How I Train for an Ultra Race
Training for an ultra race is a commitment that will change your perception and shift your life. I love to do ultra events. This is how I've been prepping for a 50-mile ultra marathon.
Two years ago, I twisted my ankle 10 miles before my finish-line. When you’ve gone 40 miles, another 10 feels short and long at the same time. With tears of frustration, I gave up, loaded my dusty, tired, disappointed body into the back seat of my husband's Rav4 (good thing it had leather seats) and began an emotional self-beat-down that lasted the 2-hour ride back home. When I was finally able to think clear again (sleep, food, and a shower helped that tremendously), I asked myself what I could have done differently to be ready for the race and what would I do differently so I could finish next time.
Well…it’s next time! Every year I run/walk the equivalent miles of my age around my birthday. It just so happens that the Pony Express Trail 50 Miler is right around my birthday. For the last several months, I have been training to FINISH the race this year. Side note, I’ll be turning 42, not 50, but those extra miles are a little bonus.
So, how does one train for an ultra? As a certified personal trainer, I understood what I needed to do to build up my endurance, but running an ultramarathon is a specialized kind of training. I needed more information.
I started with my goal. Winning the race isn’t what I’m looking to do, I want to finish. There’s a cut-off time, so I knew I had a certain number of hours to complete the race. This is where math came in. There is an 18-hour finish time cut-off, which means I would need to maintain a pace of at least 18-20 minutes per mile if I wanted to factor in pit-stops for food, water, and using the restroom along the way. I also purchased hiking poles to use in the washboard area where I had twisted my ankle. Now that I had a goal, it was time to start training.
The goal in training for any event is to eventually get to a place where you are outperforming what you expect to do in the event. If I wanted to maintain a speed of 18-20 minutes per mile, I needed to work up to maintaining a faster speed than that over a long period of time. I also needed to incorporate active rest and cross-training days, so I didn’t injure myself or experience burnout. Burnout is an interesting concept with ultramarathons. You want to have some feeling of burnout, so you can practice getting through it. Burnout definitely happens on the course and every muscle fiber and brain cell scream at you to quit. That’s their job – to protect you and conserve energy. Getting practice getting through burnout during training will help you on the course.
Here’s where I started and what I currently do to train. It isn’t a full training plan, but everyone is different and has different needs. For example, when I do ultra-events (and I’ve done A LOT of them), I can’t drink certain things that are meant for electrolyte replenishment – they make me super sick. My husband drinks almost exclusively those things. We also train very differently. Everyone is different, remember that. This is meant to give you an idea of where you can start and grow from there.
If you haven’t trained for a while, don’t risk the injury of jumping in at full force and speed. Start with lower miles and a slower pace. I started with 2-3 miles at a 20-23 minutes per mile pace and did this 3-4 times a week. With everything going on in my life, 40 pounds of excess energy had found its way to my body, and I needed to be sure I was staying safe while building up to my goal. I also did yoga and body weight exercises (lunges, squats, calf raises, crunches, box step-ups) 2-3 times a week. It felt good to move my body, but I wanted to do more, so I focused on enjoying the moment and being patient with where I was in my training.
Completing an ultramarathon isn’t something you want to go into unprepared, so give yourself plenty of time to build up your stamina and strength. I increased my mileage by 5%-10% each week, as I continued to do my cross training. My overall goal was time on feet. There are stabilizer muscles in your ankles and feet that you need to strengthen with walking. If you can, do your on-feet training outside. The uneven ground is ideal to help you train those tiny stabilizer muscles. You also need to make your feet tougher. I don’t let the pedicure technicians touch my callouses – which they hate.
After a few weeks, I added in other cross-training exercises, like biking and stairclimbing. I also started doing long-short days. I have 1-2 days a week where I do fewer miles at a faster pace and 1-2 days a week where I do longer miles at a slower pace. Play with what both feels good and pushes you. Never train to pain. If you are experiencing pain during training, stop. There are other ways to train that won’t be painful and you may injure yourself if you keep doing something painful – listen to your body.
Go for the Long Haul
During the last 2-3 months of training, I make sure I get in one long run each weekend. If I’m training for a 50-miler, my long run isn’t going to be 50 miles. I will work my way up to 35 (or possibly 40) miles. This is long enough for training, and you will be surprised at how well you make up the 10-15 miles difference on race day. Work your way up to the longest run by adding a few miles each week until you are able to get 2-3 weekends with your desired longest training distance. During all of this time, I’m still doing my yoga, bodyweight training, and cross-training. This may sound like a lot – because it is. Training for an ultramarathon is a commitment.
I’ll write a second blog article about race-day prep. For now, I’m going to end with this: if you really want to complete an ultramarathon, you can do it! Set a goal, reach out and ask me questions, and read other forums or blogs about it. If you want it, decide and commit. The biggest hurdle is truly deciding to do something and committing to see it through. Be patient with it and enjoy your journey of self-discovery and personal improvement in the world of ultra-races.