Ultra Marathons – Are You Ready?

So you’ve run a few marathons and you love a good challenge. You’ve read about Ultra marathons and perhaps the notion of running 50km, 50 miles or even 100 miles doesn’t seem too daunting, but just how different are these races than your ‘average’ marathon?

Anything longer than the 26.2 miles or 42.2 kms is considered an ultra marathon. However, the terrain on which they are ran are typically hugely different. Usually marathons are road races, where ultra races take place over varied terrain, but will predominantly cover most of their mileage on various trails. These can range from being very mountainous and hilly and some cases, also very technical underfoot with loose rock, roots, craggy ascents and descents, etc. Not all of them of course as there will also be a number on comparatively flat terrain. Therefore, these races are not for the faint hearted!

It takes an incredible amount of mental and physical strength to complete (yet alone ‘compete’!) these races. Depending on the race length and terrain, you may well find yourself out on the course from anywhere between 6 and even 24 hours. Apart from obviously logging sufficient mileage prior to the event, there is also a need to ‘mirror’ the challenge as much as is sensibly possible.

You will want to practice being up on your feet and running and walking for numerous hours. Of course, as with marathons, there is a point at which you will reach diminishing returns. Many training for these events will do a ‘long run’ of say 4 hours on a Saturday, followed by another long run on the Sunday, perhaps 3-4 hours. The idea being that you get to practise time on your feet and on the second day, you can mimic the feeling of running on tired legs.

You should also try to train as much as possible on similar terrain to that of the event. For example, if the race is over very hilly, mountainous terrain, simply training on a treadmill or on the roads will not really help replicate the race conditions.

Nutrition is also extremely vital to the successful completion of an Ultra. Much will depend on the length of the event, but typically anything over 4 hours or so, will require a very well rehearsed fluid and food plan and should have been tried and tested as much as possible prior to the day. We all know that dehydration plays a major part in how well we can perform and the effect it has, but perhaps unlike in a shorter event, such as a half or full marathon, getting this right can be the difference between finishing or not.

It is wise to carry water or even a carbohydrate replacement drink on your run. Many of these drinks will now also contain electrolyte replacement as well, which is another vital consideration. One should try to drink fairly frequently, taking sips as you move along (there is a risk of over drinking and this can carry its own problems!). It is also vital to look closely at the amount of carbohydrates you regularly digest en-route. Many will consume a number of ‘gels’ which contain much needed nutrients, such as ‘carbs’, electrolytes, potassium, etc, but after a while, these can get a little much for the gut. Sometimes, after hours of running, your body will be crying out or some solid food, or simply ‘reject’ it.

Many staged events will have frequent aid stations stocked with fruit, pretzels and even potatoes. You will even see some runners eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Everyone has a different tried and tested formula, but getting the mix of everything is essential. For me, often the carbs are not sufficient as my body is telling me it needs protein. Now what your body and more importantly, your stomach and GI tract will tolerate, is a very individual thing. Hence the need to practice not only running, but drinking and eating and being prepared to switch plans if necessary.

Assuming you can get the nutrition dialled in, then as long as you have sufficient training and approach the event in the manner that it commands (IE: build up the long run mileage gradually, be familiar with the type of terrain, taper and look after sore or damaged muscles, etc), then there is no reason to fear it. Just start out at a slower than normal pace and try to enjoy it – thanking all the volunteers along the way.

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