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How to prepare to train for your first ultramarathon

Well, today is officially my first day of training for my very first Ultramarathon.  And I’m starting to wonder what I might have gotten myself into. 🤣

So what exactly is an Ultramarathon (also affectionately known as an “Ultra”)?

Well, simply put, it’s any distance longer than a marathon.  Which, if you’re reading this as a totally awesome running newbie, is 26.2 miles.  However, the widely recognized starting distance for an Ultramarathon is 50 kilometers (or approximately 31 miles).  

Beyond 50K, the sky’s the limit. There are Ultra events that go all the way up to 100 miles and well beyond.  I read a hashtag recently that said #200isthenew100. 😳

Um, that is awesome and I admire anyone who would embark on a 200 mile journey.  I just don’t think I’ll be aspiring to that any time soon. 😜

For this first Ultra of mine (and who knows, maybe the last 🤷🏻‍♀️), I’ve decided to start at the entry-level distance of 50K. 

Now, for some of you, that may sound like no big deal.  But for most of you, it probably sounds kinda crazy!  It sure did to me when I first heard there was such a distance a few years ago.

One thing I can assure you of though, this is not something I’m attempting with no prior training under my belt.  

Could you do that though? Train for a 50k with no previous running experience? Well, I don’t think I would advise it, but I wouldn’t say it would be impossible.  It kind of depends on how many months of training you’re able to put in.

Before I got to the point of being able to start my official 50K training plan today, I added several “ingredients” to create a successful Ultramarathon training recipe. 

Throughout the rest of this post, I’m going to share that “recipe” with you.  I hope you’ll be able to take away some key ideas you can implement if this is a place you’d like to get to as well.

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Give yourself plenty of time

If you’re starting from the couch or from very low weekly mileage, I would really think twice about jumping right into a 4-6 month training plan for an Ultra distance.  Even if you plan to use a combination of running and hiking (which is common in Ultra distance trail races), your body still needs time to adjust to the demands of moving forward for 31 miles (or more 😳) at a time.

I would highly recommend you have a strong running base built up before beginning an official Ultra training cycle.

You may hear of people who had little to no miles under their belt and started straight away with a 6 month 50K training cycle.  And they may have even successfully completed the distance.  But that doesn’t mean that’s the best idea.

I was pretty much “couched” with a frustrating injury for a good part of last year.  When I decided that I wanted to attempt a 50K, I knew I would need to give myself plenty of time to slowly build back up my mileage before even considering a training plan.  My main goal was to keep myself healthy and injury-free.   

I was going to play the long game and I was OK with that.  And you should be too.  There is nothing wrong with taking your sweet time when it comes to achieving your running goals.

In Running Your First Ultra, veteran Ultrarunner Krissy Moehl requests that you’ve been running at least 25-30 miles per week for 2-3 months before starting her 24 week 50K training plan.  So, coming off of several months of almost zero running miles, I took 8 months to gradually build up my mileage to where I was doing 25-30 miles per week during the last 3 of those months.  This number will seem small to seasoned marathoners, but for most of you who are newer to the longer distances, it will sound like a lot.  But you’ll get there, I promise.

Run a tuneup race (or multiple)

You certainly don’t have to do this one.  For me, having some kind of race on the schedule motivates me to keep training.  It gives me a goal to work towards.  During my base-building, I selected two of my favorite trail races because I knew I would be excited about them.

Run a tuneup race to prepare to train for your first ultramarathon

If this sounds like a good idea to you, find a medium distance to work towards as you build your base.  Depending on where you’re starting from, you might prefer to pick a 10K race as a base-building goal, or even a half-marathon run on a trail.  If you’ve already been running around 15-20 miles a week, you could look for a longer distance trail race to work towards as you prepare your body to train for an Ultra distance.

Incorporate strength training and mobility work

This one was/is a biggie for me.  I learned somewhat early on in my running journey that if I only focused on running and never did any kind of strength training, I was priming myself for injury.

