Let’s rewind quickly back to March/April time this year. I was in the final weeks of marathon training ahead of the London Marathon, and I was just not enjoying it at all. I was really honest on the lead up that I was struggling with the training block, a combination of burning out earlier in the year and putting a lot of pressure on myself to get a PB meant that running just wasn’t giving me the same joy any more. I knew that I needed to give myself a break from the mental strain of marathon training after London, I didn’t want a break from running as such, but a break from constantly worrying about times & pace… so clearly signing up for two ultra marathons in two weeks was the logical thing to do! First up was the epic Adidas Infinite Trails, and then just this last weekend I completed my first non-stop 100k Ultra marathon at Race to The Stones (race review coming soon!)
When I announced my plans on Instagram, I got asked a lot of questions and it was mainly how I was going to train for the events and how it would differ from marathon training. So I thought would put together a post with the most popular questions, what I have learnt over the past 8 weeks, and everything in between!
The Boring Part
Now, I hate to be that boring person but as a running coach, I have to give the sensible advice first. If you are considering running an ultra marathon, please please please understand the challenge you are taking on. Whether its a 50k, 100k or a 100 miler – it will be a HUGE effort on your body, and going into it under prepared will not only mean you probably won’t enjoy it as much as it will be even harder than usual, but you are also risking potentially seriously injuring yourself and putting yourself out of the running game for a long time.
Ultra marathons are not for everyone. Not everyone will enjoy them, or have the desire to do one, and that’s absolutely fine (and that’s the same with marathons, half marathons, 5ks etc) We all have different things we want to achieve with our running and just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to as well!
You don’t have to have run a marathon to do an ultra, but in my opinion it certainly helps! Marathon training is hard work, and if you have already followed a marathon training plan you will have a better understanding of how training for longer distances work, and it will also give you a great base to build upon.
If for some reason you want to skip the marathon and head straight to the world of ultras, thats fine but just make sure you give yourself long enough to prepare and can sensibly increase your mileage week on week. The length of the training plan will obviously be determined by what distance and your experience, so I cannot give a ‘one size fits all’ answer, but if you would put yourself as a beginner, I would give yourself at least 6 months to prepare for the event.
All The Gear, And Some Idea!
I get it, it is really hard to know where to start with kit, there are SO many options out there! From trainers, to hydration vests, to watches.. it can all get a bit overwhelming! Also, it is really important to remember that what works for one person, may not work for you, so always take recommendations with a pinch of salt.
Here is what I used during my training, and on race day.
*and just to be completely clear & transparent, these products were gifted to me by the companies linked below, but the opinions are completely my own and I have not been asked or paid to review them.
Shoes – Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2
I started using these shoes back in June, in fact I got them just before I went to the South of France for a trail running holiday so it was the perfect chance to try them out over different terrains and getting used to spending lots of time on my feet.
On first impressions, I really liked the shoe and was surprised at how light they were, and comfortable. Trail shoes I have used in the past tend to be a lot more bulky and feel very hard underfoot but these were not like that at all. They have also been designed so they are suitable for all terrains, which can be really useful in any ultra distance race as it can sometimes be a combination of road, trail, gravel etc.
If you, like me are a neutral runner that doesn’t need a lot of support & cushioning I would recommend trying out this shoe, or similar from Salomon.
Hydration Pack – Salomon ADV SKIN 5 SET
For the majority of ultra marathon or trail races, it it quite common that you are required to carry your own fuel, hydration, kit etc whilst out on the course. So finding the right bag is crucial. Being comfortable during an ultra marathon can be the difference between a great race, and a terrible one so its really important you find a pack that fits you properly and works for you. As a petite woman, finding a bag that fits me has always been a struggle. I have a small frame and narrow shoulders, so when bags are just a standard fit (and by standard fit I mean designed for men, obvs) even the smallest sizes are too large and can cause some pretty interesting chafing!
I would highly recommend this pack (or another from the Salomon range) as they really are one of the best in the market. Although it looks small, you can fit a lot in there. For Infinite Trails there was a pretty hefty mandatory kit list and I managed to get all of the following in the pack, and it didn’t feel uncomfortable or budge at all.
- 2 x 500ml Soft Flasks
- 8 Gels/4 x Energy Bars
- Mobile Phone
- Wateproof Jacket
- Spare Socks
- First Aid Kit
GPS Watch – Garmin Forerunner 945
For the last 4 years I have worn a Garmin GPS watch, for me there is no other option really when it comes to GPS watches. I recently upgraded to the new 945 as for my latest challenges I needed to make sure I had a watch that was going to last the distance! The 945 battery life is insane and can last up to 60 hours in UltraTrac mode.
