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What it Takes to Become an Ultra Runner

So you want to run an ultra huh?

It takes a special type of person to complete marathons regularly, but you are wishing to push above and beyond to race through 50 or 100 miles ultra-marathons. To complete even one of these races can take months of preparation. From training to nutrition, recovery to mentality, every stone must be turned.

Taking on this type of race doesn’t happen alone, either. You will need a team of individuals around you as you gear up and on race day(s)- yes, these races do last more than 24 hours depending on the length and course you choose to race.

Don’t let any of this discourage you, though, because running ultramarathons is possible. The number of people engaging in these races is steadily increasing. Just understand the level of commitment is much greater than a typical marathon racer; this is not something you want to decide to do the day, week, or even month before a race.

To achieve the proper level of cardiovascular fitness, stamina, and grit, you must understand every aspect there is to an ultra marathon race. You’re in luck too, because we have turned over every stone for you in the coming sections

What is Considered to be an Ultra Race?

Technically speaking, an ultra race is any race longer than the competitive marathon, which is 26.2 miles. With the rise of ultra racing, though, standard distances are now being formed. These standards are 50km (or 31.07 miles), 50 miles, 100 miles, and 100km (62.14 miles)1.

Ultra races can also be set for a predetermined amount of time, during which racers aim to complete as many miles as possible within the specified window. These time frames include 6 hours, 12 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, and 6-day races.
I don’t know about you, but a 6-hour race seems ultra enough to us, let alone 6 whole days!
If the distances and times don’t seem crazy enough, wait until you hear some of the records….
For this, and the remainder of the article unless otherwise noted, we will stick to the more common event domains: 50/100 km and 50/100 miles. Below is a table of the fastest completion time on record along with the average completion time for each distance 

Distance

Fast Time (M/W)

Average Time

50 km

2:43:45 / 3:13:51

4-6 hours

100 km

6:27:43 / 7:00:48

8-10 hours

50 miles

4:50:08 / 5:38:41

7-9 hours

100 miles

11:19:18 / 12:42:40

16+ hours

You can see these races are no joke. The guy who holds the record for the 100-mile race maintained a sub-7-minute mile! Even the average time equates to a sub-10-minute pace for the 16-hour duration of the event.

To complete these runs, your body, your mind, and your nutrition have to be on point. Before we get to those, however, let’s take a look at how these races have developed.

The History of Ultra Racing

The very first ultra race was held in 1911 along a volcano located in Washington, known as Mount Baker. The course was between 28-32 miles long, traversed through the forest, city roads/highways, snow-covered glaciers and summits overlooking the Puget Sound. It was held for three consecutive years and included some rather odd practices, such as utilizing motorized vehicles when crossing the city roads and highways.

This first race of its kind has given birth to some of the toughest races and athletes known today.

As popularity for these races started to develop, so too did the athletes. Some of the greatest ultra runners from the last century include Johnny Salo from the 1920s, Yiannis Kouros of Greece from the 50s, and Ruth Anderson, the first woman to hold an ultra running record in the 70s. These athletes helped develop the sport and created standards for ultra runners to aspire to.

By the late 70s, ultrarunning had grown into a series of sanctioned events across Northern America. The most pivotal and game-changing of these events was the Western States Endurance Run, aka Western States 100, in 1977. This race was the first to be set at a distance of 100 miles (the longest race up to that point) and transitioned the racecourse from roads and track to trails and mountains2.

Most races we know today have been shaped by this monumental shift presented by Western States 100.

It is important to note these historical events, and athletes, for the insight they provide into the world of ultra running. Over the past 100 years, humans have taken this sport from running and driving a 28-32 mile course to 6 day runs for distance.

This growth and immense expansion indicates how far we are willing to push our boundaries as human beings and sheds some light on the extensive need for training and a winning mentality to be able to participate in this sport.

Do you have what it takes to tackle some of the toughest races out there today?

Top Races and Events to Consider

To gain a better perspective on what this sport has developed into today, we have found the ten most popular, and toughest, ultra races currently around:

  • Marathon Des Sables- 155 miles through the Moroccan Sahara. Though it is only 155 miles, the competition is split into six legs with one leg being completed each day of this 6-day race. The style and score are similar to the set-up of the Tour de France. The main reason for breaking up the mileage is concerns of runners' safety and mortality.

The trail leads you through the soft sand of the desert, where you will endure sandstorms and temperatures up to 120 degrees. This one is nicknamed “the toughest footrace on earth” for a reason and attracts more than 1,000 racers each year.

