50 Tips You Need To Know Before Running Your First Ultramarathon

What would it take to run an ultra? Is it really that different from a marathon? Can you do it?

50 Tips You Need To Know Before Running Your First Ultramarathon

So. You've run a 5k. You've run a 10k and a half-marathon.

You've even tackled that most-venerable-of-events, the full-freaking marathon.

But you want more.

You know ultras are nuts and you fully understand that the people who run them are nuts.

Bonkers. Bananas. But you're curious.

What would it take to run an ultra? Is it really that different from a marathon? Can you do it?

No... Maybe. Yes, you know you can do it!

You wonder how it might change you. This post is for the ultra-curious – for those of you who are ready to go into the unknown (*cue Elsa*) and find out what you’re made of. 

Welcome to the ultra marathon of listicles!

1. It’s all about that base 

Before you decide on your distance (50k, 50 miles,100k,100 miles) – before you even dream about which ultramarathon you’ll run or where you’ll travel – you need to build your base. Depending on your level, this phase could take 6 months, or you might already be there. Aim for 5-7 runs per week, and make a 3-hour run feel easy-peasy.

2. Build a sandcastle 

Every bit of training matters, even if you don’t see it. Every run, squat, crunch, or cronut matters. The tiny decisions you make each day regarding your training and your health will add up over time to make you successful (or not) as an ultramarathoner.

3. Know your “why” and be relentless

Why are you doing this? If you don’t know – don’t do it. 45 miles into your 100k you will need that reason to keep you going. If it isn’t strong enough, what reason will you have to keep going?

4. The mind will quit before the body

The brain’s purpose is bodily preservation, but your body is meant to endure. Your brain will inevitably tell you that this ultramarathon will kill you – it won’t (probably). Keep going. Don’t listen to your brain.

5. Train yo’ brain

Your brain is a body part. Train it like you would any other. You can practice this at any time, not just in physical training. Dying of boredom in an office meeting? Practice endurance. Losing miserably in a game of Scrabble? Practice positivity. It’s not over ‘till it’s over. Every life experience can be training for your ultramarathon, if you let it.

6. Visualize (don’t fantasize)

Imagine how horrid mile 47 will feel. DON’T fantasize about how great that beer at the end will taste. Visualize how you will get through that excruciating pain. Remember your why.

7. Train with specificity

You’re not training for a 5k. This doesn’t mean that you won’t do any speedwork, but it does mean that you’ll adapt your training to match your goals. Whether you’re training for a 50k or a 100 mile race, there will be a specific plan to follow. Check out: (LINK BOOK) for some training ideas! 

8. Don’t fear speed work

Even though you’ll be running slowly in your ultramarathon, speedwork makes you stronger. Strong runners endure. Don’t shy away from weekly strides or hill sprints to increase your efficiency, thereby increasing your ability to endure.

9. Every run has a purpose

Easy runs easy. Workouts hard. Take your recovery as seriously (or more seriously!) as your workouts. The better recovered you are, the better workouts you’ll have, and the fitter you’ll get.

10. Train with another noob

Train with someone you can commiserate with. Someone who won’t judge your “silly” questions or newb revelations (“Eeek! My toenails are black!”).

11. Train with a veteran

Train with someone who you can commiserate with. Someone who you can ask those questions, and whose sage experience you can learn from.

12. Strength train

Strong runners are efficient runners, and efficient runners endure. The more efficient you become, the less energy it takes to run smoothly. Strength training, whether through yoga or various forms of weightlifting, will increase your efficiency and help prevent injuries.

13. High volume training

Again, you’re not training for a 5k. You should expect to feel tired every day. High-volume training looks different for everyone, but that cumulative fatigue you build up putting in work day after day is what allows you to endure on race day.

14. Back-to-back long runs

Everyone’s schedule is different. You probably won’t have time (and your body might not handle) a thirty-mile training run in preparation for your ultra. Most likely, though, you’ll at some point have two days in a row that you can fit in some good work. To simulate the fatigue you’ll feel toward the end of an ultra, try running 20 miles on a Saturday, and then 25 more on Sunday!

15. Listen to your body

Training for an ultramarathon requires an unparalleled level of in-tuneness with your body that allows you to understand when it is appropriate to push through the pain, and when it’s time to rest. Practice mindful attention to each little ache and pain. With experience, you’ll learn the difference. 

16. Eat well

Some runners prefer a vegetarian diet, others champion a life of burgers and beers. Find what works for you, or talk to a registered dietician. Whatever your nutrition routine, get enough calories. “Overeating” is a much better option than under eating when training for an ultra. 

17. Sleep well

Your body only produces HGH (Human Growth Hormone), the key to recovery, when you’re asleep! Aim for 7-9 hours per night if you can. The most privileged among us just might be able to sneak in a mid-day power nap. If you can, do it!

18. Prioritize your mental health

I’ll say it again: your brain is a body part. If you have any control over the stressors in your life, cut them out. If not, perhaps practice mindfulness or incorporate a self-care routine into your already busy life. In caring for your mental health, your physical health will improve immensely. 

19. Practice your fueling strategy

Part of your training should be figuring out which fuels work for you. What makes your     stomach ache, and what sounds desirable 3 hours into a run. Practice fueling during your long runs so that it becomes second nature and no longer an option. 

20. Time on feet is key

For long runs, don’t worry so much about pace. Enjoy the time on your feet. Covering 15 miles in two and a half hours is not necessarily more beneficial than covering 15 miles in three hours. Long hikes can be excellent supplemental workouts as well.  

21. Train on terrain and in climate similar to that of your race

Roads and trails are a world apart and require different gear, training, and mindset. Make sure that your training runs (at least most of them) mimic the conditions that you’ll meet on race day.

