Why consider an ultra marathon? And how to start

Why consider an ultra marathon? And how to start

Ultra marathons are gathering popularity for good reason, though there are still some myths and reservations around the sport. Here, we explain what’s involved in an ultra and expel the one common myth that often puts people off (Spoiler: you don’t need to be an elite athlete to run one). Plus, we explore how to train for an ultra marathon and one handy hack that makes signing up for one, a whole lot easier. Lace up, let’s go. 

What’s the difference between a marathon and an ultra marathon? 

A marathon spans a standard distance of 26.2 miles; an ultra marathon is considered to be anything longer than that. Technically speaking though, ultras tend to be around 31 miles. Another major difference is that marathon runners usually check their completion times, whereas with an ultra, you can run, jog or walk at your own pace and you won’t find anyone asking “What was your time?” at the finish line. Once you’ve completed an ultra, who cares about time? Nobody – you’re a legend. 

Do you have to be an elite athlete to run an ultra marathon? 

No, though phrases like “ultra marathon” and “extreme sport” sound pretty intense, anyone can go for it. You will of course need to train and prepare for an ultra, but we’ll cover that later. What makes ultra marathons accessible is that you’re encouraged to run at your own pace; even more so than if you were running a marathon. Even elite runners turn the dial down on their speed during an ultra marathon. This provides the perfect opportunity to chat and take in the sights and scenery along the way. It’s about enjoying the route to the finish line; not the time. 

What’s so good about ultra marathons? 

There are so many reasons why people love ultra marathons. Of course, there’s the health and fitness benefits, the fresh challenge, the endorphins, beautiful scenery, new destinations and the much-loved sense of camaraderie. Not forgetting the opportunity to make new friends. Though longer in distance than a marathon, ultras offer more time to slow down, catch your breath and chat to fellow participants. 

Where do ultra marathons take place?

You’ll find them all over the world. If you’ve got wanderlust, taking on an ultra is the perfect excuse to explore far-flung destinations. From Africa to Australia and Barbados to Brazil, ultra marathons take place in some of the most beautiful locations across the globe. Of course, there are also plenty of UK-based events, from the Isle of Wight to the Lake District. Where would your dream ultra destination be? Take a look at Action Challenge for ultra inspiration.

How do you train for an ultra?

It’s a good idea to give yourself around six months to train for an ultra marathon, maybe more if you’re new to long distance running or walking. For your first two months of training, start by slowly building your distance and mileage. Avoid increasing your mileage by more than 10% each week because this can lead to injury. Around four months before the event, add one hill workout and one speedwork run per week into your routine. Two months before, add a trail run (or run on terrain that’s similar to the one at your event). Finally, two weeks before the big day, decrease your mileage by around 20% and focus on rest and nutrition. This will give your body time to recover, so you can give it your best.

How to prepare for an ultra marathon?

Once you’ve got your training plan pinned down, there are a few more key points to consider in your ultra prep. 

  1. Prioritise nutrition. Make sure you have a strong nutrition plan for before, after and during the ultra, to keep your energy levels up. 

  1. Wear your kit in. Don’t save your new gear – particularly not your running shoes – for the big day. Make sure you get plenty of wear out of your kit in advance, to reduce chafing, rubbing and blisters.

  1. Make time to rest. Your body needs to recover from training before taking on a challenge. Schedule plenty of time for rest and to get yourself in the right mindset before the big day. 

  1. Take layers and waterproofs. Make sure you expect the unexpected when it comes to the weather. Pack plenty of layers that you can slip in and out of depending on the temperature, and don’t forget waterproofs for any surprise showers along the way. 

What’s different about an Action Challenge ultra? 

Action Challenge ultra events are different to anything we’ve seen before in the world of ultras. They’re popular because the team at Action Challenge creates a fully immersive, memorable experience. Rather than simply taking part in an ultra and going home, you’ll be whisked away to some of the most amazing locations and iconic sights across the globe. Action Challenge take care of the full end-to-end organisation for you, from the ultra itself, to unforgettable sight-seeing adventures and even your accommodation. You can leave it all in their hands whilst you focus on training and preparing. Plus, by signing up through Action Challenge, you’ll be fully supported on your ultra journey, every step of the way. 

