How to Train for an Ultramarathon

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The image above captures the romantic idea of training for an ultra. Not every long run is filled with golden sunrises, rainbows and lollipops.  But, for me, quite honestly, most of them are:).  That is likely why I continue to return to tackle the challenge of training for endurance events again and again.  I feel grateful to have the 'half full' gene which makes every challenge seem achievable and every obstacle seem smaller.  Ultra running is 99% mental- and your perspective will ensure your success or your failure.  As they say, 'Whether you think you can or think you can't...you're right."  

Here are my unedited thoughts on how to train for an ultra marathon in no particular order.  A random stream of consciousness, straight from my brain on the trail over the past few months...

  1. Run more.  But, you already knew that.  There is a science to training for an ultra- but this post is more about the art.  If you are looking for detailed training plans, please head to the ELM website!  Seriously- follow a plan.  Work with a coach, or find a plan that is gentle on volume and kind to first timers.  You might admire Anton, Anna or Kilian- but you are not Anton, Anna or Kilian.  Very few runners can tolerate random training at such high volumes.  Learn the rules of training and learn to listen and respond to your body's feedback.  Intuitive training is an art and a science and can take years to grasp.

  2.  Run with heart.  You have to find joy in your training or you will ultimately fail- or at least suffer along the way.  Your journey has to have some meaning for you or you will grow weary of the early mornings, late afternoons and endless hours on the trail.  I am lucky to find joy in so many of the aspects of trail running that running with heart comes easy for me.  Nature fills me up and is my reservoir of joy and energy.  Sunrises, moonsets, ribbons of singltrack, tall trees, rushing rivers, wind in my hair, sun on my face, ferns blowing in a breeze, birds singing morning song...it all fills me up.  I am most at ease in the wild, so it is just the place that I want to be.  This makes running for 6 hours on a Saturday, much easier.  

  3. Discover your most powerful motivators.  This is an extension of running with heart.  When the going gets tuff and there is a stand off between your sneakers and your training plan, you must know WHY you are doing this.  Before your begin, ask yourself WHY you are committing to such an undertaking.  Then ask WHY that reason is important to you?  Get to the core of your motivation - and find a connection to your values.  Once you find that truth, you will be tapping into limitless drive, energy and motivation. As the journey continues, re-evaluate your WHY, because motivation is a wild and dynamic force that is ever changing.

  4. Eat, drink and be merry.  There are some key endurance  fueling 'rules' to help you get started- ask your coach about these. Once you are in the thick of it, however, you need to fine tune your own personal fueling plan.  Every body is unique and we all have slightly different nutrition requirements,  tolerances and taste preferences.  What works for your training buddy could be disastrous for you.  Listen to your 'gut' so to speak.  Ensure you are getting sufficient calories, fluid and electrolytes in each hour of your training, but experiment with the way you get these.  Learn what gives you energy, makes you happy and satisfies your cravings in various conditions on the trail.  Take the 'rules' with a grain of salt if you find something different that works for you.  Eat things that make you feel happy:)

  5. Take care of your body.  This really trumps all.  The hardest part of ultra racing is getting to the start line healthy.  The volume of training that goes into preparing for one event is a massive undertaking for your body.  The race is really just the cherry on top.  If you can get to the start line with a solid training plan under your sneakers, then you have succeeded already.  Training plans are meant to be changed.  Very few people will actually fit into the little rows and columns of their training plan week after week and month after month.  Consider your training plan the 'dream plan' but be prepared to modify and adapt when ever your body asks you to.  Not necessarily when your mind aks lol- refer to point 2 and 3 for that one.  But if your body says WOAH- this is too much, you best listen.  Watch for early 'slow' signs and address your training volume/intensity/recovery before they turn into 'stop' signs.  There are almost always signs- your mild aches, little pains, extra fatigue, illness, stress, low energy, craving or poor sleep, loss of appetite and funky moods are all warning signs that you are reaching the edge of your threshold.  Change tactics and allow your body to regenerate and adapt before breaking it down further.  Let it catch up before it gets too far behind.

  6. Get your team on board.  Your friends and family will miss you (unless they are your training partners).  Take the time to share your motivations with your family before you run out the door.  Having their support can make or break your training experience.  It IS just running.  But it IS also a big part of who you are once you find yourself giving up entire days with your family to spend them running.  Your family needs to know why you want to do this and how they can support you.  Then, once your race is over, you will likely need to find plenty of ways to give all of that support back! 

  7. Just run.  There is a beauty in the actual rhythm of running.  There is a primal flow found in moving your body the way it has evolved to do so.  You truly were born to run AND to be in the wild.  Ultra running combines the two and provides us with a glimpse into who we were... who we really are...and who we could one day be.  Spending hours moving your body through nature is truly a gift that very few seem to experience today.  You will find some deep thoughts out on those trails:).  Enjoy them.

That's it for now!  Any other advice?  Share it in the comments!
Happy Trails,

SS