22. Practice downhill running

Most runners practice running uphill with hill repeats or hard runs on hilly terrain, but few realize the impact downhill running has on your muscles (especially your quads). Uphill running will always be hard, but running downhill doesn’t have to be. 

23. Positive Self-Talk 

Whether you think that you can or think that you can't, you're usually right. Why not tell yourself that you can do it and see what happens!

24. Things never always get worse

An ultramarathon is long (duh). There will be very low lows, but keep going. It’ll get better again (maybe). 

25. Don't do math. Just don't.

When you’re struggling to make it through a 100 mile training week, don’t stop and think about the fact that you’ll be attempting to run 100 miles in one go.  Don't even think about potentially running a sub 30 minute 5k just to make it under 15 hours to the next aid station so you can finish a 100 miles under 24 hours!  You probably just tripped on a root just thinking, so just don’t! 

26. Taper, but don’t overdo it

Your body comes to expect the routine you create for it. If you are used to running 90 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening, that’s what your body will expect. When tapering, try to get up and get moving at the same times you usually do, but with much less volume and intensity so that your body still knows what to expect.

27. Choose your gear wisely

Find what works for you and, on race day, DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING. 

28. Always double check your equipment

Even more than you don’t want to be out on the trail without fuel, you don’t want to be stuck out on the trail in the dark with dead batteries in your headlamp. Always pack for the worst, you never know when you might need that extra layer or powerbank.

29. Vert is not real

A secret tip from the elites and flat earthers when cruising up those inclines, it’s all in your mind.  Vert is simply fake news. 

30. Take care of your feet

Bring extra socks. Keep your feet dry. Be prepared for blisters, and know what to do when you encounter them. What begins as a mere flesh wound can become excruciating after hours on the trail.

31. Lube every inch of you that rubs together, and frequently reapply.

Self explanatory. Squirrel's Nut Butter #sponsoreme

32. Fuel early and often

On race day, start out with a full tank. It doesn’t feel great to start a run on a full stomach, but your body will thank you. Take in something at each aid station, even when you don’t feel like it. 

33. If you think you’re going too slow, you’re probably going too fast

From an outsider’s perspective, the start of an ultra is pretty hilarious. All these skinny, muscular runners looking geared up and ready to go. Then, the gun goes off and they walk-shuffle-jog off the line looking not much like runners at all. Those shufflers, they’re doing it exactly right!

34. Walk before you need to

As with fueling, you won’t feel like walking at first. Do it anyway. Conserve your energy up big hills, especially, and you’ll be able to make it to the end of the race. 

35. Beware the Chäir

Don’t be tempted by a good time by sitting down or you’ll never get back up again!

36. Be stubborn as a mule

Remember all those people who said you couldn’t do it? Remember them when the going gets tough. 

37. You do YOU. Don’t worry about anyone else.

Did that really tough looking chick just skip the mile 13 aid station? Should I skip it too? Maybe I can be as badass as she is! Nope! If your plan was to drink at every aid station, do not change that plan for anyone else - no matter how badass they look. 

38. Remember you're never "almost there"

No matter what anyone tells you.  Do not believe it when they say "you're almost there!"  It doesn't matter if it's the next aid station or if it's the finish line, you have to keep on moving.

39. If you want to do something you've never done, you've got to be someone you've never been.

You will not cross that finish line the same person you were when you left the starting line. 

40. The finish line isn't running to you.

Echoing an age old mantra by many Ultra running legends, "Keep going."

41. Liquid calories are your friend when it’s hot or at altitude and your stomach is rejecting solid food.

Ultra hack: Flat coke is a go-to favorite for its good taste and high sugar content. 

42. Pickle Juice

There’s just something about it that’s hard to describe unless you’ve experienced cold pickle juice on a hot day a couple hours into an ultra.  It also carries a generous amount of electrolytes and the taste is mesmerizing.

43. Minimize the lows, maximize the highs.

Focus on the positives. Maybe this goes without saying, but celebrate the small victories. Made it to that aid station? Awesome! Celebrate with some pickle juice and get going. 

44. Stay present and never dwell on the gap

Similar to “don’t math ever,” staying in the moment and focusing on each step can get you through a tough patch in a race.  Come to think of it, everytime i’m not in the moment something usually happens like stubbing my toe or I get lost.

45. When going through hell, keep going.

In a long race you’re guaranteed some hellish moments where you start doubting your abilities.  And to some, this is why we sign up.  We want to make it through these moments despite our state (mental or physical), and the only way to do so is by simply taking the next step.

46. Surround yourself with a good crew

Whether it’s family, non-running friends, training partners, or your literal crew, the people in your life can make or break your ultrarunning journey.

47. Pizza Rolls at aid stations and a 22 oz IPA close to the finish

There are some things that can make ultra running much more bearable and its the little things that a crew chief or an aid station does for their runners.  Yes, that might mean some of your favorite snacks to look forward to.  Strategically placed, these can be a true carrot on the stick.

48. Problem solving

You never know what you might encounter on the trail, so stay sharp. This is another reason to stay fueled, as your brain requires plenty of calories to work properly. 

49. Rule of threes

If you’ve thought of something three times you need to take care of it. If you think three times that you might be thirsty - drink. If you notice three times that your shoe is a little tight, bend down and fix it.

50. It’s just running – have fun!

No matter your results, your crew will be there by your side. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and, remember, this is FUN! 


Conclusion

If you’ve made it through this ultramarathon of listicles, you’re more than ready to begin your training! Or, at the very least, to begin building your base. Let us know if this list was helpful, and, if you’re a veteran, comment below if you’ve got any other tips for beginning ultramarathoners!