I thought it would be helpful to put a FAQ together based on all the questions I get asked on a regular basis. I should add a disclaimer at the start to say I am not qualified in any way at all to give advice – I’m definitely not an expert and I don’t hold myself out to be one. These answers are based on my own experience and hopefully will help give you an idea on what it takes to do an ultra-marathon.
What is an ultra-marathon?
An ultra-marathon is an umbrella term for any race/event longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). The most common distances to race are 50km (31 miles) and 100km (62 miles) but it can be anything over 27 miles. It can also be multi-stage events like double marathons, 24 hour races and challenges like Marathon Des Sables which covers 251km over 6 days.
What’s the main difference between a marathon and an ultra
The most obvious difference is the distance. A marathon is 26.2 miles whereas an ultra is anything further than that. For me, the other main difference is the way you approach it. This is just my experience but I find marathons carry a lot of pressure. You want to get a good time. You want to try and run the whole thing. When you tell people you have run a marathon, the first question they usually ask is “what time did you do?”. I hate that. Why does it matter what time I did? I just ran a marathon! When you tell people you have run an ultra, they ask a number of questions including “what does that mean”, “how far did you run”, “where did you do that”…or simply “wow, well done!” In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter what other people think, but it probably will reflect in the pressure you put on yourself.
How far do you recommend going in training?
Well that depends on a number of factors: what distance you are training for, what your current training looks like, how experienced you are, etc.
You can see my Race to the Stones 100km training last year by clicking here. In summary, the race was in July. I trained for a marathon in April and then increased the training thereafter. I did several 20+ mile runs and tried to do 3 peak weeks of 50 miles where I ran 6 days a week and two back-to-back long runs. I read somewhere that (within reason) your weekly mileage should be the same distance as the race. I felt very happy with my training last year and felt strong the whole way through the race. This year has been a little different. I have had several injuries which have prevented me from getting a decent amount of training in. I am doing Race to the King in a few days which is 85km. I have done 2 marathons in training and some 10+ mile runs. I am nowhere near as prepared as I was last year, but I know that I will get myself through it.
What training plan do you recommend?
This is probably one of the most popular questions I get asked. I realise this answer might not be very helpful but I used my own training plan. I put my own plan together based on my existing training/schedule and sent it to a number of different coaches at my running club to check. I then sent it to a couple of experienced ultra-marathon runners to get their input. With the advice I received from all of those people, I basically had a plan which was tailored to me. I think there are some great training plans out there (for example the Threshold plans are really good, as are the ASICS ones). However, it’s really important that you factor in your own life/work/childcare commitments. Don’t be afraid to move things around slightly. For example, this is what one of my peak weeks looked like for the 100km last year:
Monday – 4 miles
Tuesday – 6 miles
Wednesday – 3 miles
Thursday – 7 miles
Friday – REST
Saturday – 20 miles
Sunday – 10 miles
How do you build up for such a big race both mentally and in fitness.
The best way to build up fitness is gradually. I’m sure you’ve heard of the 10% rule (don’t try to increase your training by more than 10% per week). If you do 20 miles a week now, don’t jump straight up to 30 miles. Give yourself enough time to build your mileage up and factor in plenty of breaks for injuries and other unforeseen circumstances. You don’t want to be rushing it if it’s your first ultra-marathon.
As for the mental side of it, having a good training block will definitely help. Everyone has different things that worry them. For example, last year, I did the 100km over two days because I wasn’t sure that I could run 61 miles in one day. When I signed up, I hadn’t even run a marathon so it was a huge daunting exercise. I found that breaking it down into smaller goals helped me. I started my training in January/February and slowly built up to marathon distance. Once I’d completed the London Marathon in April I knew I would be able to get through day 1 at the very least. Then I started incorporating back to back long runs. So I would run 20 miles on the Saturday and then between 8-15 miles on the Sunday. I think I did that 3-4 times. Of course, I was still worried the night before the race that (i) I hadn’t done enough training (ii) that I would be too achey to get up and run day 2 (iii) that I would embarrass myself and have to pull out. Those kind of fears are normal. We all get them. In reality I had done more than enough training and by the time I woke up on the morning of the race, I just got myself into race mode. There were pit stops approx. every 10km so I just focused on getting through each of them. Break it down. Small manageable chunks.
If you know that you suffer from pre-race nerves and anxiety, you might want to check out my previous blog post on dealing with this.
Do you have to be fast to run an ultra-marathon?
No! You definitely do not have to be fast. In fact, that is why I love them so much. Unless it’s a really competitive race, you can be as slow as you like. Ultra-marathons are a lot more popular than they used to be. The cut off times are more generous and they accept walkers. When I did the 100km last year, we thought we were really slow. We averaged approximately 13-14 minute miles. When we finished and got the results, we discovered we were still in the top third of female runners. If that’s not reassuring, I don’t know what is!
Do you need to have specific trail shoes or are normal trainers perfectly acceptable?
