Ultra Marathon Training

Marathons are the “ultimate” goal for many runners. But there’s a core group of runners that believe the marathon isn’t long enough; not enough of a challenge. They feel the need to go longer, sometimes A LOT LONGER! These are different runners, not your average 10 K weekend racer. And although they are fiercely competitive, the camaraderie of ultra-marathoners is legendary. The support for fellow runners during an ultra extends further than any other running event. But what does ultra marathon training involve?

What Is An Ultra Marathon?

A marathon is 26 miles 385 yards long. An ultra-marathon is any event longer. Typically, 30 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles. There are other distances, but those are the most popular. There are also timed events: 12 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, and even multi day-races. Some are run on roads, some on trails, and some (mainly timed events) on a track.

Why Do An Ultra Marathon?

For some it’s the challenge of going even longer. For others it’s the challenge discovering personal limits, then breaking them. And others have mastered the marathon and need bigger more challenging events.
Whatever your reason for embarking on this grueling challenge….you’re certain to learn two things about yourself: #1) Your level of commitment to running, and #2) Your personal limits….both mental and physical.

How to Train for an Ultra Marathon

Just about anyone can finish a marathon. Finishing an ultra-marathon isn’t as certain. Besides the planning, training and commitment, you must be physically and mentally strong enough to complete both the ultra marathon training and the race itself. You’ll also need to adapt to the concept of taking in nutrition while ultra marathon training and during the race. Simple energy gels and electrolyte replacement drinks won’t cut it when you’re running for 5-24 or more hours.
Before you begin your ultra marathon training, you need to have at least 3 consistent years of running experience. You should also have completed at least 3 marathons. Your marathon finishing times aren’t important.
Next, select a race and set a personal goal. Your goal may be just finishing the distance, completing the distance within a certain time, or racing to finish in the top ten. Unless you’re a very experienced marathoner, your goal should be just to finish.
Give yourself about a year to prepare. If you’ve been running marathons regularly, you can prepare in less time – say 6 months. But it’s always better to allow more time. You never know when an ankle will sprain, work will be calling, or your family needs a little extra attention. These are normal training disruptions that people usually don’t factor into their training. Generally, training for an ultra-marathon is similar to marathon training; however, both your long run and total weekly mileage increase.
There are 5 physiological phases to ultra marathon training: Base Building, Strength Building, Speed Building, Taper/Race and Recovery. From your race date, work backwards to allow 2-3 weeks to taper prior to your race. Speed Building is 6-8 weeks. But, if you’re attempting your first ultra, or you’re doing an ultra just to finish and not for time or place, this phase can be eliminated – adding half the time to the Base Building and half to the Strength Building phases. The Strength Building phase is 8 weeks. Make the Base Building phase in your ultra marathon training as long as possible.

Base Building Phase

During the Base Building phase of your ultra marathon training you develop cardiovascular and pulmonary function. This phase focuses on improving your ability to transport oxygen. The workouts during this ultra marathon training phase are characterized by increasing the amount of time / distance you’re running. Gradually increase your weekly mileage, and increase the distance of your long run. This phase should be the longest of your training. It should last at least 12 weeks and possibly up to 16 weeks.
The Base Building phase is all about building aerobic fitness. Run the same weekly mileage for at least 2 weeks before increasing your mileage. Only advanced runners should do a long run every week. All others should do one long run every 2 or 3 weeks.
You shouldn’t race during the Base Building phase. If you choose to race, your effort shouldn’t exceed 85% of maximum heart rate. You shouldn’t take time off, either before or after a race during the Base Building phase.
Work in 4-week cycles. Week 1 is your “base” week. In week 2 increase your weekly mileage by about 10%. In week 3 increase the distance of your long run, but keep the total weekly mileage the same as week 2. Week 4 is your recovery week – return to “base” week mileage.
This plan gives you 4 long runs, from 20 to 30 miles during a 16- week period, which will prepare you to finish your first ultra marathon. If you’re an experienced marathoner, you may increase that number by adding a long run on your “mileage” week – increase the long run that week to the same distance as your “long” week.
Very experienced runners may also add a back-to-back long weekend. Run a long run on Saturday and another long run on Sunday. (Don’t attempt this unless you’re an experienced runner who has finished many marathons.)

Goals Of The Base Building Phase of Ultra Marathon Training:

  • Build cardiovascular and muscular endurance.
  • Increase aerobic fitness.
  • Increase weekly mileage.
  • Increase length of long run.
  • Improve VO2 max.

