Have you been considering running an ultramarathon? We’ve been working with a number of long distance runners to compile real world advice when it comes to accomplishing your first ultra. The knowledge they’ve shared with us has been separated into 3 distinct parts of an interview series. Within this first part, the bloggers offer their thoughts and experience on what they felt was the most challenging aspect of preparing for or running an ultra.
Whether you’re making the step from a half marathon, or deciding to push past the 26.2 miles race, give a lending ear to these experts below. They have conquered some of the toughest running challenges and have shared what’s needed to know before making the big leap into the ultra-distance running world.
The Most Challenging Aspects of Your First Ultramarathon
It’s obvious that running 42k+ is going to come with difficulties. But if you haven’t ever gone the ultra distance before, how will you know what to expect? You’re left wondering if the marathons you’ve completed have prepared you enough for what an ultra has in store. Thankfully, these top bloggers have shared their experiences, so you can stop guessing.
Of the many challenges that ultra runners experience when tackling their first ultramarathon, there’s a pretty common consensus about which aspects are most difficult to conquer. From the experts we interviewed, the mental and nutritional aspects were deemed the most challenging.
Taking on such a mileage and terrain intensive race requires plenty of physical capability. However, most people overlook the fact that the mentality of a runner can make or break them, regardless of their physical strengths. Among the most difficult aspects of tackling an ultra, several of the top bloggers we interviewed expressed how crucial it is to have control over your mental and emotional state before and during the race:
“The physical side of training for an ultramarathon can be tough, but the mental side is what gets you across the finish line. Not just on race day, but also throughout training.
The day in and day out of building up to your first ultra can leave you questioning why, or if you can even do this.”
“I find that the most challenging part of an ultra is the mental aspect, which applies to newbies and veterans, alike. It’s important to show up to the start line feeling positive, confident, and determined to finish. I’ve found that starting a race with negativity and self-doubt is like going out with 40 lb weights strapped to your back.
In fact, my worst races are always the ones that I am the most stressed about. I’ve found myself toeing the start line with negative thoughts or even comparing myself to other runners and find myself feeling weighed down. And when I start out negative, when things get tough (and they always do), it’s harder to pull yourself back out again.”
“Rousseau once said ‘patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.’ If you are considering moving from marathons to ultra marathons, training your mind and developing a strong sense of patience may well be your greatest challenge.
To me, the term mental training is really a euphemism for teaching yourself to embrace a mindset. When I switched from marathons to running ultras, I had to teach myself how to think differently. To abandon the mental shackles that controlled my perceptions and expectations about running and being a runner.”
TIPS TO OVERCOME THE MENTAL HURDLES
There are countless ways to have a better grip on your mental state during an ultra; there’s not a “one size fits all” approach. However, these pros have some advice that can help you find what works best for you. From their unique experiences, these ultra bloggers share the methods they use to overcome the mental obstacles that are inevitable in an ultramarathon:
“I recommend runners take it one day at a time, focusing only on that day’s scheduled run. Check that one off the list and move to the next. The same theory applies on race day. Instead of looking at all the miles ahead, focus on just getting through the next mile, or the next ten minutes. Then the ten minutes after that.”
“How do you prepare mentally for an ultra marathon? First step – don’t obsess over pace, especially those coming from a marathon background. You need to throw away the GPS because, as Rousseau said, patience is bitter. Your ego will be threatened to learn that your mile pace, especially during 100 mile distances, will often not be much faster than a brisk walk. Second step, understand that your pace and energy levels will vary wildly depending on the terrain, altitude, vertical gain, descent, heat, daylight, distance covered, and nutrition/hydration. You have to be prepared to roll with this, and don’t try to control it. The mindset that you control your pace and use a GPS to monitor is like thinking you can fly a rocket to the moon with a compass. Think of it this way – when you’re running 100 miles, especially in the mountains, you are entering the stratosphere. What worked at ground level won’t help you up there.
