Transition to Ultrarunning: What You Need to Know

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It wasn't that long ago that the typical starting line for an ultramarathon could eerily resemble a few runners meeting up for their regular long run. Flash-forward to today, and there are hundreds flocking to take part in one of The North Face Endurance Race Challenges. The allure of the ultra has spiked; with more runners checking 26.2-mile races off their bucket lists, many are looking beyond the marathon. 

More: 6 Fun Facts About Ultrarunning

Bragging rights may be part of the draw; another explanation could be the challenge of seeing just how far they can push their limits. Add in the endorphins and adrenaline, and you have the hormonal equivalent of a knight riding into battle.

This metaphor isn't too much of a stretch when one considers the rigors of an ultramarathon. Quantified as any race longer than 26.2 miles, an ultra presents a myriad more factors that need to be addressed and prepared for compared to other running events. Nutrition and hydration are critical, not merely for performance, but for simple survival. Being on your feet for hours upon hours in the elements also requires much more diligence when it comes to gear. 

Training and planning for an ultramarathon requires plenty more than just running. It is imperative that you practice the very same fueling routine, and wear the same gear you will use come race day. Use your long runs to find out which foods sit the best in your stomach; how to time your fuel and fluids; and what shoes, clothes, hydration pack, headlamp, etc., you'll use. Training offers the chance to tweak each variable as much as necessary so, come race day, you have a routine primed to get you to the finish line in one piece.

More: 7 Experts on Effective Long-Run Training

How Do You Know if You're Ready for an Ultramarathon? 

"Prior to running the 50-mile distance, I had completed seven marathons and one Ragnar Relay Ultra [with] six runners instead of 12, so I ran 42 miles split between three legs within 24 hours," explains ultrarunning newbie Julia Hubbard after completing her first ultra race. "I have no idea if there is a 'magic number.' I think if you train for something according to your body, strengths, goals, etc., then anything could be possible."

There is no black-and-white criteria and every runner is different, but it's highly recommended that you've been able to run consistently for at least three to five years before you consider running an ultra. Build your way up gradually to the marathon, and complete a fair number of those first. 

This advice applies to adults: Young runners who are still developing shouldn't be in a rush to tackle ultra distances until their bodies have matured and adapted to the stress that any kind of running puts on them.

As your training and weekly mileage increases and you cross the threshold into ultra training, remember:

  • The 10 percent rule: High mileage naturally increases the risk for injury; to safely increase your mileage, remember the 10 percent rule. Only increase your total weekly mileage by 10 percent each week. If you ran 70 miles for one week, the next week you can safely run 77.
  • Running and walking: During an ultra you can't be afraid of walking, or see it as a sign of weakness like you might during shorter races. It's about preserving your legs and, in some cases, it would be counterproductive or impossible to run certain portions of trail on racecourses. 
  • Don't abandon diversity: "I think a lot of ultra athletes love to run, myself included, and if they don't work on speed, that is fine. But if someone else is [working on speed], that someone is probably going to be faster," says elite ultrarunner Michael Wardian, USATF Ultra Runner of the Year (from 2008 to 2011). 

More: Michael Wardian's Ultrarunning Training and Racing Tips