That really depends on what race you are doing! If you are doing a trail race in the winter or after a lot of rain, you should probably consider trail shoes. If you are running a trail race in the summer and it hasn’t been raining, you might be okay with road shoes. Personally, I had the 100km in road shoes. The terrain consisted of chalky paths, bridal paths, grass and forest trails. It hadn’t rained much before the race, and whilst it did pour with rain for the first couple of hours on day 1, I felt more comfortable and sturdy in my road shoes. The answer to this question really depends on you and what you feel comfortable with. Try both sets of trainers and see which you prefer.
What hydration pack should I take?
It depends how far you are running and what the kit requirements are. Do you have mandatory items you need to carry? How much water will you need? Are there pit stops?
I have tried a few hydration packs. I started with a free Camelbak that I got with my Runners World subscription. I think it had 1 litre bladder with a small pocket for keys etc. I didn’t get on with it at all. It certainly wasn’t a female fit and it didn’t have any easy access pockets for food etc. When I trained for the London Marathon last year, I upgraded myself to a Women’s Nathan Intensity which I bought from Amazon for about £60. It was a great beginner hydration pack! It fit me so well. I had several pockets on the front, a bladder and 1 large/1 small pocket on the back. It got me through a lot of training runs. Sadly the bladder split and got a huge hole in it a few weeks before the marathon and whilst Nathan sent me a replacement, that bladder split after 2 uses too. I asked for a replacement but they couldn’t get one to me.
Ergo, I ended up upgrading to a much nicer (and more expensive, gulp) hydration pack. Enter the Salomon ADV 12 Skin. It set me back an eye watering £120 from Wiggle but as soon as I took it out of the packaging, I fell in love with it. It hugged my body, my figure, my lumps and bumps. It fastened at the front using multiple clips which you could move depending on where you wanted to fasten it. It had a MILLION pockets on the front, side, back. It came with two soft flasks rather than a bladder which meant that I could have my water on the front with me. I could top up my water without taking the bag off! It also came with a cheeky hidden foil blanket and space for a bladder (including a foil bag to keep the bladder cool). They had literally thought of everything. Loops for walking poles, tiny zipped pockets for keys, cash and valuables. Big wide stretchy pockets for clothes, maps, etc. Long narrow pockets for gels and energy chews. It has changed my life!
What do you carry with you?
When I’m on my training runs, I try to keep my pack as light as possible. If I’m doing a long run of say, 20 miles, I would carry 2 x 500ml flasks of water (one with electrolyte in), 3 x gels, 1 x pack of shot bloks, electrolyte tablets, keys and a bit of cash. I also ALWAYS wear my SPIbelt as well as my hydration pack. I forgot to take it with me a few months ago and had to put my phone in the same pocket as my food. I ended up getting nakd bar stuck in the speaker of my phone and it broke! So now I can’t use my phone for calls. For that reason, I always carry my SPIbelt to store my phone in. It’s like my safety blanket and it means I can keep it separate.
When I’m in the race, I tend to carry a bit more. Have a look at my other blog post for a list of things I will be taking to Race to the King. Generally, I carry all of the above, PLUS a first aid kit, spare pair of socks, a lightweight jacket, battery pack and tissues. You might have a mandatory kit list of things you need to carry i.e. map, head torch etc. Make sure you read all of the race guidance before you pack your kit. It’s also a good idea to practice running with your bag full (even if it’s just 1 mile) so that you know how it will feel and where everything will go.
I can’t offer you any discount codes for hydration packs but I do have a 20% off code for SPIbelt. Try “SPIMARTHA” at the checkout.
Do you run the whole ultra?
I personally don’t! Not even close! I don’t know many people who can run 100km without walking. My strategy last year was to walk all of the hills and then run the flats and the downs (where possible). This strategy worked perfectly on day 1, but by day 2, we were quite tired and ended up walking a lot of the flats or technical bits too. It doesn’t matter if you walk. An ultra-marathon is less about the time and more about the challenge so if you feel like walking, just do it! There were stretches where we walked for 2 miles at a time because we felt that we needed it. I didn’t even feel a little bit guilty.
My only advice is to practice walk/running before the race. When I was doing my peak weeks of 50 miles, I ran/walked at least 4 of my runs a week. It took quite a lot of work getting my body used to run/walking. It also takes willpower to start running when you’ve had a nice little walking break!
What do you eat the night before?
To carb load or not to carb load. That is the question. I went crazy for carb loading when I did my first marathon. I started a week before and took it really seriously. I then felt really sick and bloated. It made no difference to my performance at all. I consumed just as much food and drank as much water as I normally would. Therefore, I don’t really bother much anymore. I try to increase my carbs a little bit in the days leading up to the race. I also decrease my fibre too (don’t worry any jippy belly problems on race morning!). I eat my main meal at lunchtime so that I don’t go to bed bloated. For example (assuming the race is on a Saturday):
Thurs – porridge (breakfast), apple and banana (snacks), bagel x 2 with cream cheese, chicken and spinach (lunch), fish/chicken with rice and veg (dinner)
Fri – porridge (breakfast), lots of pasta with chicken and pesto (lunch), fish with veg (dinner)
Sat – porridge (breakfast), half banana (1 hour before)
What do you eat during the ultra?