  • Jungle Ultra- Another stage event, this 143 mile, the 5-day race is set place in Peru’s Manu National Park. Athletes race from the Andes to the Amazon and are responsible for their sustainability. You won’t just be running for five days straight; you will also be setting up and tearing down camp, providing your food and shelter, and being asked to survive the Amazon.
  • Badwater Ultramarathon- One of the oldest races around, the Badwater Ultramarathon, has been held annually since 1987. This year Badwater received a makeover though. The original course was a 135 mile from Badwater Basin to Mount Whitney that passed through Death Valley. Due to rising concerns, the trails now lead around Death Valley to keep runners safe as they trek over three mountain passes totaling 17,000 feet of climbing in the July heats of Southern Californian deserts.
  • Spartathlon Ultra Race- This ultra takes the true spirit of marathon racing to heart. Located in Greece, athletes follow in the footsteps of Pheidippides as the cover 153 miles from Athens to Sparta. The added twist? Runners only 36 hours to complete the course. As if this wasn’t pressure enough, most runners won’t hit the mountain terrain until the middle of the night, leaving them to climb these passes in temperatures as low as 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Iditarod Invitational- The Iditarod is not just for dogs anymore. Still, it does require runners to complete a 350-mile qualifying race across the Alaskan tundra to prove you’re hearty enough to take on the full 1,000 miles. Due to the long stretches of inhabitable land, racers must carry their equipment throughout race days. 2014 has been marked as a record year with 16 individuals completing the race.
  • The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB)- Winding through the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland, this is one of the most competitive ultra races held annually. This is a 103-mile course that incorporates more than 30,000 feet in altitude change and some of the most technical terrain and weather you can encounter on a racecourse. Even the best takes 20 hours to complete this one.
  • Western States 100- With the influence, it created for the sport of ultrarunning, how could it not be on the top 10 list? This 100-mile showdown is a race on every runner's bucket list. Finish in under 30 hours to receive a coveted bronze belt buckle, finish under 24 hours to earn the silver.
  • Comrades Marathon- The oldest, shortest, and most famous race on our list. Just a mere 56 miles through South Africa, the 18,000 yearly participates will face “The Big Five” set of hills and will need to complete the full course in 12 hours or less.
  • Hardrock Endurance Run- Runners, will experience a 33,992-foot climb in altitude over 100.5 miles as they run up the trucking roads of Southern Colorado’s San Juan Range. This one draws in the true trail runners as they are asked to traverse some of the toughest climbs offered in the world of ultras.
  • 6633 Ultra- 6633 is not the length of the race, but the latitude, of course. Those familiar with these types of measurements may recognize 6633 as the Arctic Circle. If you thought the Iditarod would be cold, think again. Again, runners are required to carry their equipment as they trek over ice bridges, glaciers, and through “Hurricane Alley.” Only the most experienced choose to tackle this one.

This is just the list of the most popular and grueling ultra’s we could find. If you are just starting in this world shoot for something in the 50 - 100 km range that doesn’t require you to climb 30,000 feet in altitude, run through a desert of Death, or find your way across the Article Circle.

The average 50km race will still be enough for you to get into the ultra running club. So, if you’re ready, next, we will explore what sets ultra-marathon runners apart from the rest of the endurance world.

The Mentality of Ultra Running

To compete in any athletic endeavor, one must have some grit. Grit is a measure of how mentally tough you are. Are you willing to push through some uncomfortable situations or circumstances to achieve your goals? Can you recognize that putting in the work now, or delaying desire, will lead to more significant results later? Are you motivated more by meaning and purpose than extrinsic rewards like a trophy?

If you answered yes to any of these, you have met the base psychological requirements of being an athlete.

In a study conducted by Polish researchers, 1,539 volunteer marathon runners were asked to complete a questionnaire about their motivation to train and race. The motives were divided amongst four categories: psychological (meaningful, enhanced self-esteem, etc.), internal achievements (pride, competition, achieving personal goals), extrinsic social factors (recognition), and physical benefits (improving health). The volunteers were also divided into those who have participated in an ultra race and those who stick to standard marathons.

Researchers unveiled that ultra-marathon runners rely more on psychological and internal achievement, while the standard marathon runner is more likely to be motivated by extrinsic social factors and physical benefits. Lead scientist Zbigniew Waskiewicz stated, “for ultra runners, personal records, traveling and racing with friends is more valuable than competing with other athletes”.

When examining the culture of ultra racing, we would expect to see these results. As we mentioned back in our intro, ultrarunning is not something you jump into overnight, and it is not something you jump into alone.

You need to have a team behind you to help prepare your training program, keep you on track for your training program, maintain proper nutrition and recovery and pace you through race day. This is a lot for the team to handle, which means you will be spending a lot of time with these people.

Choosing a group of people, you enjoy being around makes each of these steps easier to handle. It also increases a sense of worth, belonging, commitment, and motivation. They will be performing at their best to help you; you will feel the desire to reciprocate. This emotional, albeit subconscious, interaction fuels your psychological motivation.

To complete an ultra race takes months of physical training, at the very least. Compare this to a marathon or half marathon race, which arguably anyone can complete within a week’s notice (hey, you don’t have to run the entire course to complete it, ok?)

But the terrain, distance, duration, and level energy needed to complete even the shortest ultra race takes some serious training of the body and mind.

We will get to the physical aspects of training in a bit. Before that, though, we want to provide you with some tips to train the mental side of ultra training and racing.

Create your why

Even though the research says, you’re probably motivated by intrinsic factors; we still implore you to find the specific reason why you want to become an ultra racer. Identifying this purpose allows you to set goals that align with the purpose and give meaning to your training efforts.

Discover your why and write it down. The post is somewhere you can see to make it a reality. This post will act as a constant reminder and motivator leading up to your first ultra race.

Learn to love the monotonous and mundane

There’s no getting around this one. If you are easily bored with putting one foot in front of the other, then sorry, this may not be the sport for you. If instead you don’t mind taking 1,000 of repetitive steps and can see past the monotony of the movement you have conquered the first mental obstacle to endurance racing.