So, if you’ve been thinking about taking on an ultra marathon, this is your sign. Check out Action Challenge to find your next, fully-organised adventure. It’s really worth a look. 

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Think of us as your active-lifestyle agony aunt. From gear recommendations to running hacks, we’ll answer all your event-related questions. Our favourites will feature across our social pages and in these newsletters.

To get your questions answered, either DM us at @letsdothis_ or email in at askusanything@letsdothis.com.

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7 Ultra Marathon training tips

How to adapt to the different requirements of Ultra Marathon running. Improve your performance and make it enjoyable.

Believe it or not, running and training for an ultramarathon can be fun if you do it properly.  For runners that are used to speed work and PBs, it’ll be time for some mental adjustment: ultra running is all about being slow and steady and conquering the infamous wall - multiple times.  Follow these 7 tips and you’ll find yourself loving the freedom you get from long-distance running.

Find your next Ultra Marathon

1. Time > Distance

Instead of planning your training around distances, plan it around time.  Preparing for an ultramarathon is all about getting used to spending many hours on your feet.  Scratch out the 25k run from your Sunday schedule, and put in a 3-hour session instead. You can hike or walk part of it if you need to, but make sure you keep moving for the full time.

2. Cross train

Spending so many hours on your legs each week will increase your risk of injury. Reduce this risk by adding some cross-training sessions into your calendar. This can be a morning swim or a bike ride - anything that keeps your heart rate going without pounding your legs. It’ll strengthen other muscles and allow your running muscles to recover while maintaining your cardio training.  One yoga session per week will also work wonders.

3. Train on trails

Most ultramarathons are not on flat ground, so make sure you train accordingly.  Running on trails will use muscles in your legs you didn’t even know existed, and you’ll find yourself with aches on the sides of your calves and your inner thighs. If you don’t live near trails, spend one of your training sessions each week in the gym doing some targeted leg exercises or climbing on the stair machine.  

4. Rest & Recover

Increasing your mileage will take its toll on your body, so make sure you’re adjusting your sleep schedule and nutritional intake accordingly. Sleep is critical for injury prevention and muscle recovery, so rather than cutting your sleep time by two hours to get a running session in before work, make sure you are going to bed two hours earlier. Within 40 minutes of the end of your long runs, eat or drink some protein to aid with muscle recovery. 

5. Become friends with the wall

Running for 6+ hours at a time means hitting the infamous wall will be inevitable. In fact, you’ll probably hit it multiple times. Become friends with it. It’s very important during an ultra run that you stay positive - it’s impossible to go that long without feeling tired and ready to stop, but knowing that it will get better (which it always does) can be a very powerful motivator.  Once you’re through the dark patch, life will feel great again. Anton Krupicka, Leadville 100 winner and all-round epic ultramarathon runner, says: “If you're NOT having fun that doesn't mean that you're failing. You're just building character.”

6. Water and food and water and food

During long runs, it’s critical to keep eating and drinking. It doesn’t matter what you eat; everybody’s body reacts differently - find a food that doesn’t make you feel sick when you’re running. For some people, that is gels, and, for others, it’s a full-on BLT sandwich. Slow-release carbs and salty foods to replenish salt lost in sweat will be especially useful. 

7. Slow is king

Start as slow as possible, and then go even slower. You’ll have plenty of time to speed up 50km into the run if you’re feeling good. Remember that you’re in it for the long-haul, so lace up, take it easy and enjoy the ride. Finding a running companion can transform your enjoyment of a long run.

Trail running FAQs answered by an expert

Simon James from Run the Wild answers all the main questions about trail running.

If you're new to trail running, but you're wanting some beginner training tips before giving it a try, we've got Simon James, the founder of Run the Wild, to answer all the key questions. Simon is an experienced trail runner, having completed some of the world's most prestigious multi-day ultra marathon events, including the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc and the Marathon des Sables. Beyond Run the Wild, he also organises charity projects in the UK and Tanzania. 

Discover Trail Running Events

Why do trail running?

Trail running is probably one of the most liberating sports out there. The total freedom of stepping off the pavement and onto countryside footpaths is an experience that everyone should try at least once. I grew up running trails as a child. Living in the remote areas of South Wales with no public transport or even street lights in our village, running on trails was part of my everyday life, just a quick way to catch up with my friends at the beach or getting home in time for dinner.

