How to train for an ultramarathon
An ultramarathon, also known as ultra distance or ultra running, is any running race longer than a marathon (42.195 kilometers or 26.2 miles).
It can cover various distances, ranging from 50 km (31 miles) to more than 320 km (200 miles). Single-day races are typically up to 100k, while longer distances are covered in longer, multi-day races. Many ultramarathons are done on trail routes in diverse environments, ranging from mountains to deserts.
Some ultramarathons are for a fixed distance (such as 50k, 100k, 160k, or more), while others are for a fixed amount of time, where the winner is the one who covers the longest distance in the allotted time.
An ultra race will test not only your physical preparedness, stamina, and endurance, but also your determination and capability to persevere. Training for an ultramarathon typically takes a few months and requires a lot of effort, time, and dedication to staying consistent and holding yourself accountable.
If you’re looking to start training for an ultramarathon – such as an Ultra X race, for example – you probably already have experience with other long-distance races, such as marathons or half-marathons, so you know that developing a weekly running routine and simply going out to run three, four, or more times a week is essential, as is getting your weekly mileage in.
For this, we recommend adding your running sessions to your calendar, using an app to track your progress, and connecting with other ultra runners in your area to train together.
The best way to do all this is to use a dedicated ultramarathon training app like Runna to build and follow a personalized ultramarathon training plan based on your current fitness level, goals, the date of your race, and your schedule.
Proper nutrition is essential for being a successful ultra runner: After all, preparing for an ultramarathon involves not just getting your weekly mileage in, but also eating right to fuel your training sessions and recovery.
To help optimize your recovery, you need to:
- Keep your protein high
- Take on plenty of carbs before your tougher sessions
- Balance electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium)
- Make sure you stay hydrated
If you're looking to really push the pace or distance during training, you can experiment with caffeine, too.
For your next ultra event, and also for the longer training sessions leading up to it, fueling on the go is super important. Here are some important things to consider:
- As you run, you use up your body’s glycogen stores (glycogen simply stores energy), so you need to replenish them continuously – otherwise you risk seeing a drop in your performance
- Eating while running enables you to replenish your glycogen stores, but it takes some getting used to; digestion is not always easy while you’re moving
- You need to experiment with different foods and combinations while training to make sure you know how your body will react to them and what works best for you
- Learning how to fuel on the go while training for your next ultra marathon will help you run further and faster, enabling you to make the most of each training session and build your muscular and aerobic endurance
Race week nutrition
The week of your next race is when you’ll be carb-loading. Carb-loading means ingesting enough carbs to allow your muscles to store them in the form of glycogen and for it, you need to:
- Increase the ratio of carbs in your diet
- Reduce your mileage
You don’t need to dramatically increase calories, though; simply aim to increase the proportion of carbs in each meal.
In parallel to that, you need to keep your protein intake high. This helps with muscle recovery and also slows the digestion of carbohydrates.
Remember all other areas of recovery, too:
- Sleep well
- Keep your body hydrated
- Do plenty of mobility exercises
For every gram of glycogen, your body will also store 3 grams of water, so if you put on a little weight during this period, that’s perfectly normal and means that you have successfully carb-loaded.
Reduce your fiber intake a few days before your race; this will help reduce the weight in your intestines and enable you to have a smooth run.
Two to four hours before your race
After spending the last 7-10 days replenishing your glycogen stores, you need to top them up with one last high-carbohydrate meal before your race. Try to have it 3 to 4 hours before you start running to hopefully get your bowels moving. Keep fats to a minimum, aim for moderate protein, and focus on carbs.
Before and during your run, you can use gels, gummies, bars, and electrolyte drinks to fuel, as well as solid, easily digestible food.
And remember: Don’t do anything new on race day. Practice race-day nutrition during your longer training sessions to make sure you know how your body reacts to different types of food and only stick to tried and tested options.
Ultramarathon cross-training and strength training
Cross-training and strength training are a great addition to any ultra training plan. They not only help you optimize your performance and become a better runner but also reduce your risk of injury. Let’s look at the details:
Cross-training: Cross-training adds variety to your training and helps mitigate the risk of burnout and overuse injuries. Plus, in case you do get injured, it’ll help you adapt and stay in good shape while you recover. There are many options to choose from, such as swimming, cycling, or rowing, to name a few. Ultimately, what’s most important is to choose a sport that you enjoy.
Strength training is a crucial part of a balanced training program, especially if you’re looking at long-distance races like marathons and ultramarathons. For the best results, you should use a program that focuses on exercises specifically designed to boost your power, speed, and endurance by building the muscles involved in running. This enables you to improve your performance and running economy by 8 to 12%.
While running, your calf muscles absorb up to 11 times your bodyweight in force, and your quads up to 4 times. If your muscles aren’t capable of tolerating these loads, then your running form will suffer and the force will be distributed elsewhere, as for example, in your skeletal system. This might lead to bone-stress and other injuries.