 Learning to love the monotonous and mundane does not mean you have to be satisfied with running down a straight road for miles on end. This mental obstacle focuses more on the monotony of movement.

You see, our brain gets excited when faced with new obstacles and challenges; it is no different in the realm of exercise. When we get to try a new movement or variation of an exercise we have been training, the brain lights up and activates the pleasure centers; it becomes giddy that there is some new process to think through.

For the most part, this excitement of new challenges is absent in ultra training. You are working a modality- running- that you have been able to perform since a very early age. Your brain knows how to handle this and can shut down pretty quickly.

To get past this, embrace the monotony. Embrace the fact that your brain knows what to do and doesn’t need to focus on putting one foot down, pick the other one up, and so forth. Instead, use your mind to explore the world around you.

You will be covering hundreds of miles throughout your training and racing, let some of the trails carry you to places only you can see. Experience new settings, new views, unique wildlife. Your ability to run without conscious thought allows you to become present to what is around you. Love the monotony.

Don’t overreact to the ups and downs

We can’t all be perfect all of the time. You might be able to be 99%, but there’s always that 1%. When these rocky times in your training hit, don’t let them throw you off your game. Maintain your mental fortitude by:

Control your breathing- The breath can be used to calm the nervous system and reduce stress or feelings of anxiety within moments. In the case of a sudden downer, or the impending sense of decline, take a few deep breathes through your stomach.

Focus on expanding and breathing in from the stomach (not the ribcage), taking 5 seconds to draw the breath completely in. Hold for 5 seconds before exhaling slowly for 5 seconds. Pause for another five before starting the next breath. Continue for 3-5 breaths or until the feelings of anxiety have passed.

This technique is known as box breathing. Slowing down the breath slows the heart rate to match, which turns off the body’s fight or flight response. Breathing through the stomach, instead of the ribcage, works to stimulate the nerves tied to the rest and digest response, thus furthering the sense of calm and relaxation.         

Envision your desired future

See yourself succeeding. This will keep you aligned with your purpose even in the toughest times of training. Watching yourself succeed allows your brain to create a plan of how to get from where you are to what you envisioned.

These imaginations do not have to be of the final race. If you are struggling with a particular trail you’ve been using to train for hill climbing, visualize making it to the top of the hill without stopping. Try to picture each step, each tree or rock you have to pass on the way up, each bend in the trail. The more detail you can add to these visualizations, the more concrete they become, and the easier it is to overcome the obstacle you are facing.

Reassess your goals

If you are really stuck in a downturn and don’t know how to get out of it, it's ok to switch your goals. Goals are an ever-changing thing. You accomplish one and move on to the next, or you realize you need to work on something else first before you’re able to achieve these particular things.

Mentally accepting change, and not defeat, will keep your motivation and energy up so you can keep moving forward with your training.

Run with gratitude

We cannot stress positivity enough. A positive mindset with enduring longer than anything else. Training for an ultra is gruesome work, but be thankful that you are capable of participating in such rigorous training.

When you consider the world’s population, very few people have the mental fortitude and physical ability to run a marathon, and you are pushing to be part of an even smaller subgroup of ultramarathon runners. You must recognize this fantastic feat and use it as motivation to complete your training.

Feed the wolf not the demon

This is a concept that comes from former Navy Seal Mark Divine. He identifies the part of the mind that is responsible for toughness as a wolf5. It is hungry for action. It wants to succeed. It wants to push further and harder than ever before. But it can only do so if it is fed with energy.

When the little voice in your head pops up saying, “this sucks!” or “why can’t I go home already” let the wolf devour these thoughts. Let it fuel your determination to maintain your pace, to keep pushing up the hill, not to stop until you’ve crossed the finish line.

Whew! If that wasn’t a motivational speech, then I don’t know what is. Ok, time to move off the soapbox and hit the gritty details of physical training for ultra running.

Training for Ultra Races

The physical side of training is a beast unto itself. You will be running more miles each week than some will run in a lifetime. But the training doesn’t start there; it starts with where you are at right now working through these tips before jumping into 50 miles run on Day 1:

Progress into it

No one is ready to take on an ultra race without training. Even the shortest distance, 50 km (31.07 miles), may seem doable to a marathon runner, but you have to remember these courses are through mountains, soft sand, 120-degree desert, snow glaciers, and everything in between. They are not road races through well-populated cities like Boston.

Start your training by doing a thorough and honest assessment of your ability levels as they stand right now.

How many miles can you consecutively run today, AND still be able to train tomorrow?

You can’t think one day at a time; there has to be some for thought that goes into your training program. Even if you feel comfortable running 15 miles today, would you feel fresh enough tomorrow to put in another 5 or 10? If not, back down today’s goal so you can put in substantial work tomorrow as well.

As the weeks progress slowly, start to add mileage until you can hit 30+ miles once a week.

SIDE NOTE: you should not be running max effort every day. Your training should be cyclic

- one day moderate intensity with low to moderate volume

- one day low intensity with moderate to high volume

- one day with high intensity with high volume

- at least one day of strength training

To get an in-depth view on how to set up your training days, what implements and exercises to use, check out our Half Marathon Training Guide. The guidelines provided for half marathon runners extend to ultra runners but vary the distances and durations of cardio sessions accordingly.

What pace is challenging but not debilitating?