Rather than monitoring your pace, focus inward, on maintaining a steady energy output. This is critical in training because to do this well you need to teach your mind patience and your body how to move efficiently for long periods. Finally, when running ultra’s there will inevitably be highs and lows. Understanding and believing that both will pass is part of the mental training you have to practice. If you can embrace these concepts, you will indeed taste the fruit, and it will be sweeter than ever.”
“The frame of mind you maintain during a race can either be to your ad
vantage or to your demise (metaphorically speaking, of course).
Staying positive and confident throughout is essential. Also, taking the race a piece at a time and not getting caught up in pacing, will help keep your suffering to a minimum, and ultimately get you across the finish line.
DIET AND NUTRITION
In addition to the mental challenges that accompany an ultramarathon, the diet and nutrition needed for having and maintaining sufficient energy to fuel your finish isn’t a cake walk. With the amount of energy you’re exerting, it’s important to feed and hydrate your body in the right way. Even for seasoned marathoners and ultra runners, this aspect of the race is still difficult to master:
“As I often discuss with coaching clients, physical fitness, diet, and mindset are the pillars of ultramarathon preparation.
I grew up around ultrarunning and came from a strong background of adventure racing, mountain biking, and collegiate running; the mindset and physical training came a little bit more naturally for me (which isn’t to say they weren’t hard then or aren’t still tough now).However, diet has been my challenge and evolution over the years. I went from a college kid who shoved down dorm food to a 20-something who ate whatever was cheapest to, now, a mid-30’s athlete, coach, and family guy who’s highly focused on nutrition.”
“The hardest part was to figure out the proper nutrition. Even so, you can practice food and fluids intake during training, but it is very different in a race situation. There is for sure a time needed for working out the details – learning what works for you and what doesn’t. This becomes even more crucial if you work up to real long distances like the 100 miles or longer.”
“Nutrition is by far the hardest. I have a sensitive stomach and finding food that I can eat during a run is extremely hard. I tried things like peanut and nut butters, which just get stuck in your throat and you can’t swallow. I can’t eat anything greasy the day before a long run like pizza. I have found food items such as a plain bagel and black coffee an hour or so before work best for breakfast, but that won’t hold you over very long. Fig Bars work well for me to digest slowly without being harsh on my stomach. Pickle juice – it’s amazing to prevent cramps. I learned the hard way to use it in very small doses…
My favorite gels are Huma Chia Energy Gels. I can take these for hours and hours during a run and they won’t mess with my stomach at all. However, I wouldn’t suggest this, even though they are really tasty (kind of like your favorite jam) it does still get old after a while and your body needs protein as well on those extra long runs.
Some people however, can eat pizza, drink coke, and be totally fine during a run! That is so amazing to me!”
“Second to the mental aspect, nutrition has always been the most ch
allenging aspect of my training and racing.
While I believe that nutrition matters for most races, in an ultra, I feel as though it’s almost more important than the training itself.”
NUTRITIONAL WORDS OF WISDOM
Yet again, there isn’t a “one size fits all” diet and nutrition technique for ultra running. It boils down to trial and error, and experimenting to find what works for your body. However, there are some basic guidelines that can help you with the quest of finding the right balance to fueling your body during an ultra. Based off of individual issues with nutrition, here is what each blogger has to share on combating the challenge of diet and nutrition:
“I follow an “optimized fat metabolism” nutrition style that teaches the body to burn fat as a primary fuel source at relatively high effort levels. This diet has become a key factor in my ultra preparation and general health – and an exercise metabolism test showed that it’s working. I took over 50% of my fuel from fat when maxed out on a treadmill, never reaching the so-called “crossover point”.”
“I learned the hard way, and on more than one occasion,
that eating early and often isn’t just a fun thing to say. In an ultra, you truly need to eat early and eat often to make sure you’re fueling the body properly from start to finish. You’re running a deficit all day and it can be easy to forget just how much energy you actually need to get your body to perform the way you’re asking it to.”
“I’ve failed several times and still, 10 years later, am fine tuning it. So, if your nutrition plan does not work out early on in running ultras, don’t give up.”
