The human body is an incredible machine, and a certain breed of athlete out there will always find ways to push the capabilities of this machine to previously unimaginable levels. Ultramarathon events are one such means of drawing out the ultimate in human performance.
These races have become increasingly popular in the last few decades, with participation increasing steadily. Not just from competitive athletes, but for those who strive for the highest levels of personal accomplishment, at least in the physical realm!
Ultramarathons are held all over the world, in every type of extreme location and terrain. This article will give you a look into the world of ultramarathon, and give you an example ultra run training program if you’re thinking about getting into the sport yourself.
What is an Ultramarathon?
An ultramarathon is any running event which exceeds the distance of a traditional marathon, which is 26.2 miles (42 kilometers).
This can be anything from a 50K (31 miles) race such as the ’Volcanic 50’ at Mt St Helens in Washington State, to ‘The Badwater’, a monster 135-mile run through Death Valley - in the middle of summer!
Some ultramarathons are measured in time, rather than distance. An example is the ‘Self-Transcendence Race’ in Kladno, Czech Republic; a 48-hour event in which the athlete who covers the most ground is claimed the victor.
Another element that differentiates ultramarathons is the terrain. Because of the vast distances covered, these events are often held on a combination of pavement, dirt roads, and rough track. The course layouts vary from point-to-point, to loops consisting of one or more laps.
Ultramarathons involve battling the elements, including elevation through hills and mountains, fluctuating weather patterns and altitudes, and in some cases running in these conditions during the night.
Clearly, this sport is not for the faint of heart! Which begs the question…
Who Can Run an Ultramarathon?
The main factors that differentiate ultra runners from even traditional marathoners are their average age and training volume. Ultramarathoners are typically aged 35-45, and female athletes account for around 20% of race finishers.
Studies analyzing these athletes show that the most successful in this sport have 6-7 years of ultra running experience, and their training includes more kilometers than marathon training, albeit performed at a slower average pace.
Although competition considerations will include factors such as shoes, gear, and even the inclusion of a support crew in your race plan, research has shown that these elements only account for 2% of performance in these races.
This is supported by other data which suggests that ultra-marathoners’ success is critically and possibly only dependent on acquiring the largest VO2 Max possible. This is also intrinsically tied to an athlete’s BMI, which has a significant association with Ultramarathon finish times.
An Ultramarathon is not something you can just ‘turn up’ for. These events often require qualification through achieving certain results at other events, and others are only accessible through an invitation, being drawn from a lottery, or joining a waitlist up to a year in advance.
This will give you plenty of time to train! Which leads us into…
Ultramarathon Training Considerations
Ultramarathon training plans will vary depending on the event you plan on competing in. But for any ultra event, here are the main considerations for your preparation and competition in an ultramarathon.
An ultramarathon is one of the most mentally and physically demanding events an athlete can attempt. Setting goals is essential to keep yourself focused and engaged during the long hours of training and competing.
Some example short and long-term goals include:
- Keep my heart rate under X bpm for the first half of the race
- Set reminders to stay focused on my footing to avoid injury
- Walkthrough hydration stations to reset mentally and ensure proper fluid intake
Study the event you are training for, focusing on the climate and weather, the terrain and elevations, and the time of day, including any night time running. Simulate these conditions as closely as possible in your training.
Nutrition and Hydration
Plan and implement a nutrition strategy that allows you to maintain the ideal body composition and optimally utilize carbohydrates and fats as fuel for your running.
On race day, aim to consume 150-400 calories per hour. Experiment during training with which foods allow you to continue with minimal gastrointestinal discomfort.
Fluid volumes of 450-750 mL per hour are recommended during ultramarathons. For a more general guide to hydration for athletes, check out this article.
Studies show the main ailments afflicting ultramarathoners are injuries of the ankle or knee, nausea and vomiting, muscle pain, and blisters. Check out this guide for tips on how to avoid injury during endurance training.
50K Training Plan for Marathon Level Athletes
This Ultramarathon training plan 50K is an example of a program that would be appropriate to begin after completing a recent marathon. It includes a lower intensity ‘recovery’ period for the first few weeks before building the volume towards an ultra distance.
This template could also be used as a 50-mile training plan if you simply replace the distances from kilometers to miles. Obviously, you’ll need to take into consideration that 50 miles is 80 kilometers so play with this formula to make it suit you and the event you are training for.
This program is divided into six months, and each month will be three weeks progression followed by a fourth ‘tapering’ week to recover before moving on to the next month.
Each month broken down looks like this:
For the long Day 6 runs, you can run until you complete either the target distance or the time. While the distances will follow the progression protocol explained above, the time will stay the same each week of that month, and you should instead try to improve the distance covered in that period by increasing your average pace.
Remember to include some varying inclines and terrain types into your training to mimic the conditions of your event as closely as possible. If you need to simulate hotter temperatures with added layers of clothing, or practice running at night, make sure to do so during your training in a safe and controlled manner to prepare you for the big event.
If you notice any signs of undue fatigue or overtraining, don't hesitate to add more recovery time, repeat a month, or even regress a month. A great way to avoid muscle fatigue during your training is combining it with breathing training to stimulate the oxygen flow to the muscles. With a professional breathing trainer, you can boost your athletic performance even further!
The final weeks of month 6 should finish one to two weeks before your event. The amount of training or recovery you wish to undertake before the actual race is up to personal preference. Some athletes like to continue training right up to the event to maintain momentum, while others perform at their best with a recovery week with only very light training and stretching before the race.
Let us know which ultramarathon you’d like to compete in below in the comments!