Ultra-Marathon Training Guide
In this guide, let’s get you ready to tackle events longer than the marathon. As you know, “ultras” take on all shapes and sizes. There are road 50 kilometer runs that aren’t too different than racing a marathon just with 5 more miles added on. And on the other extreme, there are 100+ mile races over arduous terrain with inclement weather and high altitude.
As a result, your training must address not only the factors for success (outlined below) but also the type of course you’re racing on.
Let’s dive in and discuss all things ultra.
Factors for Success
It doesn’t matter if you’re running a flat, smooth 50K or the Western States (100 mile) Endurance Run, the factors for success are similar. Yes. There are slight modifications from one to the other but overall, here are the items you need to improve for ultra success.
Factor #1: Leg Durability
The first factor is leg durability. While many runners think about cardiovascular fitness when training for a race, long races like ultra-marathons are more dependent on the ability of your legs to handle the pounding across the race than on your cardiovascular fitness. After all, the average marathoner takes 35,000 to 45,000 steps during the race so imagine how many steps you take in an ultra! You can have great cardiovascular fitness but if your legs can’t handle the pounding then you’ll hit the wall and struggle to finish.
A key aspect of training is to develop legs that can handle the distance. My training achieves this in four ways – sustainable and consistent weekly mileage, long runs, back to back long runs, race-specific long runs (over similar terrain as your race) and specialty leg strengthen exercises like in the available Marathon Legs program.
Factor #2: Mental Toughness
I cannot say enough about this factor. While we love to talk about the physical training, a lot of ultra-marathon training is to condition your mind to the extreme mental suffering that occurs in the race. It’s just really hard to run for hours and hours and it gives the mind a lot of time to either be in a positive mindset or have lots of pity parties.
As a result, you need to be one tough runner to really nail an ultra race. I’ve seen it in the pros I coach as well as everyday runners like you and me. If you have a strong mind, particularly in the second half, you can battle the fatiguing feelings your brain is throwing at you instead of what many runners do and that is slow down later in the race. And trust me, there will be periods of the race where you feel excited and motivated and others where you are feeling down. The training must help you develop strategies to deal with the down periods, so you keep moving forward.
Factor #3: Nutrition/Fueling
One of the toughest parts of ultra-marathoning is fueling. You’ve probably heard that you have plenty of fat within your body to power you for hours and hours but even at ultra pace, you also burn carbohydrates and those carbohydrate stores (called glycogen) are limited. Plus, the brain needs fuel too so you’re fueling not just for your muscles but also for your brain. A happy brain likes to keep pushing. An unhappy brain sends lots of fatigue messages. Fueling helps keep your brain happy.
There are about as many fueling strategies as there are runners so it may take some experimentation to find what works for you. That said, here is my article on fueling to give you a head start on your fueling plan. You’ll need to experiment a lot to find what works for you in different conditions. Some fueling might work great in cool conditions, but you may need another method in hot conditions. Some might work great early in the race yet a different strategy is needed later in the race. Experimentation is the key to dialing it in.
Factor #4: Equipment
Equipment can be a huge performance booster or limiter in ultra-marathons. Get it right and it’s smooth sailing. Get it wrong and it can be a tough day at the races.
For shorter races, the concern is usually just for shoes and apparel (and maybe hydration). But for ultras, you may need to change clothes multiple times. You may need to change footwear (and socks) multiple times. You may need to carry more fluids/nutrition for a part of the race then less for another part. You may need hiking poles for the steep climbs but not need them for flatter sections. And don’t forget about lighting. Many ultra races involve running in the dark and that’s another critical piece of the puzzle for ultra success.
Components of a Successful Ultra-Marathon Plan
Learning the factors for success is one thing, but we also need to know how to address them in training. Here are my components of a great training plan for an ultra race.
#1) Sustainable and Consistent Mileage with Down Weeks
I’m a fan of stacking successful week on top of successful week. The only way to do that is to select a training plan that is sustainable so you can be consistent. Too often, runners select a plan that will only fit into their lives when everything goes perfectly. How often does that happen? Hardly ever. That’s why I like runners to select a training plan where the training load has some “wiggle room” meaning that they can still accomplish the training even if “life happens.” That’s why I have different levels of plans so you can find the one that best fits your life.
Additionally, a great plan must have flexibility so you can adjust it based on how you’re feeling and your life schedule. In my plans, I always provide a range for the volume (mileage), intensity and frequency (# of days per week) so you can adjust as necessary. Further, I empower my athletes to adjust. Here is more on the concept of adjusting based on how you are feeling. As you get more comfortable adjusting your plan, you’ll see injuries decrease and the quality of your running soar.
Lastly, a smart training plan will have “down weeks” every third or fourth week. A down week is a reduction in training load by 15-25% to allow the musculoskeletal system to recover and for the mind to recharge before the next training block. My plans allow down weeks and the result has been a huge reduction in injuries and much higher quality training. That’s a win-win that has been part of my secret to success. Here is my video on down weeks.
#2) Long Runs
It goes without saying that a proper plan for a long race needs long runs. Remember, you need long runs 1) to fatigue the leg muscles (to address leg durability), 2) to learn to burn more fat and spare your limited carbohydrate stores (and to increase the carbohydrate stores), 3) practice fueling and 4) to expose the brain to suffering from running for hours and hours – all related to the factors of success mentioned earlier. Due to its importance, I have several articles and videos linked in the resources section below – but here is a good one to start with.
