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How to Train for an Ultramarathon

How to Train for an Ultramarathon (or a Marathon or a Fun Run).

Laugavegur Ultra Marathon

I usually shirk from “how to” posts, particularly when I am not an expert. But I had a conversation recently with a fit, young guy who had run a marathon (in a respectable 4 hours) but was ridiculously awestruck that I had run the famous Marathon des Sables ultramarathon. I tried to persuade him that anyone who can finish a marathon can step up to an ultramarathon (swap, if you like, the words ‘marathon / ultramarathon’ with ‘half marathon / marathon’ or ‘5k fun run / half marathon’).

I ran the London marathon a couple of years ago in a time of 2 hours 58 minutes. I was really pleased with this. I had trained well and the race day went to plan too. If I ran it again I could probably lop a few minutes off my time, but I don’t really feel the need to do it again. I made my 3 hour target and I ran pretty much to my full genetic potential.

Unusually for me I did a lot of research into training methods, diet and so on prior to my marathon. I distilled what worked for me here. For a good summary of cheap, effective race nutrition click here. In terms of training for a marathon you need to get good at three things:

1. Running fast
2. Running far
3. Running far, fast

You can probably add two more helpful categories:

1. Remaining injury free and supple: stretching, yoga, pilates. Definitely all very helpful, but I can never be bothered with any of them
2. Learning to suffer. Being fit is easy. It’s being hard that’s hard.

When I decided to run a sub 3-hour marathon the prospect seemed daunting. The mistake in my thinking was one I am for ever banging on about on this blog: looking at the end result, not the first tiny little step I needed to move me in the right direction. All you actually need to do is put on your trainers and go for a run.

But that is easier said than done: once the initial enthusiasm of training has worn off the only way I can keep training is by having a schedule to stick to. I printed one from the internet and stuck to it religiously. It is the only way I can stop myself believing my own excuses on those dark, cold, rainy mornings, turning over for an extra snooze, and then despising my feebleness for the rest of the day.

My training schedule was roughly the same each week, though the duration and the intensity of the sessions increased steadily. You need to do three basic types of run.

1. A slow run, two or three times a week, of gradually increasing mileage. Speed doesn’t matter: it’s about getting miles in your legs and growing accustomed to spending a long time running.
2. Once or twice a week is speed work: hill-reps (yuk), intervals round the track (yuk), bleep tests (yuk) etc.
3. Once a week is a long, fast run, building up towards being able to do long distances at your race pace. This is the most important part of marathon training and the least important for ultras.

And that’s it. Repeat all this for a few months (with a blend of increasing distances and judicious resting) and you’ll nail a marathon.

So what about the enthusiastic but doubtful fellow I met at the start of this blog? He has already run his marathon. How can he turn that into his first ultramarathon?
Putting it very simply, all that is required is more of the same. You need more mental determination to train for a longer period of time. Your long runs will build up to being longer, and I would suggest doing longish runs on consecutive days, which is not traditional in normal marathon training. Speed work is less important than long hours on your feet.

Weekends yomping through the hills carrying a heavy rucksack will be invaluable- for building strength and endurance and toughening your feet, but also for teaching you to suffer, to persevere, and not only to survive but also to thrive when you are tired, hurting and miserable. For you should not underestimate the pain factor.
During one ultra my team-mate, who should remain nameless (Andy) had such terrible chafing between his buttocks that he was in agony. The only remedy we could think of involved him squashing a banana to puree and shoving it up his bum! Desperate measures for desperate times. Do not underestimate either the power of comedy. I was also having a tough time until my nameless mate (Andy) was forced to shove a banana up his bum. I laughed till I cried and my pains were temporarily forgotten.

And that’s about it. Train long and slow, get decent shoes fitted, stretch more often than you can be bothered to stretch, be prepared to suffer, and find a way to laugh about it. If you can do that you can do the Marathon des Sables.

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  1. Graeme Posted

    Spot on. Having a plan is so important. Tried one year without a proper one and went nowhere. I was almost as impressed with myself for sticking (just about) to the plan as doing the final run itself. That last long training run though, 3 hours, in the rain, on my own, that was horrible….but massive for the confidence.

  2. Good advice Al, particularly the banana bit.

    I would just add that it’s not obligatory to run long races fast. You could train for and complete an ultra marathon without ever doing shuttles or hill-reps, which I think sometimes put people off.

  3. Great post, especially the two extra helpful categories! My old coach would say you have to learn how run when your tired. But – do you never, ever stretch?!

  4. I’m so pleased that my chafing helped you out of that tough time – all 4 of us had backpacks on, so you would have thought that someone would be carrying some vaseline!
    Great post as always Al

  5. And if you are over the hill like me, start long distance trekking and backpacking with your dogs. If you liked marathon in your heydays, you will like trekking when you are in your 40s and your dogs will love it even more 🙂

  6. Excellent advice! A worthwhile book to read about ultramarathons is “Ultramarathon Man” by Dean Karnazes.

    I believe he pops his blisters and superglues the remaining crevice, apparently works a treat!



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