Stepping Up to Ultra Marathons

With the growing popularity of ultra marathons, more and more people are taking that jump from 42.2km to many, many more. How do people take those steps and become effective when racing longer and longer distances? Coach Philip Hatzis, who has had many successes with athletes over the 'long course' offers practical and useful advice for those who have signed up to a longer event.


It is not: "Just run Further"

When I first started working with athletes who were competing over ultra distances, I couldn't quite understand the ultra mentality of "just run further". It seemed too simple, unscientific and risky to be a meaningful training suggestion. If we look at where this advice came from, we can see that it spawned from those who had done exactly that...and become successful. The issue with this is that the training methodology was born from the successes of only those athletes that were successful, not the long line of broken athletes who didn't make it round the course (or even to the start line).

We cannot hide from the fact that to run 100 miles you need to do a lot of running, that is a given. However, how you apply more distance is just as important as the actual application of the increased mileage.

The top marathon runners are going to be doing a lot of mileage; most top runners are going to be doing a lot of mileage, so what is the difference of those doing shorter distances to those going to the ultra distances?

Look at the stress of the event – Then Normalise it

The first thing we need to do is to look at the stress of what we are doing. If you look at some of the 100km/100mile races, this means being on your feet for a prolonged period of time. Yes, there is a lot of running in there as well. However, the biggest impact on the body comes from running for a very long duration, as opposed to the physical distance covered!

Secondly, we need to look at what stress your body can currently absorb. For example, if you are training for a 100km event. Maybe the first thing to do is to try and run 100km in 10 days. Then, make that a week then make it 5 days of running out of 10 and so on. Clearly, running 100km in one go is fairly brutal relative to 10km per day but crucially the cumulative stress is the same only it is shared across multiple days. We need to start small and build. This will allow you to see what stress your body can currently absorb and then understand how your body reacts to the incremental increases in stress.

How can you break up a training day? Continuing with the example above: 10km or 40-60 mins of running each day sounds manageable. But what if you can't commit such large chunks of time? Consistency of stress each training day is important so there's no point skipping a day and then doing a double day the next if your training is to gradually increase the bodily stress level.

To help assist with consistency you could try splitting the running up as part of your daily routine. You could run to and from work, or the train station? That could suddenly result in 2x15 minute runs. You have just normalised 50% of the training load (as you get used to doing that every day). Now you can focus on the other 50%. Maybe now you might have some more "stock" runs – local running club sessions – two a week – run to them. There goes an extra 20 mins of running per session. Add in a long run at the weekend – of course, but build it up.

Without realising it, without changing your normal run routine (aside from normalising some runs) you have added an extra 2.5 hours of commuting to work and hour of running to club sessions. That has just removed the long run and made the whole process more manageable. You have increased the frequency of running, barely eaten into your day and got yourself used to running all the time – this is the art of becoming a strong ultra marathon runner. Only when this has become normal should you start thinking about "long" runs and this could take some time.

Ollie Stoten – Photo credit Freedom Racing

Ollie Stoten – Photo credit Freedom Racing

Runners v Triathletes

Triathletes have a good advantage when it comes to ultra marathons compared to runners. Triathletes are generally used to bigger training loads, their aerobic fitness from other sports can be transferable, they are probably more balanced in terms of muscle distribution and they tend to get the concept of multiple training sessions per day. Triathletes also usually have a better understanding of fuelling needs, both when doing longer sessions and also due to the nature of multiple sessions per day, they tend to be better at fuelling through the day before the next session.

Furthermore, triathletes are used to the concept of cross training. Suddenly biking becomes a useful way of continuing fitness if your running legs really are tired. All ultra marathon runners would be wise to get used to cycling and taking advantage of cross training.

Finally, ultra marathon runners need to spend time in the gym. Holding form, being strong, resilient, consistent and injury proof are all really important attributes. Therefore, spending time in the gym is critical to limit the likelihood of injury, keep yourself balanced and help you hold form for the second half of the run. General triathletes have traditionally embraced gym work when compared to the average club runner. Again, as they already know their way around the gym, they are at an advantage to runners.

Any Fool can be Uncomfortable

With an ultra, planning becomes beyond critical. Your ability to plan the race, be it being capable of finding the route, or being self sufficient, or planning your nutritional replenishments all make or break the success of your event. Your kit will either be your friend or a significant enemy. Something which is irritating for a half marathon or a marathon will result in a blister, bleeding nipples and "banter" post race. In an ultra, any sort of rubbing, niggle or irritation will mean the end of your race. 

Training for an ultra is a big step. However, by changing your lifestyle where possible and spending more time running more often (get used to loads of wardrobe changes) you can ease the migration to longer distances and to a more consistent level of training. Only when you have normalised the training load can you realistically start taking the ethos that you just need to run further.