In my plans, I like to build up the long runs at a safe rate while taking a “down” or step back week every 3rd or 4th week so the body can recover. Building up then reducing the long run to a shorter level in this way has greatly reduced the injury rate in my runners.
Then, once we get to 8-10 weeks before the race, I begin to alternate a regular long run (run at an easy effort with the goal of just covering the distance/time) with fast finish long runs, where you run the middle/later stages of the run at a faster pace and then try to run the last 10-15 minutes as fast as you can. These fast finish long runs are my secret to racing success as they give you lots of practice at running fast while suffering. That’s exactly what you’ll face in the race so getting used to it in small doses in training is very helpful.
#3) Back to Back Long Runs
Not only are long runs important but because it’s tough to prepare for such long races in one run, another great strategy is to include back to back long runs. In my plans, I have some weekends where you do a long run on one day, then follow the next day with another (somewhat shorter) long run. These back to back long runs really help develop strong legs and a strong mind – both key to a successful ultra-marathon.
They take some getting used to but over the course of your training, you’ll find your body and mind getting stronger excelling at them.
#4) Race-Like Experimentation
A great training plan includes goal pace workouts. Grooving your goal pace keeps you from going too fast too early in the race. Plus, goal pace workouts make you more economical at it. Plus, your brain learns what goal pace feels like when you are fresh at the start of a run as well as when you are fatigued later in a run.
My plans include a sequence of goal pace workouts that start with short, easily accomplishable goal pace workouts and build and build across the training so that by the time you get to the race, you really have goal pace dialed in and know with confidence that you can achieve your goal. (And if your goal pace workouts aren’t going well, you’ll know to adjust your expectations so you can still have a positive race.)
With ultra racing, you also need to practice running on the same terrain at the same time of day in similar weather and using the same gear, so you really know how your body is going to react in the race.
You also need to learn how to best distribute your effort, particularly if running over hilly or technical terrain where pace isn’t a good gauge. You use goal pace workouts to learn where it’s better to power hike than run and you get a hefty dose of mental suffering. The exposure to mental suffering is a great chance to develop strategies for how you will deal with it in the race.
While it’s not possible to completely replicate an ultra in training like you can shorter races, these dress rehearsals make race day smooth sailing.
#5) Workout Variety
Another aspect to a great plan is variety in workouts. I never like plans that simply repeat the same workout(s) week after week. I feel the body and mind get stale. Instead, I like to have lots of variety in workouts – some that challenge your stamina, some that challenge your speed, some your hill running and some that challenge your running form. Not only does a variety in workouts keep the training fun, but they make goal pace feel easier. And we know that doing faster workouts improves your running economy. It’s a win-win-win.
After entering your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator, you’ll see the Recommended Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of workouts, I recommend you include in your training plan if you aren’t using one of my plans.
#6) Practice Fueling
I mentioned that fueling was one of the factors for success so a great training plan must have opportunities to practice your fueling. Dial it in in training so that on race day you can be on auto pilot and just execute what you’ve learned has worked. My plans include multiple dress rehearsals for the race where you will practice your fueling (as well as pace, gear, etc.). The better rehearsed you are, the better race day will go.
Don’t get hurt. I’m going to say it again. Don’t get hurt. A few years ago, I made it my mission to reduce running injuries. If you’ve seen any of the research, it shows that 50-80% of runners get injured every training cycle to the point that it interrupts their training. That’s unacceptable.
As a result, I not only created plans that better fit into runner’s lives and how they are feeling, but my plans include your prehab (core, strength and mobility) routines. The combination of these smarter, more flexible training plans -plus the prehab routines- resulted in a reduction in the injury rate for athletes using McMillan plans by 80%!
I’m really proud of that as there is nothing worse than a runner who can’t run. I never want you to be the fittest spectator at your goal race. With my plans, you’ll get to the starting line healthy and the finish line faster.
Start your New McMillan Plan
Enough talking. Let’s start training!
I have them for different runner levels (novice, intermediate and advanced) and for different runner types (speedster, combo and endurance monsters) so you can find the perfect plan for you.
If you want to add coaching access to your training plan, I’m here to help. I created my online training called Run Team. In Run Team, you get your training plan, all of your prehab routines, a weekly check-in email from me and the opportunity to ask any questions you have as you train. You can try Run Team for free here.
Bonus Feature: Better Prep Improves Your Chances
If you have more than three months until your race, you can add preparatory training to help you get even more prepared to excel in the race-specific training. My prep plans help you build a bigger aerobic base (including more long runs), get faster so 5K pace feels easier, build your durability so you don’t get hurt in the training plan and allow you to enter your race plan excited to really nail the workouts and the race.
Here is an article on how I like to sequence the plans to build a longer training cycle. And here is my article on the preparatory plans.
I know you can conquer the ultra-marathon. It just takes a smart plan that allows flexibility along with prehab training, so you stay healthy. My plans provide both along with a fun dose of variety and just the right amount of brain training to keep the training exciting and build a brain that helps you get the most from yourself on race day. I look forward to working with you!
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