Strength Building Phase of Ultra Marathon Training

You build muscle during the Strength Building phase. During this phase you increase the number of muscle fibers in your leg muscles, as well as the mitochondria and enzymes needed to breakdown lactates during exercise. The Strength Building phase focuses on your ability to produce energy. It also raises your lactate threshold. Workouts during this phase are characterized by hills – hill running and hill drills. Getting stronger is your goal during this time. The Strength Building phase should last about 8 weeks.
If your ultra is on a very hilly course, you may want to increase the number of weeks in this phase to 12. If you’re an experienced runner (if you’ve been running for over 3 years without injury, or have completed 3 marathons), start doing hills (strength building) in the second half of the Base phase. Do one hill workout per week after the first 2 weeks of the Base Building phase. You can do up to two hill workouts per week during the Base Building phase, but don’t do a second hill workout if you’re running a race that weekend.
Coaching legend Arthur Lydiard emphasized the importance of hill training. Lydiard had all his athletes, from marathoners like Barry Magee, 5,000m runner Murray Halberg, to 800m runners like Peter Snell, run hills during both the Base Building and Strength Building phases of their training. Don’t increase your weekly mileage during the Strength Building phase, and the length of your long run should remain constant through this phase. Increase the number of hill workouts you do each week, as well as the number of hill repeats you do each session. Don’t do more than 3 hill workouts per week and no more than 12 hill repeats per workout.
You can race during the Strength Building phase. If you choose to race, reduce the number of hill workouts by one during race week. You shouldn’t require time off, either before or after a race during the Strength Building phase.

Ultra Marathon Training – Lactate Threshold Workouts

Hill training is an excellent form of a lactate threshold (LT) workout. The purpose of this workout is to build muscles, develop extra capillaries and improve the energy production system in your muscles. It’s designed to raise your heart rate up to 95% for at least 2 minutes at a time, then allow your heart rate to drop down between the hard efforts. Start with four 2-minute hard efforts and increase that number each week. Running hills is the best way to raise your heart rate. Don’t worry about speed during these hard efforts.

Ultra Marathon Hill Training

Hill training consists of hill running and hill drills. Hill Training isn’t as hard on your body (specifically your legs) since running uphill is less jarring. Research has shown that periods of near maximum heart rate effort for 2-6 minutes produce optimal gains, and hill training produces significant gains in four key measures:

    • Improved running economy.
    • Increased VO2 max.
    • Improved VO2 max (running speed at VO2max).
    • Increased lactate threshold (the ability of muscles to clear lactate from the blood).


Ultra Marathon Training – Hill Running:

Find a hill that’s reasonably steep – around 6% grade is perfect. It should take you at least 2 minutes to run up the hill. Focus on your body position going up the hill and going down the hill. On the way up: shorten your stride slightly, increase your knee lift and arm action, and run up on your toes – getting a good push from your hips, knees and especially your ankles and toes. On the way down the hill: lengthen your stride slightly by increasing your follow-through (high foot in the back of your stride; drop your hands so they’re near your hips / waist; lean down the hill; focus on landing on the midfoot or forefoot, not on your heel (which will cause a braking action and tremendously increase the impact as you run down the hill.)
Run the hill emphasizing lift off the ground. It’s not as important to run fast up the hills as it is to run with good form and a powerful stride. Your heart rate should be at or near maximum when you reach the top of the hill.
After running up the hill, turn around and run down the hill. This is your recovery period, so run relaxed and allow your legs to stretch out. Allow gravity to carry you down the hill, don’t accelerate when running down the hill – remember this is your recovery.

Ultra Marathon Training – Hill Drills:

Hill drills are done at a slow pace. The goal is to get lift off the ground and not to move forward at a rapid pace. Your progress up the hill should be slow. It should take up to 6 minutes to reach the top of the hill. All drills should be performed SLOWLY!
Bounding: Elongate your stride and emphasize arm action. Focus on getting off the ground. Think of jumping over puddles with a long stride.
Skipping: Skip slowly up the hill, emphasizing knee lift and arm action. Focus on getting high off the ground.
Springing: Emphasize knee lift and getting high up off the ground. Don’t emphasize forward movement. Think of jumping over logs.
The Strength Building phase should last for at least 6 weeks, but no more than 12 weeks.

Goals Of The Strength Building Phase:

    • Build muscular strength.
    • Increase capillary beds.
    • Build mitochondria.
    • Improve lactate enzyme response.
    • Raise lactate threshold.
    • Maintain aerobic fitness.
    • Maintain and increase VO2max.
    • Maintain cardiovascular and muscular endurance.
    • Maintain base mileage and distance of long workouts.