Again, don’t knock it out of the park today to limp up to base tomorrow. Find a pace that is comfortable for you. On moderate-intensity days, aim to beat this pace by 5-10 seconds; high-intensity days equate to 15-20s faster pace, and low-intensity days utilize a slower pace (whatever is needed to provide adequate recovery).

Once a month, reassess what pace feels comfortable. As you progress through training, you should notice that your comfortable pace is decreasing; with this come the decrease in training pace and further progression towards completing an ultra marathon.

When was the last time you used other modalities like cycling, swimming, or lifting?

Highly repetitive, impactful movements significantly increase wear and tear on the joints and tissues, leading to an increased risk of injury. To reduce the amount of stress traveling through your legs, hips, and spine use an alternate form of cardio once a week. This can be rowing, cycling, using a treadmill, or even swimming. Mix it up to gain the cardiovascular and muscular benefits of each.

In addition to the muscular benefits, these other forms of cardio can provide, implement resistance training once or twice a weak. Resistance training, in the form of weight lifting, is vastly different for endurance runners than powerlifters, but it is still a highly beneficial and arguably necessary training tool.

When incorporating resistance training, keep weights light and repetitions high (15+ reps for 3-5 sets per movement). Focus on building the lower body and core, working muscles in the front and back of the body. As race day gets closer, resistance training can be reduced, but during the training months, this is a crucial part of building length strength and joint stability to reduce the chance of injury.

What is your goal pace for race day?

The assessment of your starting position is also the time to set your goals. If you don’t have goals you won’t know how to train. Sure, you know you need to run, but how fast? How many miles? Are you improving? If so, how much further do you have to go?

Keeping track of all these numbers is only beneficial if there is something you are working towards. Determine what it is you want to achieve on race day, whether it’s just completion of the race or hitting a specific time, and then create smaller training goals to work towards along the way.

Once you know where you are starting and where you want to go, you can incorporate these other tips to help your body prepare for the stresses of becoming an ultra racer.

Practice being on your feet

These are not short sprints.

Running requires you to be on your feet.

Being on your feet for 4+ hours at a time can be exhausting.

Can we say any more obvious things to get this one through to you?

Practicing being on your feet may seem inconsequential, but think back over the last week, or longer if your memory is good enough, and try to remember the last time you were standing for four straight hours. No breaks. No sitting. No leaning against a post. Nothing.

It has probably been a while since you’ve gone this long being up and about, hasn’t it? Now, what makes you think it's going to be any easier being on your feet for this long, or longer while running over various terrain?

Being on your feet for extended periods is a trained skill. It requires a high level of endurance from all the small stabilizing muscles of the ankles, hips, spine, and shoulders. There’s a lot of muscle engagement that goes on subconsciously to keep us standing upright.

Try to spend one hour on your feet each day for the next week without resting. If this is doable, bump it to an hour and a half next week to start training these smaller muscles. As you increase mileage and decrease pace, also practice spending more time standing and walking at very low intensities (so as not to overstress the body).

Start small

Your first ultra-marathon should not be something listed on our top 10 most popular and toughest in the world. These are a motivation for what you will be able to do in a couple of years after you’ve gotten some experience and significant training under your belt.

When signing up for your first ultra, look for something in the 50 km to 50-mile range. These are the shorter races, but there is a lot of information and experience to gather from races in one of these. Build your training program to be successful at the shorter distances then set your sights and training on the big dogs.

Try a few

No matter how much you read, train, or prepare, you will not know how you are going to do until you try a race. And your first race won’t be indicative of your true abilities as an ultra runner!

The first few ultra runs you participate in will act as steep learning curves. You will quickly identify what your training prepared you for, what you can add to your practice to make up for weaknesses, and how a race is run. All of this information is used to shape your abilities better. Once you’ve been through 3-5 races, you’ll have a better idea of how you stack up as an ultra runner.

Learn from others

You cannot and should not do this alone. Your team will be by your side each day for training and recovery, but outside of them, you should be seeking other sources of knowledge. Read about races you sign up for. What are the hardest parts of the course? What are the risks associated with that particular race? What do others suggest bringing or preparing for?

You can’t know the exact details until you have the experience, but you can get a clear picture of what to expect. 

You’ve already begun this step by reading through our guide, so we’ll keep you headed in the right direction and educate you on the risks associated with ultra running.

What Happens During Ultra Sessions

Instead of ultrarunning, they should call it extreme running. Not only are you facing extreme conditions with some of these races, but you are also pushing your body to the extreme bounds of its cardiovascular and muscular limits.

Marathon runners have found that their bodies start to shut down around the 20-mile marker if they are not ingesting proper fluids and foods/supplements throughout the race. When this happens it is referred to as “bonking,” and it feels as if your body has run into a brick wall. If this occurs at mile 20 in a marathon, what can happen in an ultra marathon? That’s what we are about to reveal6:

Insect Stings and Bites- to start us off are some obvious risks associated with being outside in general. Just because you’re moving and sweating doesn’t mean the bugs will leave you alone. Consider using a form of repellant if they ever get too buggy. 

Cuts and Bruises- Similar to risk one, these are just part of the training. After a training session or race, make sure cuts are properly cleaned and treated to avoid infection

Hallucinations- Now we get into the worrisome stuff. Hallucinations arise from exhaustion. You have been on your feet, pushing the pace, through steep terrain for hours without end. Your body and your brain are tired! If hallucinations begin to happen, stop at your next rest point and take a nap to fix the issue.

