Once upon a time it was the aspiration of every long-distance runner to complete a marathon. Nowadays, it seems, 26.2 miles is just not far enough. The advent of ultra running as a sport in its own right has driven desire amongst runners of all abilities to push themselves further than ever before. Whether it’s 50k, 50 miles, 100k, 100 miles or more, ultra running races, especially those on trails and mountains, are proving hugely popular worldwide.
So what do you need to know about taking part in an ultra running race? We asked four ultra running experts for their top tips.
1. Don’t fantasise. Visualise
There’s no point thinking about how perfect your race is going to be and being positive to the point of fantasy. Instead it is best to visualise all the difficult moments that might occur during an ultra-distance race and how you’re going to deal with them effectively. Then, when the inevitable happens, you are mentally prepared to deal with it. This is a powerful tool in any ultra-distance athlete’s armoury. (Paul Tierney)
2. Get time on feet by hiking
Everyone has different race goals, be it to complete or compete, but crucial to all is the necessity to rack up time on feet in preparation. When it comes to trail ultras, hiking is really underrated in terms of building a good base of endurance and leg conditioning in a low-risk way. Even the very best ultra runners hike during hilly races, so it makes sense to train for this. Walking/hiking is a different movement strategy and therefore will fatigue you in a different way to continuous running. Don’t wait until race day to start your hiking training. (Paul Tierney)
3. Trust your own preparations
Don’t look or listen to what other people have done in their training. They’ll likely tell you they’ve down more miles, more ascent, more races (equals more over-training)….. but blank it out and trust your own preparations. Try not to study what other runners are wearing, what they’re carrying or talk in-depth about their fuelling plans. You already know what you like to wear, what you like to carry and what you like to eat, so don’t change your mind because someone else is doing something different! (Nicky Spinks, photographed above by James Mackeddie)
4. Pace yourself, obviously
If the pace feels too fast, then guess what? Yes, it’s too fast! Don’t get caught up racing the early speed merchants, you will only pay for it later. Slow down. However long the race is, the first third to a half is the warm-up. Let those who wish to set off fast go past you in those early stages…. more often than not you will see them again later on! Focus on yourself, your pace, your hydration and your nutrition. (Nicky Spinks)
5. Learn the course
Course knowledge is important in any ultra race, but it’s not just about making the correct turn at the junction where the trail splits. It’s also about knowing what lies ahead. It helps me so much knowing each small section of a race… this means that when things get a bit unbearable (usually at night or into the second day) you can always focus on the next section rather than the present one. It might even give you a boos – you might decide to pick up the pace and get this dreadful section done quicker! (Marcis Gubats)
6. Be prepared to spend a lot of time alone
Be ready to be on your own in grim weather conditions, often at night and sometimes on mountain tops. The best thing you can do is talk to yourself! Get motivational, get emotional, get it out there. It’s true, it’s nice to have some company and buddy-up with someone while running an ultra race, but remember you are running your own race, not someone else’s, so be prepared to go solo. (Marcis Gubats)
7. Think about your favourite budget beer!
‘Drink enough but don’t drink too much’ and ‘You should be drinking 18-24 ounces of water an hour’. I’ve heard both of these statements a hundred times and neither is wrong. Everyone is different, so it takes time – and lots of practice – to figure out when your own body is over hydrated or under hydrated. Dehydration symptoms most associated with running ultras include dizziness, dry mouth and decreased urine output. It’s important that you’re urinating as much as you would in a normal day but also consuming more water than you would in a normal day. If your urine is ever the same colour of your favorite pale ale then you’re likely in trouble, but if it’s the same colour as your favorite budget beer then you’re in the clear. Even if you’re in the clear, you should continue to consume the same amount of water, if not 15-25% more. (Avery Collins, photographed above by Howie Stern)
8. Enjoy yourself
If you’re lucky enough to be able to partake in this sport then don’t take it for granted. Enjoy every minute. You are lucky to be able to do so and it is just sport at the end of the day. So when things go wrong, learn from them and move on. (Paul Tierney)
9. Get your kit ready well in advance
Running a long way in uncomfortable running kit is a great way to turn yourself off the sport! Take the time to try different pieces of kit so that you iron out any issues well before race day. That vest-pack strap that rubs on you collar bone for an hour might not be so bad, but for 20+ hours? It’s not fun. I know shoes like the X-CLAW 275 and TERRAULTRA G 260 (see video below) work for me because I’ve done lots of miles in them. I also know that a poor fitting pair of shorts can make life hell (and possibly endanger reproduction of life). I use the AT/C TRAIL SHORTS with a nice inner lining to stay comfortable throughout long runs and races. (Paul Tierney)
10. Remember the ‘Spinks Rule of Three’
If you’re in an ultra race and you’ve thought of something three times, then in reality you’ve probably thought of it between 5 and 10 times. This is a warning sign and it’s your body telling you that it needs whatever it is you’ve been thinking about. It could be a need for food or water, to put clothes on, take clothes off, go to the loo or fix a sore spot. Don’t ignore it any longer. Stop right away and do it. (Nicky Spinks)
MEET THE EXPERTS:
Paul Tierney is a running coach and sports massage therapist. He and his partner Sarah McCormack run Missing Link Coaching. He has twice represented Ireland at the World Ultra Trail Championships and was the 2015 Lakeland 100 race winner. Paul completed the 210-mile Tor des Geants race in both 2017 and 2018 (read his 2017 race report).
Nicky Spinks is a record-breaking ultra running legend. The breast cancer survivor is the fastest person to complete a Double Bob Graham Round (132 miles, 54,000ft elevation gain) in the Lake District, England. This year she became the first person to run a Double Ramsay Round (116 miles, 57,000ft elevation gain) in Scotland’s biggest mountains. She also finished first woman at the 2-18 Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. Nicky holds ultra running coaching courses (details here).
Marcis Gubats is a Latvian ultra distance runner now living in the UK who finished 2nd at the 2107 Lakeland 100 and earlier this year won the Ultra Trail Snowdonia 100 miler.
Avery Collins is one of the world’s best ultra runners. Based out of Colorado, USA, he won this year’s notoriously tough HURT 100-Mile Endurance Run in Hawaii. This followed a 2017 year in which he also won the Grindstone 100 and placed 6th in the USA’s biggest ultra race, the Western States 100. This year his A-race was Tor des Geants, where he placed 11th. Together with his partner, Sabrina Stanley, they run Power Couple Coaching (details here).