Transitioning to Ultras -> Tips from an Ultra Runner

I periodically receive questions about ultra running – how to make the transition into longer distances, nutrition, training, etc. I’ve run a big ‘ole one ultra – a 60k a couple of years ago and while I loved it and definitely plan to run more ultras in the future, I know I am not the person that should be offering advice on races more than 26.2 miles.

I think there is the misperception that you need to run a ton of miles more each week to transition to ultras. Or that you need to walk away from road races and marathons completely…you can easily transition to longer distances by piggybacking on your marathon training and can mix both into your racing calendar for the year. And so while most readers here are probably running the marathon distance {or less}, I thought it might be beneficial to have an post on longer distances in case you were toying with the idea of giving it a try.

I reached out to my friend, Claire, to see if she would be willing to provide some information.  I shared Claire’s story about 18 months ago – right after she became the youngest female (EVER) to finish Badwater – a 135 mile race through the desert and mountains in California.

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Claire’s run 19 ultramarathons in her six years as an ultrarunner.  She’s a total bada$$ – she has trained for all her ultras, including Badwater, while serving as a Captain in the US Army (and also training while deployed to Afghanistan).

Below are some of her tips – if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section and she will respond! And thanks so much, Claire, for taking the tip to share your thoughts and insights!!

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Hello! I’m honored that Michele has asked me to write a guest post! Just a brief intro to start: I’m originally from Chicago, but went to West Point for college and then got stationed in Washington State! I’ve been here for just under 4 years and my husband, Kevin, and I love it. I’m currently an Army Captain on Active Duty and have deployed once to Afghanistan. I’ve run 19 ultramarathons ranging from 50k to 135 miles in distance, along with numerous marathons and half-marathons. I ran my first ultramarathon in college shortly after turning 20 in 2008 and it probably took me until after running my first 100 miler in 2010 that I felt like I had finally figured it out. Of course, every race is different, but below are some of my tips to get you started. Whether you are an experienced road racer and transitioning to longer races on trails or just want to try something new, the tips will still help you get started. When Dean Karnazes was asked about his training plan as an ultrarunner, he stated “listen to everyone, heed no one.” Please read below, but tailor it to what suits your needs! You know yourself as a runner better than anyone.

Training:

– Mileage: Since I’ve been in the military, my training plan has been less than ideal. When training for a race 50 miles or longer, I run 100-120 miles a week. These miles are limited to roads due to my work schedule and always run very early in the morning (I’m talking a 0400 wakeup!). Mileage is based on the person. I know plenty of ultrarunners who thrive on 50-60 quality miles a week. These types of runners probably do a 25-30 mile long run on most weekends. Some people are always in the triple digits. The best way to decide where you need to go is to look at how you are running now. How many miles do you run to train for a marathon? For a 50k, that number probably needs to increase by about 15 miles per week by the time you peak.  For example, if your peak week of marathon training is 60 miles, you may want to increase to 75. But I encourage you to listen to your body. If you finish marathons feeling like you have plenty more to give, you may not need to increase your mileage by that much. For marathon and half-marathon training, your longest run is typically a few miles shy of your goal distance (20 miles or 10 miles, respectively). But that doesn’t mean as an ultrarunner you need to do a 90 mile training run for a 100 mile race! For a 50k (just over 31 miles), 25 miles will be a solid long run. For me, I get bored running 25 miles on my own. If I’m training for a longer race, I’ll sign up for a race that is a shorter distance and use it to train. That may be a marathon, 50k, or 50M, depending on what my goal event is.

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– Trails: Most ultramarathons are on trails, and that is a huge part of what makes them so fun! Trails add a different aspect to training. It means the courses you will run on are hillier and more technical.  Dodging rocks and tree roots as well as sudden, sharp climbs and descents, and sudden turns put a different type of strain on your joints and muscles. Training on these as much as possible will only make you better. Sometimes on weekday runs it is hard to get to a good trail to train on. If that is the case, use your weekend long runs to train on trails. This will allow your body to adjust to the differences of running on trails.

– Hills: Being on trails, a lot of ultramarathons have steeper and longer ascents and descents than a road race. Ensuring that you work hills into both your weekly and weekend runs is important. It’s equally important to work on your uphill running as your downhill running. There will be some steep climbs in a race you may be forced to power-walk up, but running down every hill can take a toll on your quadriceps if you aren’t prepared for them. You can add hill repeats to your workouts, or just find a particularly hilly route that you run once or twice a week.

– Night Running: So there I am, running my first 100 miler at the age of 22, and I have a dinky headlamp that won’t shine more than a foot in front of my face. I spent miles 50-100 tailing another runner who graciously allowed me to run with her since I couldn’t see where I was going. Lesson learned – I now have an amazing Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp that shoots 110 lumens onto the trails. For a 50k, it may be dark at the start of the race. Some races even start in the afternoon and you run through the night. Regardless, if there is a chance you will run at night, invest in a good headlamp and use some night runs to adjust to it. Depth perception is different at night, and training with a headlamp will better prepare you for race day.