“It is all about trial and error and finding what works best for your body. Every ultra runner is going to tell you something different when it comes to what they eat during runs, but they will all say the same thing in the end about testing food out on your long runs. Good luck! Get creative!”
The biology and science that happens within your body during a 26.2+ mile race is amazing. In order to be able to accomplish such a feat, it needs to be fueled and fed in a certain way that is unique to your body. Just as these bloggers have said, you need to learn now what your body needs, eat early and often during the race itself, and don’t get discouraged if finding the balance doesn’t come quickly.
Mentality and nutrition are not the only difficulties that ultra runners endure. Nearly all runners experience challenges preparing for their very first ultra race, even if they have a background in running marathons. Jen Segger offered a unique perspective on her thoughts behind the difficulty of training for your first ultra:
“The most difficult and challenging area of preparing for my first and early stages of ultra running was the physical training aspect.
Training: It’s a daunting task when you are inspired and motivated to tackle an ultra for the first time, but have ZERO clue on how to prepare. While many assume that you “just need to run lots,” this is simply not the case. Too much running can easily lead to overuse injuries, compromised long term health, and the inability to run with any kind of speed or power. For example, “just running lots” will not necessarily make you good at hill climbing, fast, and efficient on the flats or be able to conserve energy and run effortlessly down hills. When I was preparing for my first ultra race, it appeared like training smart was one big puzzle. Knowing how to increase mileage safely, how to incorporate speed training into things, and how to become better on hills was at first a mystery. Pair that with availability to train, life commitments, work, and actually having quality workouts was something that I had to address right away upon entering the sport if I was to have any kind of longevity. And recovery….how much do you need?”
For those who struggle with knowing how to train for an ultra, don’t fret. You are not alone. Majority of first-time ultra runners are unsure of how to be ready to tackle such a race. Although there aren’t “exact” and “specific” training schedules that can guarantee your success, Jen has shared her thoughts on how she handled training:
“What I discovered in learning how to train was that there was a lot of one size fits all (ie – cookie cutter) training programs out there, which made me question how and why should everyone train the same when all runners are starting at different fitness levels, with different goals, and with different strengths and weaknesses. It seemed like a sure way to get injured super fast. I also realized quickly that there were not actually a whole lot of coaches who understood the sport of ultrarunning as it was so new and, therefore, there were not a lot of people coaching it with great expertise. However, I knew that I wanted a coach to guide me for the following reasons:
- Master Plan – someone who could see the end goal and work backwards in how to actually get me ready.
- Someone to tell me when to push and when to recover.
- To have a daily plan to follow so that I knew what to do for training each day of the week. No more guessing.
- Guidance on how to train smart and make the most out of time allowance.
So with those reasons, I did hire a great coach and mentor to guide me in pursuit of my ultra running goals. While I didn’t lack motivation, I actually needed someone to tell me to rest and relax; the other important side to training!
In fact, my involvement in ultra running over 12 years ago and having a coach is one of the main reasons that I pursued a career in the endurance coaching realm. I was inspired to guide others through this training journey and to share my experiences. To this day, I remain committed to always staying on top of the latest in endurance research and how to work effectively with a wide scope of my athletes in my coaching practice.”
The mental, nutritional, and training difficulties of ultras are hurdles you’ll definitely encounter, but they are not impossible feats to conquer. From each of these categories, there’s a level of experimentation, patience, and positivity that is required. Plus, from the help and advice of these experienced runners, you can be more prepared to accomplish your first ultra distance endeavor.
Stay tuned for the next part of this interview series when the ultra bloggers debunk the most common misconceptions about ultrarunning!
THE ULTRA BLOGGERS
Thank you to all our bloggers that participated and shared their knowledge on this topic! If you’d like to follow them and read more about their adventures and experiences as ultrarunners, visit their websites!
Josh Arthur –www.runjosharthur.com
Katie Bassett –sunkissedredhead.blogspot.com
Will Cooper –www.willrunlonger.com
Doug Hay –www.rockcreekrunner.com
Travis Macy –www.travismacy.com
Thomas Reiss –thomasreiss.com
Jen Segger –jensegger.com