I recently did a blog post on what I like to eat when running. See here. It’s slightly different when I’m in an ultra because I’m running slower and I can stomach more solid food. Last year in my 100km, I started off conservatively and had a shot blok after 40 minutes and then a few bits of nakd bar. When we got to the first pit stop (approx. 90 mins in), I had half a banana and half a perkier bar. I continued to eat my shot bloks and nakd bars. When we got to pit stop 2, I had a chat with a first aider because I had been experiencing tummy cramps. She said that when you get cramps whilst running it’s because either (i) you haven’t eaten enough or (ii) you haven’t drunk enough. I knew I had drunk enough because I was getting through both of my soft flasks between each pit stop. Therefore, I tried a different strategy. I had a packet of salty crisps. I picked up some maoam sweets and had another half a banana. I felt SO much better. I actually had energy. I continued sharing a packet of salty crisps with my husband, half a banana and some sweets at each pit stop. I then topped up with nakd/trek bars in between the pit stops. What a brilliant strategy that ended up being for me! On day 2, I even started having chocolate fudge bars and nuts. Surprisingly, it went down really well and kept my energy levels high. Food is fuel and I really learned that eating properly kept me going (especially as I burned over 3,500 calories each day!)
I should also say that I was adding 1-2 High5 electrolyte tablet(s) into one of my 500ml flasks at each pit stop. It really really helped to keep me hydrated and replace the salts I had been losing from the sweat. This year I will be using Precision Hydration (which is a stronger) as well as the High5 electrolyte tablets.
What do you eat after the ultra?
When I got to base camp at 50km last year, I had a glass of chocolate milk within the first 30 minutes. This year I will have a protein shake. I then made my way over to the food tent and devoured 2 pieces of cake (just because?). For dinner, we had pasta, veg and chicken. The food they offered wasn’t great and I’m pretty sure I topped it up with my own nakd bar. When I finished on day 2, I finished off the chocolate milk and helped myself to whatever they had on offer. I think it was pizza, muffins and chips? It definitely wasn’t healthy. However, when I woke up on Monday (the day after), I had zero aches and pains, so it obviously worked!
Do you need to taper?
I don’t remember tapering much for my ultra last year. The whole point of the ultra is that you spend a lot of time on your feet so you probably don’t need to taper as much as you would for a marathon. You’re not racing to the same level and your body gets fatigued in a different way. There’s a lot of difference in opinion online about it. I vaguely remember my last long run being about 10 miles (the week before) and then doing 3 short easy runs in the week. I stopped running after Thursday with the race being on Saturday. This year I’ve naturally tapered but only because I’ve had a broken toe and my training runs have all been combined with days out/events.
Do you wear compression? If so, when?
I love compression gear. Since wearing it, I have had less fatigue and cramping in my legs. I have always suffered from tight calves and whilst I still suffer occasionally, the calf sleeves and socks I wear really help. I’m sure they help me run faster and further due to the increase in blood flow. If I’m running long distance, I always wear my sleeves. I stick a pair of compression leggings on as soon as I’ve finished too. In fact, I often sleep in my compression leggings when I’ve done a big run or race. I usually find that when I wake up the next day, I have less/no aches and pains.
If you want to find out more about compression, check out my previous blog post. I can also get you a 20% discount on any Zero Point products (which I now use), if you enter ZPMARTHA at the checkout.
How do you prevent blisters/chafing?
I suffer terribly from blisters AND chafing. Yay. For blisters on my feet, I don’t like using Compeed or blister plasters. I don’t think they work. They might help once you’ve got the blister, but they don’t prevent them and they are prone to falling off with sweaty hot feet. I always douse my feet in talcum powder (you can get special powder for runners but I find talc or baby powder just as effective) before I put my socks on. I have also recently bought some Injinji socks (you know, the funky toe ones). So far so good! For chafing, the only thing that works for me is taping. I have tried Vaseline, BodyGlide and various other products. They don’t work for me. I still chafe. Therefore, I tape up all of my problem areas with KT tape before I do a long run: my back, under my bra line, my underarms and sometimes my feet etc. I have not once chafed since using this method.
Do you change shoes or socks?
Personally, I don’t…. but many do. I can cope for 8 hours running in the same shoes and socks no problems. I might take my socks off, reapply the talc and then put them back on. It really depends on you. If it aint broke, don’t try to fix it. Go with what you would normally do.
How do you control breathing when running?
This doesn’t just apply to ultras, but running generally. I used to really struggle with my breathing. I would find my heart racing in my chest, sometimes struggling to catch a breath. Oddly, it’s so much worse in the winter when it’s cold. My running coach taught me a few simply techniques to help with this, which I still use now when I’m running up hills or racing fast.
Take deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Count 5 slow breaths and have a break. Breathe normally again for a minute or two. Then try exhaling by blowing. Take a really deep breath in (until you feel your chest rise) and then dramatically/forcefully blow it out. Like a really big sigh. Make an exaggerated sighing noise if that helps (I do!). Relax your shoulders and your arms. Repeat a few times as necessary. What this does is get rid of all of the air in your lungs. It resets the cycle. It won’t immediately sort out your breathing but over time, using these techniques will help.
If you have a question which hasn’t been answered here, just send me a message and I can do my best to answer it!