Nutrition (divided into two sections b/c I’m always asked about both)

– Training: Every ultrarunner I meet has a different diet: paleo, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc. But they always believe that is what works for them. I stick to whole grains, lean proteins and lots of fruits and vegetables. I drink about 100 oz. of water a day. You shouldn’t need to change your diet much from what you eat now, except that you may need to add a snack during the day if you are hungrier after increasing mileage. I’m a morning runner, which means I run on an empty stomach. But that also means I eat a good breakfast with protein and whole grains within 30 minutes of finishing. Ensuring you get protein after a run will help aid in recovery, and whole grains will give you carbohydrates as energy to fuel you on your next run. But if you are paleo, vegetarian, etc. you are still going to be fine! The rules still apply; you will just get those necessary grams of protein and carbs from other sources.

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– Racing:

  • This is one thing I cannot stress enough: if you haven’t tried it while training, don’t try it while racing. Having an upset stomach in a race is a tough thing to recover from.  When I race, I take in 200 solid calories an hour as well as an Endurolyte (a Hammer Nutrition product). If it’s really hot outside (over 90 degrees), I may add an S-cap for some extra salt every 2 hours. My solid calories come from Cliff Shot Blocks, Honey Stinger waffles or gels, Power Bar Energy Blasts, or Justin’s individual peanut butter packages. I sip about every 10 minutes from my Camelbak. Nuun is my go-to, but I also love Heed and even Gatorade if I’m having trouble getting all my calories from solid food. At aid stations, I eat everything: chips, sandwiches, quesadillas, pizza, candy, cookies, etc.
  • There are so many great products out there, but you need to find what works for you. I recommend trying a variety of things out on your long runs and see how they work. The more things you try, the more options you have.
  • It is important to ensure you eat. 200 calories an hour is fairly standard for an ultramarathon, but you can get away with less if you’re petite or more if you are bigger and/or used to consuming more calories in a race. If you wait to eat or drink until you are hungry or thirsty, it is too late, which is why it is essential to try things out while training. 200 calories may seem like a lot one hour into a race, but you’ll be glad you’ve been fueling properly by the time you’ve been running for 6 hours.

– Pacers

  • Most races under 100 miles do not allow for pacers. However, if you are nervous about your first ultra, ask a friend to sign-up with you! I have run plenty of races with friends attempting that distance for the first time. Even if you register alone, most ultrarunners are very friendly and enjoy passing the time in conversation. Since ultras are typically on reasonably narrow trails, runners spread out quickly and you may find yourself with the same runner for a while. Striking up a conversation may help pass the time; I have done that in plenty of races when I didn’t have a pacer. That runner who let me tail her for the last 50 miles of a 100 miler because I didn’t have a headlamp? We got to know each other very well and I continue to follow her running career.

So where do you go from here? The longer your race is, the harder it will be on you to learn these lessons. The ultrarunning community is an exciting one, but at the same time is a relaxed, fun, and encouraging environment. The sky is the limit with ultras: there are 200+ mile races out there! Best of luck to you in your endeavors!

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I don’t post here every day, but I post all of my workouts (and other happenings) on Instagram on a daily basis {NYCRunningMama}.

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    28 thoughts on “Transitioning to Ultras -> Tips from an Ultra Runner

    1. This post was so helpful! Michele thanks for featuring Claire! What amazing accomplishments, seriously badass! I’ll be running the Reach the Beach relay on an ultra team this September. Not quite an ultra but 52 miles in 24 hours is much different and longer than distances I’ve done in the past (marathon). I’m looking forward to it as something a bit different to train for. Thanks for the advice!
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    3. Wow Claire, you are a such a rock-star!
      Great tips, very useful information! I don’t have any experience with ultra running but I’m toying with the idea for sometime in the future. Your tips sound spot on (I’m sure they are, I just wouldn’t know), and I will keep them in mind, even for marathon training in a few months.
      Thanks for a great post.
      2 Cups ‘N Run recently posted..Race Recap – Liga 5K – PR 21:18My Profile

    4. Wow–Claire is amazing. I’m in awe that she can train for those intense ultras while still serving our country, even during deployment. She needs a blog of her own! :)

    5. Just reading about this made me exhausted 😉 Ultras are really not my thing, but this post was very informative.

    6. An ultra remains on my bucket list so I appreciate an article like this one. I love the relaxed environment she and others have described about the ultra community, it seems like a nice change of pace (pun intended) from the marathon scene!
      Michele @ paleorunningmomma recently posted..The Critic In MeMy Profile

    7. Love this and it makes me want to run another ultra. I did one, a 50K…a couple weeks after a marathon since I figured I was trained for it – my first time running on trails (clearly awesome decision) – and it was one of the best races ever…maybe because of the PBJ sandwiches, chips and m&m’s at the fuel stations :)
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    8. GREAT post! I’ve ran 2, 50K’s now, and am signed up for my first 50 miler in September! Definitely loved the advice (and I CANNOT even imagine doing just a few miles at Badwater!!!).
      Kate recently posted..Cimarron 50K Endurance RunMy Profile