This article was co-written by Coleen Shaw-Voeks & Leia Anderson.
You’ve decided that running in the woods for hours, and maybe even days, is your jam! Great! How do you know if you’re actually ready? Here are few quick questions to ask yourself. Be honest.
- What’s motivating you to run an ultra? Is it just something that the cool kids are doing? Something to check off your bucket list? Or does it touch that deep, dark space that makes your primal brain get excited?
- How many hours a week can you train? Realistically! If you have five jobs and a family and can only squeeze in a few one-hour runs, an ultra might not be in the cards for you right now.
- What was your weekly average mileage over the past few months? You should already have a solid base of running in your legs before you start an actual training plan for an ultra.
- Can you make training one of your priorities? Do you actually have time to train, or is your training going to get constantly pushed to the side?
There may be no right answers to these questions, but there are a lot of wrong answers. Primarily, you need to know that running an ultra takes a lot of time and dedication. This means spending hours and hours training on possibly remote trails. You can’t get away from the fact that this is going to take a lot of time, so make sure that doesn’t fill you with dread. The thought of running for hours on every given Saturday (and some Sundays, too) should excite you.
Ideally, you have chosen this path because it is something you really want for yourself and you have the time and drive to train for it. You are looking at a minimum of four days a week of running training, with at least one of them being a long run that will last for several hours. Ideally, at least one run a week—hopefully the long one—will be on trails.
Before entering into an ultra-training cycle, you should already be running 30 to 40 miles per week. The bigger your mileage base, the stronger you will be, the greater your chance of success, and the lower your chance of injuries. We understand that life happens. We all have families and jobs and things come up, but you need to be willing to be creative with fitting your training into everyday life.
Choosing the Right Race
Now that you’re all in, what race are you going to pick? Picking a race is the fun part!
If it’s your first one, you’re probably thinking of a 50K. That’s great, because there are a lot of them out there! Now you have to decide if you want the comfort and ease of a local race, or the newness and excitement of a destination race. If you prefer to sleep in your own bed and eat a very specific diet the night before a race, you might want to stay local. If you like to hit the road or don’t mind camping the night before a race, then look further afield.
Weather is also a consideration. If you love to sweat in the summer and don’t mind the heat, look at races in those months, or in a warm climate. If you are a polar bear, then don’t pick a race in Georgia in August.
What are your running strengths and weaknesses? Do you love running up and down hills, and over rocks and roots; or do you prefer something flatter?
There are different types of courses, as well. You can run a race with a single loop, multiple loops, out-and-back, or point-to-point. Find the right race, and your motivation to train will be higher. Our favorite places to search for races is ultrasignup.com or UltraRunning Magazine.
Make Your Plan
Once you’ve chosen the race that has you ready to run out the door, you’ll need a training plan to match it. You can always start by asking runners you know and trust who have done the distance what they did to train, or where they found their plans. There is always trusty Mr. Google… just don’t pick the very first training plan that pops up. Read them and find a training plan that works with your schedule.
Two of our favorite books that have training plans and great tips are Relentless Forward Progress by Bryon Powell and Running Your First Ultra by Krissy Moehl.
Finally, you can hire a running coach to train you through your first (or thirtieth) ultra—someone who will write you a personalized running program and get you fully prepped and ready for your race.
Research on the Run
Once you get out the door, match training to terrain the best you can. If you are running a rocky course, don’t do all your training on the road. And if your target race is hilly, don’t do all your training on pancake-flat trails. Read race reports so that you’ll know what to expect, and try to work those variables into your training.
It’s also great to run at different times of the day. Ultras last for hours, so your running should reflect the times you will be racing. If your race goes into the night, you need to make sure you are training some at night so you are used to your gear. Nutrition and gear is a large part of ultrarunning and every long run should be an opportunity to dial in these elements.
Ultrarunning is more than just running. Mental fortitude is also key. Running when you are uncomfortable or when you are tired is an important skill to have. If you can train through uncomfortable and difficult situations, you’ll be better prepared to race through them.
Looking for a little more first-hand experience? Get out and volunteer at an ultra. You’ll soak up some knowledge, for sure.
Completing an ultramarathon can be an incredibly rewarding experience. The more prepared you are, the better you’ll feel when you cross that finish line.
About the Authors
Coleen Shaw-Voeks is a long-time ultra and trail runner. She co-owns Team Sparkle Productions and owns Phys. Ed. KC, a runner-focused gym in Kansas City. She loves coaching and training runners to reach goals they never thought they could. She also enjoys drinking beer and throwing glitter on people.
Leia Anderson is an avid trail and ultrarunner. She co-owns Team Sparkle Productions and runs the Mud Babes trail running club in Kansas City. A mother of one with a second on the way, she works to help people find their love of running while making it accessible to their lives.
Photos by Rick & Kristi Mayo / Mile 90 Photography