Roads and pavements in towns are getting busier as more people live and work in urban areas, particularly London. This, combined with the increased popularity of running and cycling to and from work as well as at lunch times, makes for busy pavements. If you are tired of running the same old route or losing your mojo to pound the streets, perhaps it’s time to have a look at trail running to escape the crowds and get back to the true freedom running provides.

Where to try trail running?

The route options are limitless and all within just a few hours from London; from the wild areas around London, like the Chilterns and South Downs to the Alps in France. The key thing is to have an adventure and really enjoy your running.  Don’t forget that over 80% of the UK is considered to be ‘rural’, so you may be surprised at how near you are to finding some trails. Even if it requires some effort to get there, it is certainly worth your time.

Is trail running good for you?

There are many health benefits to trail running: improved plyometrics (speed-strength) and proprioception (sense of body position), stronger core, and less impact on joints. It’s also a very easy way of burning calories whilst having fun! But preparation for trail running is just as important as heading off on the roads or track. Building up core strength as well as overall strength conditioning is key to remaining injury free and getting the most out of your runs.

Getting into trail running is easier than you may think and a countryside path, or trail around a city park is a good place to start. These changeable surfaces can build up strength and refine your technique, avoiding the more repetitive actions of road running.

Trail running can also be a stimulating, 3-dimensional experience. Watching out for the different surfaces, steep ups and downs, the scenery, the peace and quiet, all add to an experience that is both mentally and physically challenging.

What are the challenges of trail running?

Within the world of trail running, it’s not always about speed or distance -sometimes the terrain itself or height gained is challenge enough. But it really does offer something for everyone, whether you’ve never even walked a footpath or you are aspiring to run a mountainous 100 miler.

Having been fortunate enough to race as well as take on some personal challenges in many of the mountainous areas of the globe, or indeed climbing I find that many of the highlights of my life have been found right there. There are many races, from club cross-country runs, fell runs, ultra runs and everything in between. Each of them provide their own challenges, but are equally rewarding in their own way. 

Nutrition: What to eat on a trail run

Eating right is such a big focus in society whether you are involved in sport or not. Nutrition is a key element in remaining strong and focused for the trail ahead as well as helping your body recover post run. Hydration and salt replenishment is particularly key on longer runs.

If you want to get more out of your run then take some healthy snacks, such as flapjacks, nuts, and salty snacks such as crisps and salted peanuts for the route. These will help you keep focused as well as maximise the quality of your run.

Flapjacks and trail mix (a mix between sweet and savoury snacks) include complex and simple carbs, fats, and protein, which are great for providing and storing energy as well as repairing muscles. You can make these at home to suit your own needs, save money, and avoid using excessive packaging. If you can't make your own, then consider buying local and fresh where possible.

After your run, the current school of thought recommends refuelling within 20 minutes, which can often speed up recovery by a few days!

What extra kit is needed for trail running?

Key bits of kit for running trails in the UK are: trail shoes, waterproof jacket, lightweight running pack or vest (to pop in some food and water) and a head torch for dark evenings!

Some of the well-worn footpaths in the English countryside can be run simply with road trainers but as soon as the terrain becomes wet or rough, then trail shoes are definitely worth investing in, even arguably essential. There are many options, each with their own advantages.

Kit for trail running has become a very large market as endeavours become more challenging and those at the sharp end seek out more challenging environments. The wealth of experience at Run the Wild can help give you some guidance on what to buy from navigational tools to head torches.

How do you prepare for a trail run?

By stepping off the asphalt and onto the trails you will need to prepare a bit more for the run ahead. What’s the weather going to be like? When will it get dark? How technical is the route and how long will you be out for? Consequently, preparation is key.

You will need to learn new skills, like navigation, and also spend a little bit of time doing your homework on what the route ahead will entail. Then you'll need to decide the amount of food to pack and weather to bring a warm layer and head torch. But this is one of the many reasons which make trail running much more exciting than road running, as it’s by its very nature an adventure!

Trail running is running in its truest and most natural sense, the adventure and the outdoors bring together so many aspects that make this sport so rewarding and it’s much easier to get involved than you may have at first thought. So, take a step on the wild side, you might like it!

What is Run the Wild?

