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Training for your first Ultramarathon

Training for your first Ultramarathon

Thinking about diving into your first ultramarathon? You've come to a good place. Though it might appear like an intimidating endeavor, with the right preparation and training, crossing the finish line at an ultramarathon is within reach for anyone with an able body and a willingness to put in the effort. Now, let's lay down some groundwork here. This article is tailored for recreational runners who've dipped their toes into a few shorter races before.

When I first ventured into running, I was pretty much clueless. I'd clock in 2-3 miles wearing regular tennis shoes, not following any consistent routine. It was only when my feet began complaining that I decided to invest in a quality pair of running shoes from my local running store. The salesperson there observed my gait on a treadmill and helped me find the right pair. Back then, my sights were set on the Gate River Run, a 15K road race drawing in nearly 20,000 runners annually. I managed to finish that race in 1 hour and 36 minutes, but I took nearly a decade-long hiatus before toeing another starting line. Running remained part of my life for exercise and as a deterrent from falling back into unhealthy habits, though I still lacked a solid routine. I had kicked the smoking habit and running held me accountable.

Fast forward to 2016 when I accepted an opportunity to work as a producer on a documentary project centered around an ultrarunner's attempt to set a speed record on the Appalachian Trail. That marked a major turning point in my life, igniting an unquenchable fascination with individuals who cover absurd distances on foot. The ultrarunner in question was none other than Karl Meltzer, and it's his influence that propels me to write this very article. He rekindled my passion for running, and my hope is that I can kindle the same spark in someone else to pursue an ultramarathon. Believe me, that experience can be a life-changer. While I usually shy away from absolutes, I'm willing to tread the edge here.

As living proof, I'm a testament to the idea that anyone with an able body not only has the potential to complete an ultra marathon but, given the right training and motivation, might even find themselves embracing the desire to compete.

Now, let's dive into the nitty-gritty. While you could snag various training plans, some even gratis, I'd nudge you toward considering 'one on one' coaching, joining a run club, or tapping into the wisdom of a seasoned competitive runner (or better yet, all three). Personally, I went the run coach route. My first coach crafted a custom tailored plan for me, replete with weekly check-ins and necessary tweaks. Those three months of guided training marked a point of no return.

Given that everyone's built differently, there's no one-size-fits-all regimen. If you're inclined to blaze your own trail, here are some pointers to steer you:

  1. Choose Your Race: The initial step towards your ultramarathon journey involves selecting a race that aligns with your aspirations and capabilities. Account for factors such as distance, climate, altitude, terrain, location, and logistics when zeroing in on a race. I recommend kicking things off with a 50K trail race (that's 31 miles, merely 5 miles more than a marathon). Opt for a race with conditions resembling your training environment. Trust me, I learned the hard way. My first ultramarathon was a DNF because I picked a race diametrically opposite to my training conditions, stubbornly ignoring advice to the contrary.

  2. Build a Solid Foundation on Softer Surfaces: Prior to delving into ultramarathon training, it's crucial to establish a robust foundation of running fitness. This is paramount, and I can't emphasize it enough. Consistency is your golden ticket to unlocking your running potential. Start with about 30 minutes of easy jogging, 5-6 days a week. Sustain this for a few weeks before extending your runs to 45 minutes each. Once you find yourself consistently hitting the 20-25 miles per week mark without injuries, it's time to up the ante.

  3. Integrate Strength Training: Besides running, it's essential to incorporate strength training into your regimen. This not only bolsters your overall strength and endurance but also curbs the risk of injuries. Focus on exercises that target the muscles pivotal for running. Don't go overboard on the weights; simplicity is key. If strength training isn't your cup of tea, aim for elevation gain. If hills aren't your geographical reality, try cranking up the treadmill incline. In Florida, I've tackled bridges, dunes, stairs, beaches, and overpasses. Any form of uphill repetition will fortify your mental resilience as well.

  4. Gradually Amp Up Your Mileage: With your foundation set, gradually ramp up your weekly mileage. The goal is to increase by around 10% per week. Schedule rest days to allow for proper recovery. Bear in mind that you're not just logging time on your feet; these miles will eventually culminate in that 31-mile ultramarathon dash. Aim to peak around 40-45 miles per week before initiating the taper (some runners rely on a weekly long run in their training, if this fits your style, work up to a 20 plus mile long run before your taper)—a gradual 2-3 week reduction in weekly miles leading up to your race to aid recovery.

  5. Practice Fueling and Hydration: Proper fueling and hydration are non-negotiable for ultramarathon success. During your training, experiment with various strategies to identify what suits you best. This could entail carrying a hydration pack or hand held water bottle, using energy gels, or munching on real food mid-run. Don't overlook electrolytes and sodium intake to stave off cramps.

  6. Equip Yourself with the Right Gear: The correct gear can significantly impact your comfort and performance during an ultramarathon. Invest in a couple of quality pairs of trail running shoes (rotate them during training), moisture-wicking attire, specialized running socks, anti-chafe solutions, a hydration vest, belt, or handheld flask, and a reliable running lamp.

By following these steps, you're well on your way to conquering your inaugural ultramarathon. Remember to heed your body's signals, respect the distance, and relish the journey. Ultramarathons, despite their challenges, deliver an unparalleled sense of accomplishment upon crossing that finish line. Your transformation from running rookie to ultramarathon finisher is bound to be a remarkable story in itself. 

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