You don’t have to have access to a gym or heavy weights to incorporate strength work into your pre-Ultra training routine.  There are plenty of body weight exercises and moves with resistance bands that are perfect for runners.  Look for exercises that focus on core, glute, and leg strength.  If they’re single-leg moves, even better.

These are some of my favorites:

  • Clamshells
  • Marching Bridge
  • Pistol Squats
  • Single Leg Deadlifts
  • Planks (all varieties)
  • Lunges (all varieties)
  • Monster Walks (w/resistance band)
  • Jane Fondas 
  • Body weight Squats (progress to Weighted Back Squats)
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Pilates (not an individual exercise, but an entire routine; this is my favorite teacher)

As far as mobility work goes, you can always benefit from a dynamic warm-up before a run.  Dynamic stretches (I’m not talking “static stretches” here – those are for after a run/workout) help to “warm” your muscles and increase your heart rate to prepare your body for running (or whatever cardio workout you’re going to do).  Certain moves are great for activating your glute muscles, which are super important while running.  Here’s a video from pro runner Steph Bruce that’s sure to get you warmed up before your next run.

I’d also highly recommend that you do some self-myofascial release with a foam roller after your runs or strength workouts.  

Incorporate cross-training

Personally, I enjoy riding my “mountain” bike on the same trails I run.  It’s more invigorating and exciting to me than riding on the road.  Occasionally, I’ll get in the pool and swim laps.

You choose what you like to do.

There are many benefits to cross-training (including strengthening your muscles and maintaining your fitness through low-impact activity), but one of the big ones is to diversify your training and give your brain a mental break from running.

My point is that cross-training should be enjoyable.  If you can’t stand the elliptical machine, don’t do it.  Find something you do like doing and do it.

Watch your nutrition

Nutrition is a bit of a loaded topic.  There are so many differing views as to what’s the “healthiest” way to eat.  Much of the research I’ve read points to a whole food plant-based diet as the one being most optimal, not only for overall health and longevity but also for boosting athletic performance and decreasing recovery time.  However, I’m not here to try to convert you to veganism.  I’m nowhere near perfect in this department.  But you certainly can give your body the ability to recover faster and stay healthier by eating (lots) more plants and decreasing or eliminating added sugars and highly processed foods.

Read a book

Or two or three!

I enjoy books, so reading about whatever journey it is I’m about to embark on is a natural tendency for me.  To learn more about what goes into preparing for and running an Ultra, I read Krissy Moehl’s Running Your First Ultra and Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons by Bryon Powell.

I would highly recommend both of these, for different reasons.

Moehl’s book is geared more toward females and includes color pictures, thorough training plans (for 50K through 100-mile distances), and core strength exercises (with descriptions).

Relentless Forward Progress is written with the “average” runner in mind and is jam-packed with practical tips and advice from various experts. 

Don’t overtrain!

I think this speaks for itself.  As tempting as it may be to push yourself to go farther and faster, hold back a little.  Focus on slowly building up your base mileage so you can prevent injury and burnout.  Because who wants to be injured before they even start?  Not me!  And I’m sure you don’t either.

So take it easy and don’t stress.  Keep adding onto your weekly mileage, little by little.

You will get there!

As you prepare to train for your first ultramarathon, be careful not to overtrain!

I believe all of these things have given me a solid foundational base to officially begin training for my first 50K.  But – I’m by no means an expert.  Technically, I’m a newbie as far as Ultras go!  

So, as the weeks go by, I’ll get to put my training base to the test.  I’ll keep you updated, and if it seems like any of these had more of an impact than another, I’ll let you know.

And you can let me know if you have any plans to one day train for your first Ultramarathon. I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below! 😊

Disclaimer: You should understand that when participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in exercise or training I recommend, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge Running With Roots from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown, arising out of Running With Roots. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet or exercise. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The views expressed are based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical, nutrition or training advice.

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