Temporary blindness or blurred vision­- The exact cause of this is unknown but can be seen in the long-distance/duration races. Scientist currently believes it is caused by swelling in the cornea (outermost layer of the eye).

Gastrointestinal problems- Exercise requires increased blood flow to the muscles to provide oxygen for energy production. The problem with this is, we only have so much blood. If the blood is being directed to the muscles for extended periods (like the duration of an ultra race), the blood must be diverted and restricted to the organs not currently in use- the digestive system. This may lead to some gastrointestinal problems later in the race.

These problems can manifest themselves in the form of nausea or cramping and can hinder a runner's ability to ingest food during the race. In such a case, pause at your next rest station to let the stomach settle. Ingest some goo to get the digestive tract working again and pulling blood back to those areas.

Hyponatremia- Hyponatremia is the condition defined by low levels of sodium in the blood. Contrary to popular belief, sodium is good for us, and we should be consuming it, especially when running and sweating for extended periods. Sodium is necessary to maintain hydration levels. As you begin to sweat for hours and hours, you are losing water AND salt. It’s a double whammy and one-way ticket to dehydration.

During races and long training sessions, try to drink a slightly salted solution. A half bottle of water with ½ teaspoon of salt can help combat against hyponatremia and dehydration.

Hypothermia- With the extreme conditions you will be facing during race conditions, it will be easy for the body to slip into a hypothermic state. This risk becomes more significant as ultra runners extend their races into the night when temperatures drop. Mix this with semi-wet clothing due to sweat, and you have a perfect storm for hypothermia to creep up on you. Keep fresh clothes, gloves, beanies, and layers at rest stations to help prevent this from happening.

Stress fractures- The repetitive nature of running breaks down bone and muscle tissue. If adequate rest is not taken between training sessions, and recovery techniques are not utilized along with proper nutrition, the risk of stress fractures dramatically increases. We discuss rest, recovery, and nutrition next to stave off this potentially season-ending injury.

Rest and Recovery Techniques

Overtraining vs. Supercompensation

Before jumping into the importance of recovery, we must discuss what will happen when there is a lack of recovery. What we describe next may seem very familiar to some of you.

Whenever the body experiences stress, it needs a period of recovery to rest and return to homeostasis- our body’s natural state of balance. This needs to be done because the body releases hormones in response to stress. As a short term side effect to these hormones, your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate start to increase; long term, these hormones can lead to increased muscular tensions, ongoing high blood pressure, and tissue break down if not cleared from your system.

When starting a new training program or switching to a new sporting endeavor, it is relatively easy to overstress the body. At a very low level, this is good and is necessary. But when is too much too far?

Thinking back to the assessment you ran on your starting position, if you feel comfortable running 15 miles today but would not be able to run five tomorrow then 15 is probably too much. Even if you don’t plan on running five tomorrow, your body should have the ability to do see when needed, so stick to 8-12 today, not 15.

If you do push the body too hard too fast, you may experience signs of overtraining, which include but are not limited to

  • Increased perceived effort during workouts
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Unexplained agitation or moodiness
  • Restless sleep
  • Chronic or nagging injuries (this is a big one)
  • Metabolic imbalances, which can lead to drastic weight gain or loss

Now, this may just seem like symptoms of a bad day or tough week at work, but you have to remember these life events are adding to the stress that you are dishing out with training sessions. So pay particular attention to these as you ramp up the miles and intensity you may be entering a state over overtraining.

Overtraining happens when there is a lack of recovery. Ben Greenfield, the “brain” of triathlon and endurance training, breaks overtraining into four stages as follows7: 

  • The Alarm Reaction: the body’s first line of response when stress occurs. Hormones are released to send the body into “fight or flight” mode. Once the stress has passed, hormone production slows. If the adequate recovery time is taken, the body returns to a healthy balanced state of being.
  • Resistance Response: Constant and chronic stress is placed on the body, with inadequate recovery, elevating the stress hormones for weeks, months, or even years. Regular exercise can be maintained, but increased levels of fatigue is a common symptom and problem. You may sense something is wrong and never have the feeling of being truly 100%
  • Exhaustion: Once you have reached this level, your body is no longer able to cope with stress. Hormone levels drop off, along with the body’s alertness. Regular stress responses are hindered, and constant exhaustion sets in. This stage is often linked with the need for excessive caffeine and stimulants just to get through the day. Chances of injury and illness start to rise significantly.
  • Failure: This final stage of overtraining comes from pushing to the extreme and not listening to your body’s need for rest in the three stages prior. After excessive and prolonged periods of stress, the body shuts down. Most who push themselves into this stage find it difficult to just get out of bed. If rest is not taken, serious injury or illness can occur.

The only state of overtraining that should be acceptable is the first stage. This is a normal response to training and is beneficial as long as you are recovering and resetting the process before hitting stage two.

If you can stay in the first stage, providing the body adequate rest and recovery between training sessions, you will be able to take advantage of super-compensation.

Supercompen- what?

Supercompensation is just the fancy scientific way of saying progression. The body does not like being stressed or weak, so when you challenge it with a faster pace or increased miles, it will want to build itself to handle such things. It can only do this while resting.

