The Best Way To Train For Ultra Marathons
An ultra-marathon is any running event that’s longer than a standard marathon (26.2 miles). There is no single set distance, but ultra-marathon events commonly go up to 100km (62 miles). There are also multi-day Ultra events.
Like all runs, ultra-marathons vary in terms of terrain and elevation. You get some that are flat, some that are undulating, and some that are mountainous and technical.
If you’re training for an Ultra that includes lots of technical trails AND big climbs, you need to approach your training differently than you would for a less-extreme route.
For this reason, we designed a range of Ultra Marathon training plans AND Hilly Ultra Trail Marathon training plans – to make sure you’re fully prepared, no matter what.
Check out our essential Ultra running training tips below.
Top Training Tips For Ultra Marathons
Training for an ultra-marathon is no different to training for other running events, in that you need to progress your training gradually over time. There are no shortcuts. You also need to include regular recovery periods, so that your body can adapt, enabling you to train consistently for many months.
Your training should be built around three key runs each week. The first is a long run, where you slowly increase the duration over a period of months, up to a maximum of 5 hours (depending on the distance of your target event). This run should be done at chatting pace, ideally over a series of laps, so you can take on energy drinks and snacks at the end of each lap.
If you are training for a hilly ultra choose terrain and elevation proportionally similar to that of your chosen race. Training for long durations on trails in the hills/mountains will take some preparation and forethought. Your backpack may need to contain spare kit, nutrition, hydration, phone, navigation, mini first aid, cash, sun protection and more.
Your second key run is also relatively long, typically done in midweek, where you build up over several months to running a maximum of 2 hours. This run should ideally be done on terrain or gradients that are like your target event.
For your long runs, it’s always good to run in company, at least for some of it. It’s great motivation and it helps the miles fly by. Do your best to work this into your training plan if you can. Otherwise it can get tough at times.
The final key run is a speed or tempo session. These are not endurance sessions as such, but they do improve your running pace, which then enables you to run at a given pace for less effort. You can vary these types of workouts throughout the course of your training. For example, you could try a weekly tempo session such as 5 x 1 mile at 10-mile race pace, with 1-minute recoveries (plus a warm up and cool down). After four weeks of that, you could progress it to 3 x 2 miles with 90 seconds recoveries.
Once you’ve done eight weeks of weekly tempo runs, move onto some speed work for the next eight weeks. For example, try doing 5 x 800m hard with 2 minute 30 second recoveries (plus warm up and cool down). Progress your workouts every four weeks to keep your training fresh, and to encourage your body to keep adapting.
For Hilly Ultra Trail races these key runs will include skill specific sessions. Such as training to improve your strength and efficiency in preparation for the ascents and descents you will encounter. Include workouts that have intervals of effort for both up and downhill running.
Any other runs can be done at chatting pace, typically 35 to 75 minutes in duration. If possible, do some of your running on soft surfaces like grass or trails, to reduce the impact on your body. Always be mindful of avoiding injury – over half of all runners are injured every year. Your first goal is always to make the start-line of your target race.
For this reason, we alternate the duration of the long runs in our training plans, so you’re not hammering your body every single weekend. Our training plans feature a three week cycle like this:
Week 1: Moderately Long Sunday Run, Week 2: Long Sunday Run, Week 3: Active Recovery Week.
During your “active recovery weeks” your training is half as much as normal. This gives your body a chance to adapt, boosting your fitness and reducing your chances of getting injured..
After each “active recovery week” we then gradually progress the difficulty of your key workouts, so you’re continually challenged. This pattern of training will ensure you improve at the optimal rate.
In our ultra-marathon training plans there are normally two 40-minute strength and conditioning sessions per week. These workouts can help improve your strength and flexibility, leading to more efficient movement patterns and fewer injuries. We suggest you only do strength work in addition to at least three runs per week, rather than instead of them. However, strength work is an important ingredient when preparing for an ultra-marathon.
Using An Ultra Marathon Plan
Online training plans are for athletes who don’t feel the need for a personal coach, but who still want the structure and planning of an expertly-written training program. People who use training plans have been shown to be twice as likely to succeed in reaching their goals.
If you’re planning to do an Ultra Marathon, it helps if you’re already a runner, and you’ve already conquered some running events over shorter distances, such as a half marathon or marathon. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s a good idea to train for some shorter events first, before taking on the challenge of an Ultra.
About Phil Mosley
As an athlete and parent, I know how challenging it can be to train effectively for endurance events. Being a certified coach with over 20 years’ experience, the biggest challenge is balancing my client’s training with their lifestyle…
And that’s why I started MyProCoach™ – to offer the world’s most comprehensive range of online training plans, all designed to help you enjoy the same success that my athletes and I have, while still making sure you have quality time for your family, friends and career (read 100+ detailed reviews here). You can also hear from me in a series of 6 short explainer videos below:
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