Runna provides you with a fully personalized strength and conditioning plan that fits alongside your ultra running workouts. Our strength training plan for runners is adapted to:
- Your current strength ability
- The number of weekly workouts you want to do
- The equipment you have at hand (even if you don’t have any)
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An ultramarathon is an endurance event, so to reach your top performance, you need to make a realistic plan about your pacing.
Ultramarathons often come with a few extra challenges, compared to shorter races:
- The terrain: Many ultra races are on varied terrain, so you need to take this into account; a road race is obviously less challenging than running on a muddy or rocky trail
- The weather: What’s a minor annoyance during shorter races might become a major challenge when pacing an ultramarathon, especially if you’re running in nature; prepare for changes in weather, too
- Mindset: You need to be able to push through moments when your motivation dips and you feel closer to quitting than to the finish line; pacing can help you with this
To create a realistic ultramarathon pacing strategy, work out your goal time, i.e. what time you are aiming to finish in, based on the distance you’ll be running and on the terrain and weather.
Then, break down your ultramarathon into sections and focus on each section at a time:
- First half: The first half of an ultra running race should feel fairly comfortable; stick to the slower side of your target pace and don’t compare yourself to other runners or try to race them. Enjoy this part of the run and try not to get caught up in the excitement of the first few miles; ignore the position you’re in for now and make sure the effort feels sustainable and comfortable.
- From halfway to the final miles: You’re now halfway through – and this is where your ultramarathon really starts. Focus on getting to the next kilometer or mile rather than worrying about the long way you have ahead of you. If you’re feeling strong, you might gradually work your way up to a faster pace, but only increase it by a few seconds per kilometer. If you’re not sure, then wait.
- Final push: You've got a few more miles or kilometers to go. By now, you’re probably feeling quite tired – but everyone else is feeling that way, too. Now is the time to give it everything you’ve got. Focus on runners ahead of you: Can you catch up with them? Can you get to a better position? In the last kilometer, go all in! You’ll soon be able to celebrate finishing your ultramarathon – and wind down.
Keep on top of your fueling plan from the get go, for example by using a gel or a bar every 30-35 minutes (i.e. about 60g carbs every hour).
Ultramarathon recovery: sleep, rest, cross-training, and more
Congratulations for completing your ultramarathon! Now is the time to rest and recover.
Most ultra runners see the finish line as the ultimate end and never really think about the recovery process. But running an ultramarathon is a huge challenge – it’s stressful, exhausting, and painful – so you might feel like you got hit by a bus.
To get back to running soon (and without risking an injury!), approach your ultramarathon recovery as an essential element of your training.
Here are some tips to help you recover from an ultra marathon:
- Get at least a few days of rest: After your race, give your body a few days of rest from running. Other sports are fine – cycling, hiking, or swimming are all great options – but stay at a low to moderate intensity.
- Take care of your post-race nutrition: Use carb- and protein-rich meals to refuel your body’s glycogen stores and help with muscle recovery.
- Get enough sleep: Sleep is super important, because that’s when your body repairs itself. Because of the stress and adrenaline rush from the race, it might take you a few nights to get back to consistent 8-hour nights. In the meantime, you can use naps strategically to help your body recover.
Set a new goal: Finishing your race will leave a vacuum if you don’t have another goal lined up. Setting another goal will help you stay focused and transition to your next training plan.
Ultramarathon gear: shoes, clothing, and more
What you wear while training for an ultramarathon and on race day will impact your comfort and performance significantly.
Always keep in mind the golden rule: On race day, don’t try anything new.
Stick to clothes, shoes, and gear that are tried and tested – and in which you’ve already run long distances. A minor discomfort due to having the wrong gear can turn into a major inconvenience or even an injury risk during your race.
Invest in high-quality performance fabrics that wick away moisture to keep you dry and comfortable during training sessions and the race. Polyester or nylon are good choices; avoid cotton, because it retains moisture and can cause chafing.
Running socks can help prevent blisters; female athletes should also pick a well-fitted and comfortable sports bra.
Make sure you try all your race-day clothing and accessories on a few long training sessions.
If you’re preparing to run an ultra marathon (or any long distance, for that matter), buying a good pair of shoes is essential. Shoes protect your body and joints from the impact with the ground and help prevent injury.
We recommend going to a specialized runners’ shop that has a treadmill in-store, so that you can test a few different pairs.
If you're looking to shave a few minutes off your finishing time, you could even look into a light, carbon-assisted pair of shoes!
Other gear: Watches, hydration gear, and more
A running watch (or your phone’s GPS tracker) will help you monitor your pace and distance during your training sessions and the actual race. Plus, a watch helps you track all runs and view and compare key data, such as your pace, heart rate, and progression.
To help you get most of your training plan, Runna integrates with Garmin, Apple Watch, Coros, and Strava.
Hydration gear, like a handheld water bottle or a hydration vest, along with nutrition supplies like energy gels or bars, are also key for ultra running. You might also consider a running belt or armband to carry your phone, keys, and other essentials.
Don't forget to regularly reapply a high-SPF sunscreen and wear a hat or sunglasses to protect your skin from the sun, even on cloudy days.