Taking 2-3 days rest between high-intensity cardio sessions allow the body to rebuild itself to withstand the quicker paces. This is why, over the course of weeks and months, you’ll be able to drop your comfortable pace and continue to push the high-intensity pace.

Recovery days can include activity in the days between high-intensity training sessions; it's ok to do the other cardio or lifting sessions. One day a week, though, you should have a complete rest day, which allows for very low-intensity activities like performing house chores or walking the dogs.

If you ever feel like your slipping into stage 2 or beyond of overtraining try the following techniques, in conjunction with an increased amount of rest days, to bring your body back into a healthy training environment:

Breathing- Again, performing focused breathing exercises, such as box-breathing or counting breathes, has been proven to reduce the activity of the nervous system reducing stimulation and decreasing perceived levels of stress. Joel Jamieson, another former SEAL, and creator of the BioForce Conditioning Certificate even includes 5-10 minutes of focused breathing to his recovery protocol featured on his website 8weeksout.com

Cold exposure- This technique is highly recommended by Ben Greenfield, who regularly utilizes the river in his back yard for cold plunges. Immersing the body into an ice bath or cold shower for 20-30 minutes dramatically reduces levels of inflammation, a marker of stress in the body7. Reducing and clearing inflammation enhances the body’s ability to recover quickly.   

Sleep- This one should be a no brainer, yet very few people get the necessary 8 hours of sleep per night needed by the body to recover from an average day of living fully. When you throw in training for an ultra, the need for sleep increases. When we are sleeping, the body releases large amounts of growth hormones that stimulate tissue repair and initiates cellular turnover to remove weak or wasted cells. Get the zzz’s you need so you can train how you want.

Nutrition- You are what you eat, seriously. If you are not eating nutrient-dense food, your body will be sorely lacking in the nutrients needed for tissue repair. This recovery tool is so essential that we have made it the topic of our next section.

Nutrition for Ultra Runners

Fueling your training is just as important as the training and mental aspects of becoming an ultra runner. You will not be able to sustain a healthy mindset or increased levels of training on poor nutrition, trust us we’ve tried. Learn from our mistakes and take these commandments to heart:

  • Understand your metabolic needs: Training for a marathon can burn an extra 1,500 calories a day; imagine what your training is doing…

Recognizing that your energy needs will continuously increase while your training progresses is only half of the battle. It is not unusual or unheard of for an ultra runner to regularly eat over 3,000 calories a day. It is ok and necessary to bump your calorie consumption.

If calories are too low, you will begin to lose weight, lose muscle, lose progress and lose your mental fortitude (the brain can consume up to 20% of your daily calorie intake so falling short hinders the powerhouse of our existence)

Consuming enough foods in the right portion is the other half of the battle.

  • Keep macros in balance: There are three macronutrients you must be eating every single day. These are fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.

The body uses fats for vitamin absorption and storage and well hormone production (such as testosterone and estrogen, both of which are needed for muscle retention and normal bodily processes). Proteins are the building blocks to muscle; please say you understand why this is important. And carbohydrates will be the primary fuel source for training, recovery, and everything in between.

As an ultra runner, aim to maintain a 15%, 25%, 60% split of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. This means roughly two-thirds of your calories should come from carbohydrates, a quarter from quality proteins, and 15% of calories are derived from fat.

  • Obey the eating window: When we ingest carbohydrates, the body can do one of two things with them: use them up right away for energy or store them for later use. Eating in the 30-45 minutes leading up to a training session provides just enough digest time to break down the carbs for a quick source of energy.

To efficiently top these off, eat a full meal within an hour following the workouts. The carbohydrates will be used to top off the storage sites, the protein will be shuttled to the muscles to jumpstart the recovery process, and fats will be used for hormone production post-workout.

  1. Eat clean foods: Whole foods are the easiest for the body to digest and pull nutrients from. Eating the cleanest sources of foods that are available to you will ease digestion and increase nutrient absorption, aiding in the recovery process.
  2. Minimize added sugars: Your body is going to require so many calories that at some going, you will have to add in supplements- like protein shakes or carbohydrate goos/gummies. When picking your supplement products, read the nutrition label! Many manufacturers hide added sugars in their supplements as a way to boost volume without boosting the cost of production. If you are going to get a packaged product, understand what you are purchasing and ingesting before letting it potential screw up your new-found gratitude for trail running.
  3. Keep snacks on hand: As we’ve mentioned a couple of times now, you’re going to burn through calories like crazy. This need for calories and energy can present itself as hunger and cravings. More particularly as cravings for sugary foods since the body knows they are a quick source of energy.

Instead of walking down to the vending machine for a candy bar, keep some fruit at your desk or homemade granola in your backpack. Choose and pack your snacks ahead of time to stay on top of the increased energy needs.

  1. Find the right foods: We all digest foods differently, and if your stomach gets upset from a particular product, don’t eat it. It’s as simple as that. There’s no hard and fast rule that ultra runners have to eat X, Y, and Z. You should aim to eat the healthiest foods you can, but if you don’t like eggplant, don’t eat eggplant (really? Who likes eggplant).
  2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate: You are going to be sweating like none other. Replace the fluid loss and avoid cramping by taking small sips of water every 15-20 mins. Yes, you need to drink this much water throughout the day. The average person will sweat between 0.8 and 1.4 liters for every hour of intense exercise. Ultrarunning is an intense exercise for numerous hours! Drink your water.
  3. Supplement where needed: Natural food supplements such as ginger and fish oil are great for joint health and reducing inflammation. These two supplements will aid in the recovery process and keep you on the trails longer.