The watch has so many great features, and if I am being completely honest I probably haven’t even made the most of half of them yet! But some of my favourite features that I use regularly are;
- You can download your Spotify playlists straight to your watch (you do need a premium account for this feature to work & bluetooth headphones)
- Performance monitoring features include VO2 max and training status with adjustments for heat, altitude acclimation status, training load focus, recovery time, and aerobic and anaerobic training effects
- Loads of different activity settings including; trail running, hiking & climbing! Which is perfect for what I have been up to lately.
Of course I am not saying you need to invest in this watch specifically, this is just what I have been using. There are lots of great models out there, but my best advice is if you want to use it for ultras, make sure you check it has a decent battery life!
Headphones – Jaybird Sport Tarah Pro
I have been working with Jaybird for just over a year now and I am proud to be part of the Jaybird Runners team! This does mean that I have been lucky enough to try a selection of their products and for the last few months I have been solely using the Tarah Pros.
The unique thing about the Tarah Pros is their battery life, once fully charged they last 14 hours, which is perfect if you are looking to take on longer distance races! I don’t always listen to music when I race, but I knew for Race to the Stones I was going to be out on the course for a long time, potentially on my own and there were going to be points where it got super tough, and for me personally, listening to music really helps me to just get my head down and dig deep! It was great to not have to worry about my headphones dying mid race or having to take a spare pair out with me – you have enough to worry about when running 100k so anything that makes it slightly easier is a bonus!
Fuelling – Training.
CARBS – this food group will really become your best friend during your training, race and recovery. Carbohydrates are what gives us the energy to be able to push harder, run further and last longer, and they also play an important part in recovery too.
I am sure you have all heard of ‘carb loading’ too, but unfortunately a lot of people seem to get this wrong. Carb loading does not just mean eating twice as much as you usually do the day before the race, or eating an entire family size lasagne. It simply just means on the days leading up to your event you increase the amount of carbohydrates in your diet, whilst lowering the other macronutrients (fats & protein and limiting fibre intake) It may be that your calories do increase slightly too, but there is no need to go over the top, as this is what causes the uncomfortable bloated, heavy feeling that people tend to experience and blame on the carbohydrates. Choosing carbohydrates with a higher glycemic index during your carb load can also aid in loading the muscle with glycogen, while minimising these feelings of fullness or bloating.
Here are some of my favourite carb heavy foods & snacks that are a staple in my diet.
- Wholewheat Pasta
I then make sure I always add a protein source & fats to the majority of my meals too.
- Chicken Breast
- Fish – Salmon, Cod etc
- Greek Yogurt
- Peanut Butter
And then finally I will add a good amount of fruits & vegetables (also carbs FYI) to my food.
- Red Peppers
- Salad Leaves
For me personally, on the day before a race I like to keep my food quite plain so I avoid anything that is too creamy, cheesy, spicy etc. My go to pre-race meal is Pesto Pasta with chicken breast, olives, peppers & spinach.
Fuelling – Race Day
This is perhaps one of the most popular questions I got asked when it came to ultra marathon training, and rightly so! Nailing your fuelling strategy (before, during & after) can be the difference between a great race, and a terrible one. But with so much information out there it can be hard to know where to start. The one thing I will say is that this will be different for everyone. Like most things with running, there is a rarely a ‘one size fits all’ plan, so its super important you find out what works for you. For some people during a race that’s gels, whereas others will swear by cold pizza. But the most important thing is that you are getting calories and carbohydrates (energy) back into your body frequently, keeping your glycogen stores topped up.
On the lead up to Infinite Trails & Race to the Stones I worked closely with Ben (lead Nutritionist for Science in Sport) and together we came up with a fuelling strategy to prepare me for the races.
Ever since I started running longer distances, I have used Science in Sport gels during my training & races. For me it is the easiest way to get calories and carbohydrates back into my body on the move, and I suppose I am fortunate I have never had an issue with them! During a marathon I will solely just use gels, but I knew for the ultra marathons I was going to need to include other fuel sources too. And together we came up with the plan that I was going to try and use a combination of gels, energy bars, Beta Fuel and then also take on real food at the aid stations during the race. The overall goal was upwards of 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, planning this out in a by-hour strategy so to ensure that energy intake started early enough into the race.
