‘Anyone can be fit. It’s being hard that’s hard’
– Gawain in “Feet in the Clouds: a Tale of Fell-running and Obsession”, by Richard Askwith
You may be thinking that Ultrarunning can’t be that hard, I mean 50k isn’t that much further than a marathon… And in some ways the transition from road marathon to Ultra isn’t that hard, if you prepare for the differences properly. The physical running training is a logical, and not too extreme, progression from a normal half or full marathon training plan. We believe that with the right training anyone that can finish a half marathon can train to run an Ultra. But an Ultra has a different set of demands. And we know it requires a holistic approach to training; preparing your body, mind and kit.
Our focus is on ensuring you are fully prepared to deal with all aspects of your Ultra challenge.
It depends is always an easy answer but, it really does depend. There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ ultra. Therefore, the first step in preparing for any event is to study the course and figure out what makes it hard; this is what you prepare for, not the ability to run X, Y, Z but your ability to endure 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 difficult moments. For us, regardless of the distance, this will include one or more of the following.
The majority of ultras will be in part, if not all, off road; this can vary from relatively easy forest trails, through to rocky mountain single track. The physical demands of off-road running are very different to running on road. Your skeleton, core and your stabilising muscles from the feet to your shoulders will take a beating if you don’t train them. If your ultra is all off road, your training focus should add in as much off-road running as possible. There are many options to build the core strength and resilience needed – strengthening your legs, feet, core and reflexes for what is to come. And we will build in exercises designed to build core strength, because if you have a weakness an Ultra is going to expose it. Trust us, before we built targeted core strength work into our own training programmes we spent a lot of time back and forth to various sports therapists. Worse still we have a list of injury related ‘Did Not Starts’ behind us!
Ultras tend to be hilly, if not mountainous. Efficient walking uphill requires training as does the transition from running to walking and back again. Getting back into a run having crested a hill is a physical and mental challenge. Finally, running downhill is a crucial skill, you will walk up most of the long hard ones, so we will build your fitness for sustaining long runs downhill; the thigh pain if you don’t train for this is ‘spectacular’!
The majority of Ultras require you to carry kit. In addition to a mandatory kit list, you’ll also need to carry food and water to get you to the finish. Running whilst carrying weight is different, it will affect your pace and potentially even the way you run. So training with weight is critical; we will build weight carrying into your long runs, and other sessions; getting you comfortable with your kit and carrying it.
Ultras have been described as a mobile eating competition. In some ways they are, nutrition is a critical factor (especially on longer 6 hour plus events), and this doesn’t just require slurping a gel every now and then. You will be carrying your own nutrition, as well as stopping to top up at checkpoints. We will focus on nutrition, getting you used to eating on the go, and learning what foods work for you and which don’t (our favourites include pork pies, cold pizza, and peanut M&Ms) – sweet and sticky stuff will lose its appeal on an ultra, I’ve been in situations where I’d do anything for plain water and a ham sandwich (so I now carry both)!
Check point ‘admin’ is important. No matter how slick you are in a checkpoint, it is getting back out the door and going again that can really hurt. (Which is why most competitors on the Winter Montane Spine race avoid getting comfortable in front of the fire at checkpoints!). Our plans will give you a chance to practice checkpoint admin, using our handy checklist as a starter, and get going out the door again after a break (usually when your legs have decided to shut down/seize up).
All of the above means that your pace will be constantly changing (see our blog on Cadence). Most people try to run a road marathon consistently, at constant pace and/or effort (Heart Rate). In an Ultra you have to be able to constantly adapt your pace. Switching efficiently ‘through the gears’ to maintain the forward momentum, measuring your effort as you go is a key skill. Training to vary your pace, to switch from run to walk to run, and to get going again after a break are all critical elements of our training plans.
No matter how well marked and marshalled an Ultra is, knowledge of basic navigation and mountain safety is essential. During an event the weather can turn, and you never know when an accident might happen, to you or others. Our supporting material includes advice on building navigation skills and an understanding of how to manage incidents on the hill. Getting you and others off the hill safely.
The Ultra community is exceptionally welcoming and friendly. However, unlike a typical road marathon, you are going to spend time on your own; there will be no cheering crowds to motivate you or hundreds/thousands of other runners surrounding you. It’s just you, the trail, and the inside of your own head…for us this is one of the greatest aspects of running Ultras; the freedom and peace. However, the solitude of running an Ultra will test your mental resilience. You will have to confront the negative voice in your own head and climb back out the other side of the mental ‘pit’. (“We could just stop now”, “we will never finish this thing”, “ this is stupid, I quit”). Our plans are designed to expose you to that solitude and push you mentally. However prepared you are, it only takes one oxygen-deprived moment for your brain to give up. And it will! This, just like everything else needs training. And, there are so many ways that we can utilise to help you control and overcome those moments.