Ultra Marathon Training – Speed Building Phase

Only experienced ultra-marathoners should try a Speed Building phase. Even experienced ultra-marathoners that aren’t attempting to “race” an ultra-marathon, including those that are looking to improve their time, would do well to skip the Speed building phase.
If you do use this phase, maintain your long runs, reduce your weekly mileage slightly and add time trials and races as speed work. Conventional speed work is inappropriate for ultra-marathoners. Instead, on weeks you don’t do a long run, run a race – 10K or longer – or do a time trial – again, 10K or longer. Your longest race or time trial, will depend on two factors. First is your ability to run a race at less than maximum effort. If you’re capable of racing at 85-90% of maximum effort, races will help you. If you do them at a greater effort, they’ll hurt you by limiting your ability to train after the race. The second factor is your ability to recover after a hard effort. If you need 2 or 3 days off after a race, don’t race. You’ll lose too much training time, and jeopardize your ultra marathon. {To speed up your recovery and stay on the road after your hard efforts, pay close attention to NUTRITION AND FUELING. (below)}

Most Important Factors In Preparing For Your First Ultra Marathon

The keys to successfully preparing for your first ultra-marathon are: 1. Long Runs. Time on your feet. You need to adapt to spending long periods of time on your feet and moving forward. Longer runs (>4 hrs.) can be broken up with walking breaks. In fact, learning to walk and then run again is a key to success in ultra-marathons.
2. Hills! Hills! Hills! Whether your goal race is hilly or not, the more hills you do in training, the stronger you’ll be and the better prepared for your ultra.
3. Middle Distance Workout. The weekend run on weeks you don’t do a long run (distance weeks) is very important. If the run is around 15 miles, you’ll get an excellent workout, and you’ll recover quickly from it. You can run this distance as a tempo run.
4. Your Ultra Marathon Training Speed Will Be Your Racing Speed. Don’t let your long runs drag on for hours. Keep your pace up. When doing your long runs, don’t let your pace slow down to a shuffle.

Pre-Workout / Race Nutrition

There are two parts of pre-workout / race nutrition. First are the 2 weeks prior to a race, and the second is the morning of the race.

2 weeks prior:

    • Avoid caffeine, diet sodas and alcohol.
    • Maintain an adequate balance of electrolytes by taking in sports drinks as well as plain water for hydration.
    • Increase fluid intake. Be sure that your urine is a light yellow.
    • Slightly increase carbohydrates. Maintain a 60% carbohydrate / 40% protein ratio. Don’t worry about a depletion / loading cycle.
    • Don’t try anything new in terms of diet or fluid intake.
    • Be well rested. Getting a good night’s sleep two nights before the race is more important than the night before the race.


Morning Of The Race :

    • Have your last meal 3 hours prior to the start: 75 – 100 grams of carbohydrates (complex carbohydrates / maltodextrins).
    • Drink 10 – 12 ounces of fluid each hour during the 2 – 3 hours before your race, up to 30 minutes prior to the start.


Race / Workout – Fueling & Nutrition

    • 15 minutes after you start, begin fueling. This helps your blood sugar and insulin levels adjust to your exercise.
    • Maintain fluid intake throughout the race. Your body can absorb no more than 28 oz. / hour. Remember it’s critical to supplement with electrolytes to avoid hyponatermia.
    • Your body can absorb up to a maximum of 240 – 280 carbohydrate calories / hour into the energy cycle.
    • Carbohydrates / complex sugars such as Maltodextrin (18 – 24% solution) are preferred because more calories pass into the blood faster than with simple sugars (6 – 8% solution). Studies have shown that simple sugars result in blood sugar levels below even fasting levels.
    • For events longer than 1 hour, supplement with protein along with carbohydrates. Use a 1:4 ratio (p:c) to increase energy levels, and decrease muscle breakdown.
    • Continue to supplement electrolytes, especially during hot and or humid weather. You should use a buffered electrolyte supplement containing sodium, potassium and magnesium.


Post-Workout / Race Nutrition

    • Immediately begin to replenish fluids.
    • Within 30 minutes of finishing, consume 10-20 grams of protein.
    • Within 30 minutes of finishing, consume 250-350 calories of carbohydrates (or more). Research has shown there’s a 2-hour window during which your body will absorb the protein and carbohydrates lost during exercise. The first 30 minutes of this window are the most critical. Your body will absorb 100% of the carbohydrates and proteins it needs during the first 30 minutes. The level of absorption decreases as the 2-hour window progresses.

To read more about recovering after a marathon click here

Chill Out In An Ice Bath

Take an ice bath – from your hips down – after every hard workout, long run or race. This will reduce intra-muscular fluids and swelling and close down capillaries. It also reduces post-exercise soreness and eliminates delayed onset muscle soreness. Fill the bathtub with enough water to cover you up to your naval, then dump in enough ice cubes to cover the bottom of the tub. Sit in the ice cold water for 10 minutes. Initially the shock of sitting in the cold water will take your breath away, but within a few minutes you’ll become numb to the cold.

Training for and participating in an ultra-marathon can be an immensely satisfying experience that will give you a tremendous sense of accomplishment. If you trained adequately, maintained good nutritional habits and were physically and mentally prepared, your first ultra will be the precursor to many more!