Taking the Leap: Training for Your First Ultra

1.  Introduction.

Move Along

As the holiday season is upon us, and the year draws to a close (ever more-rapidly, it always seems), we in the ultra community tend to look back at the year and celebrate our own accomplishments, and those of our peers.  And there will certainly be time for that…

This week’s article, however, is about and for runners at the other end of the spectrum:  people just starting out in the sport.  Judging simply from the number of reported ultra ‘finishes” in 2013 in Florida, I know that the vast majority of Florida ultrarunners have never run a race beyond a 50k.  So how do you make the jump from a marathon/50k to a longer ultra, such as a 50-miler, a 100-miler, or (gasp) even longer?

Note:  Yes, I am aware that anything longer than 26.2 miles is technically an “ultramarathon.”  I have nothing against 50ks.  From a training perspective, however, they are the same as marathons.  If you finish a marathon, you are in good enough shape to finish a 50k.  And those who win competitive 50ks are ALWAYS marathon runners who extend themselves a few extra miles, versus 100-mile specialists who “drop down.”

2.  It’s All About That Bas(e), ‘Bout That Bas(e), No Treble.

Okay, so you’ve decided you want to run a 50- or 100-miler in 2015, even though the longest official race you’ve ever run is a half-marathon.  First, congrats on your audacious goal; it takes some real guts to put yourself out there like that to all your friends, family, and colleagues.  Most will probably call you crazy.  (And perhaps you are a bit . . . it does take a certain amount of irreverence to even attempt such a feat 🙂

But now that you have your goal, how do you reach it?  The answer — especially those who are new to consistent, daily running — is exceedingly simple:  just start running . . . a LOT.  While many ultrarunners made the jump to ultras after years of racing shorter distances (usually marathons) — I for one ran about 30 marathons before my first ultra — today, we are seeing a lot more runners forgo the marathon to jump straight into ultras.  To a certain extent, I get that:  the culture surrounding marathons is vastly different than ultras, and — in many ways — the “ultra” community is much more inviting and less elitist than the marathon community.  Plus, there is definitely something to be said about not having to look at your watch every 20 seconds during a race to make sure you are on pace.  So okay.

But to successfully finish that first ultra — and by “successfully,” I mean finish without having to basically crawl to the finish line — you are going to need to train . . . hard.  In other articles, I discuss the need for varied training for ultras (such as tempo runs, long runs, etc.), but for the ultra newbie, the first order of business really needs to be building up your fitness to the point you can comfortably run about 6 miles every day, with one run of 10-20 miles on the weekend.  At this point, you need not worry about your speed.  Just get your body comfortable with (a) running daily, and (b) that long(er) weekend run.

Once you can comfortably do that, and average 40-50 miles/week for a few months, you’re ready to start really training for your first ultra.

3.  Quality Consistent Training.

Training for an ultra is not that much different than training for a marathon.  I’ve written a lot about the elements that go into a successful ultra training program, so I’m not going to spend time on it here.  Anyway, here is one such article on that subject:  https://davekrupski.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/coachs-corner-the-secret-of-ultrarunning-the-role-of-rational-confidence/

Like lambs to the slaughter, my ass.

4.  Enjoy the Process and Utilize Shorter Races.

I completely understand why some people have no interest in racing marathons and would rather just move up to ultras.  A number of my runners are signed up for their first 100-miler and have never even run a marathon.  I assure you, though, they will have run a marathon (and likely a 50-mile race as well) before toeing the line at the 100.

Here’s why:  In training for an ultra, you are certainly going to run the marathon distance (likely many times), so why not incorporate an actual marathon as part of your training?  Some of the benefits of signing up for a marathon include:

  • You get to practice your “race-day” routine
  • You have the energy of an actual race
  • You practice dealing with all the pre-race jitters that go along with a marathon (and trust me, even when you’ve run races a LOT longer than marathons, those jitters are still there at the beginning of shorter ones)
  • Running alone is great and all, but if you’re going to do a hard long run, it’s more fun doing it while being surrounded by others and spectators encouraging you the whole way
  • You will learn a LOT of lessons about yourself, as well as get experience dealing with success, and, to some degree, perhaps failure as well (as in not meeting a specific time goal, etc…); all of these lessons can be applied to your true goal ultramarathon.