Here is what I ended up using during both Infinite Trails & Race to the Stones. I personally felt that I got my nutrition & hydration spot on. In neither race there was no point I felt really low on energy and I seemed to avoid that ‘hitting the wall’ feeling despite the fact that for both races I was out for 10 hours in total.
8 x SIS Gels
1 x SIS Beta Fuel Sachet
3 1/2 x SIS Energy Bars
Aid Stations – I didn’t eat a huge amount at the aid stations as I didn’t feel like I needed it. I mainly just took watermelon (as it was refreshing) and on a couple of occasions a handful salty peanuts or pretzels and made sure I refilled my water bottles.
Race To The Stones
9 x SIS Gels
1 x SIS Beta Fuel Sachet
3 x SIS Energy Bars
Aid Stations – Again, I didn’t take a huge amount as I felt I really didn’t need it (which was a shame as the aid stations were AMAZING) I mainly just use the aid stations to refill my water bottles, obviously I had watermelon (just the best!) but apart from that I just stuck to what I had in my pack. At one of the last aid stations I did have a mini malt loaf though which felt like a great little pick me up!
So from this, my best advice would be to make sure you take everything you think you will need for the race, and do not rely on the aid stations. I knew that the gels, bars and beta fuel worked for me, and I felt confident that I had enough to see me through and keep me going between the aid stations.
This was probably the most popular question I got asked – how my ultra training differed from my marathon training. Anyone that has trained successfully for a marathon knows that it’s hard work. It’s early mornings, its long runs, speed sessions, easy runs, strength training – and for me, my ultra training was NO different! The only difference was that it was so much more enjoyable as on 90% of my runs I put no pressure on myself in terms of pace! I ran lots with friends and just chatted the miles away, or sometimes I just stuck my headphones in and tried new routes, but it was so nice to not have to worry about hitting ‘marathon pace’ or beasting myself on multiple runs a week.
When training for an ultra (especially if its you’re first one) the most important thing is getting your body used to spending a long time on you feet. But I get it, not everyone has 5+ hours on a Sunday afternoon to dedicate to a run, and to be honest not many of us would probably want to do that!
Everyones training will be different, and if you are looking to seriously train for an ultra marathon I would suggest investing in a coach to devise a training plan, but here are some hints & tips to help get you started
- Hills – chances are, if you are doing an ultra marathon and it is on the trails, there will be hills! Include hills wherever possible in your training – in your long runs, easy runs, hill sprints etc. They are a great way to help strength train during your runs, and it just means on race day you will feel a little more prepared!
- Back to Back Long Runs – most of us don’t have the time (or the desire!) to head out for multiple 6+ hour runs, and that is absolutely fine and in my opinion not essential for ultra marathon training. Instead, break these runs down into shorter, manageable sessions and just do them on back to back days. So for example, on a Saturday head out for a 2 hour run, and then followed by a 3 hour run on Sunday. Not only will this help to make the runs seem more manageable, but it will also get your body used to running on tired legs.
- Cross Training – Strength & Conditioning should always play a part in training, and training for an ultra is no different! I included two S&C sessions a week and focused on the whole body and included lots of big compound movements such as; deadlifts, weighted squats and lots of core too. One big difference I made is that I invested in my own S&C coach who created workouts specific for me and my goals.
- Get a buddy – as I mentioned earlier, I did a lot of my long runs with friends, which really helps just to make it so much more enjoyable! It can also be great motivation too for those days where you really can’t be bothered to get out and run. And plus you can always plan to go for a coffee/brunch/drink after which is a great incentive!
- Get Exploring – if like me you live in a big city, it might not always seem easy to get out into the trails, BUT there are ways around it! Check out your local parks, follow a river/canal path or sometimes you may need to just jump on a train for an hour to get out of the city and into the countryside!
Whilst writing this, I have realised there is SO much more I could say, and over the next few weeks/months I will 100% share more tips and tricks about how to train for an ultra marathon.
But one of the most important things to remember is… ONLY DO IT IF YOU REALLY WANT TO, NOT BECAUSE EVERYONE ELSE ON INSTAGRAM IS DOING IT! Training and running an ultra marathons is hard and isn’t something that should be taken lightly. If you want to run well and ultimately have a positive race day experience than you need to put in the work leading up to it.
So give yourself time to train, time to adapt and time to fully learn to respect the beauty of long distance endurance running!