In addition to these, BCAAs can be used to prevent muscle breakdown. At the same time, a multivitamin will provide B-12 to combat fatigue, D3 and calcium for bone health, and iron for better oxygen transport for energy production in the muscles.

  1. Race Day = Training Day: Whatever foods you’ve been eating pre-workout and during a workout to fuel longer sessions, keep the strategy the same come race day. On the day of your first ultra race, the day of any ultra race is not a day you want to be experimenting with new foods or eating strategies.

That new supplement can wait until bathrooms are easily accessible, and an upset stomach doesn’t cause you to lose 20 minutes off your goal finish time.

Sticking to whole foods, clean supplements, and these commandments will ensure you are fueling your ultra training properly. You’ve got your mindset, you’ve got your training and recovery plan, you know what you’re going to eat when; the last stop is to make sure you have the proper team in place.

Building a Team

Every ultrarunner is supported by a team, or as they like to call them, their crew. Your crew is going to need several people and might consist of two different teams: one for training and one for race day

Training Team

The training team, if you choose to have one, is going to consist of the more technical pieces a team should have. These can include a trainer, nutritionist, physical and/or massage therapist, and training partner. Each plays a pivotal role in creating you, the ultra runner, but they are not necessary for success. This crew is just nice to have around.

If there is only one player of this team you can get right now, go for the training partner. There is enough information out there on training, recovery, and nutrition to get you through your first ultra injury-free; but having a training partner will increase your accountability, motivation, and energy ten-fold. They are also a great person to lean on when you need help getting out of the ruts of training.

Race Day Team

Come race day you will need a crew to travel the course with you. The crew's job is to drive from one checkpoint to the next with any supplies you may need, including clothes, water, food, shelter, a chair to rest, an extra change of shoes, maps for navigating the next leg of the race… you name it; they’ve got it for you.

The size of your crew is up to you, but there are a few key things each member should keep in mind if they are going to be committed to your team. They need to8:

  • Plan for the unexpected- it is their job to get you what you need
  • Study the maps and know the rules- your job is to run, their job is everything else
  • Keep track of time- it’s a race for crying out loud! They should know when you expect to be at the checkpoint. If you aren’t there or they aren’t there something has gone awry
  • Be familiar with gear- if you’re on a roll you don’t want to waste time waiting for a crew member to find your extra pair of lucky socks for the last 10-mile leg of the race
  • Have their mother hen- the crew is going to be so dedicated and focused on you, they may forget to care for themselves. Designate someone like the mother hen to remind everyone to eat, drink, and sleep if the duration permits it

Last but not least, your crew has to be willing to celebrate with you in the success of becoming an ultra runner.

It was no easy task. The hills were daunting and heat exhausting. There were times your inner demon tried to come out, but you fed the wolf instead. Your gummies may have been half-melted by the time you got to them, but that sticky sweetness never tasted so good on your fingers. You have made it to the end of this marathon of an article. Now its time to make it to the finish line of your first ultra.

Summary

Becoming an ultra runner begins with understanding the world of ultra-marathon and what exactly it entails. Ultra races are considered to be any race longer than the standard marathon. This form of extreme endurance testing came about in the early 1900s with the appearance of a 28-32 mile race using cars and foot movement to traverse across a volcano in Washington.

With a few years of experience under their belt, ultra runners started to push the boundaries of these races, doing away with the cars and extending the distances. One of the most notable races for changing boundaries was the Western States 100, held in 1977. This was the first official 100-mile race that is still held annually today and was known for its shift from road running to trail running, further separating it from marathons.

Today several standard distances and time frames have made themselves popular among ultra runners. A typical racecourse can be 50km, 100 km, 50 miles, or 100 miles. Or a looping format can be used with a set duration, such as 6, 12, 24, or 48 hours, while runners accumulate as many miles as possible. The 50 km races can generally be completed in 4-6 hours, while 100 miles races take the average ultrarunner 16+ hours to complete. It is not unusual for a race to extend through the night and into the next day.

Some of the most popular and toughest ultra-marathon races around the world now include the Iditarod, a 1,000-mile course that is not just for dogs anymore; the Badwater Ultra which, until this year, lead runners through Death Valley in the July heat; the Spartathlon which traces Pheidippides path from Athens to Sparta over a 153-mile course; and the ever-popular Western State 100, which incorporated 18,000 participants last year.

To become a successful runner of these races, you must have the proper mindset, training outlook, recovery methods, nutrition, and support crew.

Starting from the top-

To build a solid mental aspect, you must first identify why you are becoming an ultra runner. What is it that drives you to complete 50km + races? Studies have found ultra runners when compared to standard marathon runners, are more motivated by personal factors and intrinsic rewards such as achieving a goal and gaining confidence. If this is true for you, then you’re already on the right path to building the mind of an ultra runner.

Mentally, ultra runners must learn to love monotony. You will be spending hundreds of hours training, and maybe even racing, embrace the fact that running in and of itself is so monotonous that you can free up your mind to focus on the beautiful scenery you will inevitably come across.