Dave MTCM 2007-009

(Suffering through a very hot Twin Cities Marathon.  Little did I know then that my definition of “hot” for a race would change considerably in a few years…)

5.  No CrossFit . . . or Other “Fast-Twitch” Sports.

Okay, this one is going to hurt a bit for some people.  Look, I like CrossFit too; it’s fun, it’s competitive, and it’s also addictive seeing how much better you can get at the various lifts/challenges.

But while CrossFit has just recently exploded in popularity, any Division I college athlete from the last 20 years immediately recognizes what CrossFit really is:  a set of workouts/routines used by every major Div I program in the country to develop explosiveness and fast-twitch muscles for mainstream team-sport athletes (such as baseball, football, basketball, and hockey players).  Box jumps, Olympic lifts, kettleballs, etc. — often used in rapid succession — are the bread-and-butter tools of strength coaches in college athletic department gyms all across the country.  (I can’t begin to tell you how many 5am Olympic-lifting sessions I had to wake up for while playing baseball in college…) 🙂

Guess what college sports teams as a group never gets put through any of these types of exercises?  That’s right, cross-country teams.  As college strength coaches are well-aware, cross-country runners need to develop their slow-twitch muscle fibers.  Explosiveness and quick lateral movements are simply not a part of distance running.


(I’m pretty sure Bowerman never made Pre do any clean-and-jerks in the weight room…)

The converse is also true:  football and basketball players don’t go for 20-mile runs.  It would take away from all of the explosiveness/quickness they work so hard every day to develop and keep.


(Returning to Florida to sign up for the 2015 Keys 100???  Puh-robably not.)

Again, I have nothing against CrossFit (or basketball for that matter).  Both are great, and training for and participating in them gets and keeps you in awesome shape.  But they — along with any other “explosiveness/fast-twitch” sport — are simply not compatible with distance running, especially the amount of weekly running needed to be successful at ultras.  If you run that much, and at the same time also still do CrossFit, you are burning the candle at both ends and exponentially increasing your risk of injury.

6.  The Glass is Always Full:  Stay Positive.

Running an ultra is hard.  Training for an ultra is even harder.  It is not easy finding the motivation to win that battle with the alarm clock every single day and get out for a run before work.  Or to come home after a long day of work, have family obligations, and still find time to run.  This is a TOUGH sport.

But the great thing about running — at least for me — is that no matter what I am dealing with in my life, no matter how stressed-out I am, going for a run always makes things seem more manageable.  My problems don’t just go away, but they are always a little bit better and my perspective is always greatly improved after running.

That’s the transformative power of our sport.  We don’t often control what happens to us in life, but we certainly control our attitudes.  And ultras — specifically training for ultras — have taught me that an unflinchingly-positive attitude is the ideal one to strive for.  Staying positive in the face of what seems to be insurmountable odds is what this sport is all about, and indeed is one of the true keys to succeeding in the sport.  Things seem hopeless a LOT during an ultra.  It’s the training and staying positive that gets you through, and allows you to accomplish amazing things:

As my buddy Grant Maughan — who is currently sewing up a podium finish at a 150-mile race in Australia as I write this — says, “anything is possible in this sport with hard work and focus.”  Amen, brother.  If you work your ass off, and keep a positive focus, you’ll beat your Drago, cross the finish line, and maybe even get the Soviets to cheer for you as well 🙂

7.  Community.

The ultrarunning community is a GREAT group to be a part of; many of my best friends are people I met through running ultras.  And for you guys just starting, this is an incredibly friendly and inviting group; we just want to see you succeed and meet your goals, just as our mentors once did for us as well!

So welcome, and we’ll see you “out there” 🙂


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