What is Ultra Running? | Everything You Need to Know
A beginner's guide to the ultimate endurance sport.
Ultra-running simply refers to any running distance above marathon distance, i.e. 26.2 miles. Generally speaking, ultra-marathons will usually be a minimum of 50km or 31 miles. With ultra-running books like Christopher McDougall’s bestselling Born to Run, now widely available, myths about the harmful effects of running long distances to humans have been dispelled. Instead, it is now commonly believed that the human body is more than capable of taking on ultra-distance running, and so the popularity of such events has grown substantially in recent years.
Ultra-running and ultra-marathon events are no longer reserved for elite endurance athletes, they now attract runners of a wide range of abilities. Here are a few essential things you need to know about ultra-running if you are thinking about going the distance.
1) You will run at a much slower pace
When you embark on a regular road running marathon, you will generally know the exact pace at which you will run as you will have followed a regimented training plan. Ultra-running is a little less predictable than running a marathon. For starters, a large chunk of ultra-marathon races take place on the trail, meaning that the terrain can often be far from predictable.
Secondly, you need to adjust your pace to cope with the additional distance. Few ultra-runners will race out of the blocks, instead they will take off at a relaxed pace to ensure they have enough in the tank to get them all the way to the finish line.
2) The training isn’t as hectic as you think
Training for a marathon is intense. A training plan filled with tempo runs, intervals and long runs will no doubt adorn your fridge door for 6 months, haunting you slightly every time you reach for the milk. However, due to the less rigid format of an ultra-marathon, your training can afford to be a little more ad hoc. As a general rule, the most important thing you can do to prepare yourself for an ultra-distance race is to spend lots of time on your feet.
"Ultra-running is a little less predictable than running a marathon."
Of course you will need to get your long-runs in, but any time you spend on your feet will help to build your staying power – so start walking places instead of taking the bus, take the stairs instead of the lift and volunteer to do the coffee runs in work! With regard to your run-specific training, it is always a good idea to build your distances up over time. Incorporating tempo and hill work into your runs will also prove hugely beneficial when it comes to building your strength and endurance for ultra-running.
3) Walking is definitely acceptable
Walking during an ultra-marathon is nothing to be ashamed of – you will often see competitors walking up mountains in order to conserve energy. In the longer races, you will even see people using trekking poles in order to taking some of the pressure of tough terrain off the body.
4) Good running shoes are essential for ultra-running
Your running shoes are the most important piece of ultra-running kit that you can invest in. Look at the type of ultra-running you are doing (trail or road), your running style and your foot shape and choose your shoe accordingly. Running shoes will not last forever, and while they may look ok, if you have racked up a lot of miles, it is probably time to invest in a new pair. Opinions vary in terms of the amount of miles you should run in one pair of shoes, but a lot of people believe you need to buy a replacement when you hit the 500-mile mark.
5) Ultra-marathons will all be tough but some are a lot tougher than others
When you hear the word ultra-marathon you immediately think of iconic races like the Marathon des Sables. However, not everyone wants to spend 6 days trekking across a desert while paying £2,000 for the pleasure, and that’s ok. As previously mentioned ultra-running races range in distance and difficulty hugely. If you are starting out, why not opt to take on a relatively flat 50km course? I bet you won’t find it as difficult as you think it is.
6) Be prepared for blisters and wobbly toe nails
While running long distances has proved to have its benefits to your physical well-being, there are a couple of downsides that you should prepare yourself for. As you up your distances you will most likely begin to suffer blisters, pressure under the toe nails and you might even lose the odd toe nail too. However, the more you fall in love with the sport, the less you become concerned with these minor mishaps, the pain is always worth the feeling of reward.
7) The bragging rights make the pain worthwhile
A marathon is nothing to brag about when you’ve done an ultra-marathon. Believe me, your kudos in the office will soar when you arrive in on a Monday morning and slip casually into conversation the fact that you smashed an ultra-marathon over the weekend!