There are plenty of trail running events across the UK and indeed the world. But there is another option too, why not head to the trails without racing? Run the Wild is the UK and Europe’s premier running holiday company. Set apart from races, it’s purely about running adventures. It takes a less pressured approach, helping people to rediscover the spirit of adventure within in a team, running wild places and along the way learning about trail running techniques and the environment. (“Exploring places… not running races.”) 

Find a Run the Wild Adventure

Trail running

Ultramarathons shouldn’t break your body

Four top tips to avoiding the most common injuries long-distance runners face

Running long distances will take your mind and body to places you never thought you’d go. Play your cards right, and you will come out stronger and fitter than ever before; but, make a few silly mistakes and you could be out of your running shoes for longer than you’d like. Injuries are very common during ultramarathons, but you can avoid a lot of them if you follow some of these tips.

1. Work on your running technique

As your running distance increases, you’ll be taking 40,000+ steps while you’re running. If your running technique is bad, that’s a whole lot of time for a small impact or for some friction to build up into a painful injury.

Here are a few of the most important points to help with injury prevention:

  • Cadence, cadence, cadence: This is a measure of how many steps you take per minute. You should ideally be taking 180 steps per minute. This may feel fast to begin with; if that is the case, try using Spotify playlists to help you keep your cadence up.
  • The heel-striker vs forefoot runner debate: There are countless articles and studies that argue both ways. In reality, the most important aspect of foot-landing is where you land in relation to your hips: your feet should land beneath your hips rather than far in front of them. This reduces the impact on your knee and hip joints, and ensures you are propelling yourself forwards rather than back.
  • Stand up tall: Runners tend to lean forwards, especially when they get tired. Focus on standing tall and actively pushing your hips forwards.

A paid coaching session to improve your running technique is a small price to pay for miles and miles of uninjured fun.

2. Build up slowly

When you’re building up your mileage, you should try not to increase it by more than 10–15% each week. If you’re starting at 10k and working your way up to 50k, this should take you at least 15 weeks.

A common training strategy is to have 3 hard build-up weeks followed by one recovery week, where you drop your mileage to help your body recover. This week shouldn’t be a full rest week — instead, replace a couple of your runs with a cycle or other cross-training session.

3. Learn about injuries

The more you run, the more you learn about your body, and you will start understanding pain that is safe to push through and pain that is not. Reading up about common long-distance running injuries can help you distinguish between the two. Below are some of the most common injuries, but for more details, there is an extensive paper on ultra injuries here.

  • Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome: Most commonly observed in female athletes, Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome causes dull, aching pain at the front of the knee. Pain can feel worse after long periods of sitting with bent knees.
  • Stress fracture: A stress fracture is a very small ‘crack’ or fracture in your bone. Stress fractures are most commonly seen in the foot, tibia or femur of long-distance runners, and are usually caused by fatigued muscles no longer being able to protect bones from shock. These are difficult to diagnose, but may be present if you feel localized tenderness and swelling.
  • Iliotibial Band (ITB) Friction Syndrome: The IT Band runs from the side of the hip down to the knee, and, if inflamed, will cause pain in the upper, outer part of your knee. Any sort of popping sensation while running may be a sign of this.
  • Plantar Fasciitis: Plantar Fasciitis is a common cause of heel pain in runners. You may be suffering from Plantar Fasciitis if you feel pain at the bottom, inner part of your heel when pressure is applied, or if you feel deep pain or sharp stabs in your heel when running.

Understanding what the main running injuries are will help you identify if and when you should take a break from running. Remember, marathon and ultra running is a long game; if you feel an injury coming on, you’re better off taking a couple weeks off instead of injuring yourself beyond repair.

4. Strenghten your glutes

The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body, so you might as well make the most of it. Strenghtening your glutes will help with your posture and will reduce risk of running injuries. Below are some exercises to try:

  • One-legged squats: Do 3x 10 squats on each leg. When squatting down, try visualizing sitting down in a chair behind you, and make sure your knee does not move forward infront of your toes.
  • Superman: Lie on your front, and lift up your legs and arms as far off the ground as possible. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 5 times.
  • Glute bridge: Lie down on your back, with your knees bent, as if you’re about to do a sit-up. Lift up your right leg and bend your knee fully, and lift up your pelvis so that your back and left thigh form a straight line (see images below for proper technique). Repeat 3x10 times on each leg.

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