When running and training for the prolonged distance, you must also accept the fact that there are going to be ups and downs to your training. During the downturns maintain a positive mindset, use breathing techniques to control stress, visualize yourself succeeding, and make sure your goals line up with your why to get yourself mentally back on track. Being mentally stable will allow the body to perform as it needs to turn the slope back toward progression.

The last part of your mental stability comes back to your gratitude for your ability to become an ultra runner, and being able to feed the little demon to your inner wolf. When negative thoughts start to creep up, feed them to the wolf of determination and courage, and keep pushing forward with your physical training.

Your physical training is going to be just as tough as the mental. This side of the training model should begin with an honest personal assessment of what your starting position is. What are you truly capable of doing today, and what is your goal come race day? Writing these two things down will allow you to derive a plan and adjust as needed moving forward.

Once you have a plan, start practicing being on your feet more. It may sound like a weird thing to incorporate into training, but ultras require you to be running upright with little to no rest for a minimum of 4 hours. If you have a hard time standing for 4 hours, how tough do you think running will be?

When you are ready for an ultra start with a 50 km, this is the shortest race and will allow you to gain valuable insight into your training and preparation techniques. Master the shorter distances by trying a few races before moving on to the more significant events. Learn from others and gain experience to guide your training as you progress toward a 100 km or 100-mile race.

The larger races will be doable in time, especially given you are using the proper recovery techniques. If you are not implementing recovery techniques, such as rest days, breathing exercises, cold plunges, and adequate sleep, your body can enter a state of overtraining or suffer from one of the many risks associated with ultra racing.

The risks associated with becoming an ultra racer range from minor cuts and insect bites up to hypothermia and stress fractures. While on the trails, you will be taxing your muscular, skeletal, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems at extreme levels. The energy levels needed by these systems can cause a significant amount of inflammation, which can result in blurred vision or headaches. They can cause extreme exhaustion and hallucinations. Some people may experience gastrointestinal problems, or if calcium levels are inadequate, stress fractures may appear in the lower limbs. This last risk can be avoided if the body does not enter the later stages of overtraining.

Overtraining leads to chronic levels of stress hormones being released that can damage muscle tissue, suppress the immune system, and delay your progression. The first stage of overtraining is acceptable and necessary for progress, but recovery techniques should be used to evade the later stages.

Part of your recovery is your nutrition. Proper nutrition practices center around eating whole foods and utilizing clean supplements. Supplements, in the form of fish oil, a multivitamin, BCAAs, or carbohydrate gummies can be added in as training levels increase. When choosing your supplements, though, pick the brands with little or no added sugars. Sugar creates inflammation, which is a marker of stress.

Other nutrition practices include increase calorie consumption along with training efforts. It is not unusual or unheard of for ultra runners to eat upwards of 3,000 calories a day. When setting up your meals, however, try to maintain a split of 15% fat, 25% protein, and 60% carbohydrate. Center a majority of your carbohydrate foods around your training period to increase energy production directly before, during, and after workouts.

Keep snacks on hand can help with energy needs and production during the day while drinking a few sips of water every 15-20 minutes will allow you to stay hydrated despite excessive sweating with prolonged training sessions. If you are going to test out new snacks, fluids or supplements, do so on a training day. Not race day! 

On race day, anything an everything you need should be with your crew. You are responsible for running from the start line to finish; they are responsible for everything else. Your crew should have a timekeeper that knows when to expect you at each checkpoint, a map reader to help you navigate the next leg of the race, rules analyst, equipment manager, and mother hen.

The mother hens job is to make sure the crew is taking care of themselves in the midst of supporting you as well. Fill your crew with individuals you are close to so that come race day, you can all celebrate the success of you becoming an ultra marathon runner.

References:

1UltraRunning Magazine (2013 Nov 28). What is ultra running? UltraRunning Magazine.

Retrieved from: https://ultrarunning.com/features/what-is-ultra-running/

2 Crocket, D. (2019). Ultrarunning history podcast and stories. Retrieved from:

http://ultrarunninghistory.com/

3Lobby, M. Top 10 toughest ultra-marathons around the globe. Active. Retrieved from:

https://www.active.com/running/articles/top-10-toughest-ultra-marathons-around-the-globe/slide-10

4Middlebrook, H. (2019 Jan 7). What really drives runners to go really, really, long? Runners World. Retrieved from: https://www.runnersworld.com/training/amp25728785/what-motivates-ultrarunners-study/

5Divine, M. (2019 Jan 09). The Mark Divine blog: 4 exercises for developing mental toughness.

SealFit. Retrieved from: https//sealfit.com/exercises-for-developing-mental-toughness/

6Berkowitz, B. (2015 Nov 9). What happens to your body during an ultramarathon. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/health/ultramarathon/#targetText=Most%20people%20finish%20a%20marathon,more%20of%20nonstop%20forward%20motion

7Greenfield, B. How to dig yourself out of the hole - What to do when you’re overtrained. Ben Greenfield Fitness. Retrieved from: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/article/recovery-articles/what-to-do-when-youre-overtrained/

8Strout, E. (2017 Mar 10). How to crew an ultramarathon in 6 easy steps. Runner’s World.

Retrieved from: https://runnersworld.com/races-places/a20849954/how-to-crew-an-ultramarathon-in-6-easy-steps/

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