comfort zone. I am reading all I can before committing myself but I am thinking more and more of taking the plunge. I found all your comments extremely helpful. Thanks everyone!
New Hampshire.. all 125 miles… TWICE (2008, 2009)
I’m a late comer to this article, but I am attempting my second 50 miler in December 2013, after a DNF in June 2012 and taking the year off from running. I read all the comments about ditching the watch, and while I definitely can relate to the drain of mental energy by constantly checking it, I worry about making cutoffs. I am a terribly slow runner (12-13 min/miles on non-technical trails or roads at altitude (moved to CO last year from sea level and just have a harder time running here in general)) and I’m finding myself with a little anxiety because of the last DNF and missing a cutoff.
Would one recommend to mostly ditch the watch and wear it on occasion to do a check up on my timing? Or just leave it all together, including race day?
Great Article, I am running my first 100km ultra this June. Its amazing the excitment the thought of running this brings. Thanks for the great advice.
Next week I will run my first ultra marathon and
Thanks for your article.
It is the best article I have ever read about this subject.
A really great “to the point” article. I have been running (regularly) for two years now, initially as a (HUGE) help with getting some head space and thinking time, away from life’s little challenges!
Having run half marathons and 10k’s, the plan is to make 2015 a progression into marathon distance and ultimately my first Ultra (50k). This article – and subsequent comments/advice – has given me the confidence to sign up for a July’15 Ultra 50k. Thank you and good luck to all, experienced and new!
I am contemplating running my first ultra fall 2016…I am worried about how the increased mileage will affect my hamstring / knee injury 4 years ago. My last two marathons I got super painful and paralyzing calf cramps and even shin splints once crossing the 20 miles point – cardio wise I feel great and do not get tired. I am reading that the trail terrain is better on joints and since you run slower in ultras, maybe I won’t experience the leg seizures ….?I am very intrigued with running my first ultra fall 2016. I am running my 3rd marathon in 2 months and I feel my running form, stride, and pace have improved and come a long way.. This article and all of the comments give me a lot of support and encouragement. Thank you !!!
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