Are You Ready for an Ultramarathon?
This is the guide that will help you decide whether you can hack it.
If you’re a serious runner or a marathoner, chances are you’re in pretty good shape. But are you in good enough shape to be considering an ultramarathon? You may be on top of your fitness game and logging strong miles every day, but taking on an ultramarathon is an entirely different beast. There are a lot of things to consider, like how long you want to be running for, what kind of terrain you want to run on and ultimately, do you think you can physically do it?
Doctor Emily Kraus is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford’s Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center and specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation. She’s also completed nine marathons and an ultramarathon, so it is safe to say she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to running.
In order to get the answer to whether you’re ready for an ultramarathon, Dr. Kraus is going to help answer some basic questions that runners should know before signing up for their first ultra.
What is an Ultramarathon?
Just to make sure you’re clear on what it is you could be getting yourself into, an ultramarathon is any organized footrace that goes beyond the standard marathon running distance of 26.2 miles. So, marathoners take note: If you’ve conquered 26.2, this could be how you level up. Or, if 26.2 was enough for you, you may want to call it unless you’re looking to really push yourself.
As more people look for new and unique ways to push their fitness limits, ultramarathons have grown in popularity in recent years. Dr. Kraus says it’s often the community aspect that brings a lot of people in. “The growth of a sport many people consider a little ‘crazy’ has been fascinating to follow,” she says. “The ultramarathon world has a community that’s unlike any other -- so supportive and encouraging. I think the sport appeals to people who may use trail running as a therapeutic release. Trails can be a very meditative space. Once the miles start to accumulate, the notion of an ultramarathon doesn’t sound so crazy after all. I think the number of races that are available throughout the country makes it really appealing to people.”
Ultramarathons can be any length of distance over 26.2 miles. But it can also be any type of terrain and they can really vary depending on what you’re looking for. There’s the Ice Ultra in Arctic Sweden that’s a casual 142.9 miles/230km that spans across five days, or the Western States that’s 100 miles in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain trails.
So if all of this sounds appealing to you, read on for some things you’ll need to know before you tackle an ultramarathon.
Training for an Ultramarathon is No Joke
It’s not a shock that training for a marathon is intense, so training for an ultramarathon is even more time-consuming and requires specific preparation. “In addition to staying diligent to a gradual build-up of volume (mileage, hills/vert, intensity), you need to be very dialed in with your fueling. You also need to understand the race course, including the influence of altitude and different potential weather patterns” says Dr Kraus. “Runners can get thrown a lot of curveballs that, with better preparation, are very manageable. Without preparation, it can lead to a pretty miserable race experience or even a DNF (did not finish).”
“Nutrition is the secret weapon to better training, recovery and race performance. It’s important to recognize that we’re tapping into different types of energy stores and systems with different athletes, this includes carbohydrates and fat stores during running and adequate protein during periods recovery. Carbohydrate needs are going to be greater for the endurance runner because of the overall duration they’re running, but that’s only half the challenge. Runners may experience intolerances to certain food groups as the hours pass during an ultramarathon. It requires focus and preparation to obtain both quality and quantity nutrients to avoid a physical and mental crash.”
There’s a Big Mental Aspect to Consider
Ultramarathons are long and demanding, not only on your body but on your mind as well. Kraus points out. “A big challenge is the interplay between mind and body with ultramarathons. You’re often on your feet and awake for over 24 hours. That’s another level of mental toughness and your body taps into this state of pain that you can’t really reproduce during training runs. The first time you feel that level of “hurt” it can be difficult to push forward. That exact challenge is often what appeals to runners who choose this race distance.”
It’s about remembering that you’re stronger than you think you are. Make it a goal to keep positive thoughts top of mind, reminding yourself that you worked hard for this and you earned it. Dr. Kraus suggests having a personal mantra while you’re out there can be helpful in getting you through the tough spots. “I think you have to get yourself deep into the well during training to at least get a bit of a taste for it. You have to practice your mantra and trust you’ll find strength within yourself through saying it.”
This type of training is crucial in order to make it over that finish line. While an ultramarathon is an impressive achievement it can be a lot on your body and soul. Mental preparation is just as important as any other prep work you’re doing. “You know deep down that you’re able to push through it, it’s just a matter of being patient and trusting the process and getting to that gritty state of mind,” Kraus says. “That, I was unprepared for, as far as the hurt that was going to come with that, however it did introduce me to another level of mental toughness. It raised my respect for the sport in general and for runners who are doing these races multiple times a year.”
If you’re looking to truly stretch yourself, then an ultramarathon may just be for you. You’re certain to come out of it a slightly different person that when you started in more ways than one.
Don’t Overdo It
While taking on one ultras is an amazing achievement, it can be a little addicting. If ultras become something you want to pursue consistently, you need to make sure to listen to what your body is telling you. Dr. Kraus says there are a number of factors that affect an athlete’s ability to race, but taking care of it is crucial. “I live in an area where it’s easy to run outdoors all year round, but just because we can do that doesn’t mean we should. I think there is some risk of over-racing and overtraining. For some athletes it depends on the number of years they’ve been training and miles on their body and how their body is structured. But no matter what, what’s most important is that after their races they take proper recovery.”
As far as proper recovery goes, remember that the road or the trail will be there tomorrow, so taking a day off is not the end of the world. “Depending on the race, ideally weeks to a month or two of low-level recovery is ideal, really decreasing the amount of running, or taking time off completely, that can be even better. I think what’s more harmful is a continuation of races back to back, or without a lot of recovery. That’s where the injury risk really gets high because of the continuous volume and intensity they’re exposed to. The recovery is highly individualized, but each runner needs to find what his or her optimal recovery is and stick to that plan.”
Sometimes Having Support Helps
While some runners may like to train solo, Kraus points out how the support of her family and friends helped her cross many finish lines. “For my first ultra, my family members were waiting at the finish, and the idea of seeing their faces got me through some low points towards the end. During marathon training, some of my closest friends were my training partners. It’s pretty incredible to suffer silently with someone for miles at a time. No words are needed, but you know that person has your back. In contrast, I know people who train completely solo and they find strength in the hours of solitude. Both can work.”
In the end, ultras are a hell of a lot of work and if you decide to meet the challenge, following the training and racing tips above may just help you cross that coveted finish line.