From marathon to ultramarathon: how to adjust your training

Sunday’s run: 20 miles along the Greensand Way in Kent

Making the leap

Over the last week, I’ve twice been asked for advice about training for an ultra. It seemed easier to respond with a blog post than a text message. Specifically, the question is this: how do I turn marathon shape into ultramarathon shape?

I’m no expert. In fact, when it comes to ultramarathons, I’m a complete beginner. The 46-mile Beacons Ultra, which I ran in November last year, is the only race on my ultrarunning CV. But I did win the race, and my time compared favourably with those from previous years.

There are a few things in particular that prepared me, physically and psychologically, for a six-hour jaunt in the hills. My research into ultramarathon training didn’t extend much further than listening to TalkUltra. Instead, I adapted the principles that underpin any decent marathon plan and formulated something that might work for a hilly trail race that I knew should take around six and a half hours to complete.

I got a lot wrong, no doubt, but here are a few principles that I think helped me avoid the most common problems faced by debut ultramarathoners, from hitting the wall to unbearable chafing.

Train for the terrain

Be specific. If you’re training for a trail race, don’t run exclusively on tarmac. If your target race is in the hills, you’ll need to tear yourself away from the comfort of the canal towpath.

How I did it: for my long runs, I headed to Epping Forest. The sliver of woods between Whipps Cross and the M25 doesn’t compare to the Welsh hills, but running on this terrain did at least ensure I was comfortable on uneven ground.  A medium-long run in the week, usually 16 miles, would take in London’s premier mountain, Parliament Hill. And then there were the hill reps: 20 x Primrose Hills sounds brutal, but at the steady pace I was doing them, it was more… boring.

Don’t give up on speed work – just don’t take it too seriously
If you’re trying to perform well over 50 or 100k on the road, I’m sure interval sessions have their place in an ultramarathon buildup. But I’m not convinced that marathon sessions of the kind described last week are likely to improve your performance in an ultra-trail race. It’s more likely to leave you injured. That said, speed work is the best way to remind your body that race pace is far slower than you’re capable of running.

What I did: I would regularly include 10 x 100m strides on my weekday runs, usually on the grass. 10 x 10sec hill sprints were another way in which I got my legs turning over, fooling my body into feeling like it was still capable of speed. These micro efforts left the body fresh for the runs that mattered. Runs like:

The long long run
A couple of times I did back-to-back long runs at the weekend (20 miles on Saturday, 20 miles on Sunday). But nothing prepares you for an ultra better than spending four or five hours running, however slow.

What I did: During the buildup to the Beacons Ultra, I managed two 30-mile runs and one 35 miler, all of them off-road. I might not recommend three 26+ mile runs to those unaccustomed to high mileage, but I think it’s wise to do at least one long long run during an ultra marathon buildup. They provide the best opportunity to get into the following two habits.

Eat and run
While you can get away with sticking to gels in a marathon, for anything further, you’re going to need solids. Get used to running with proper food and give yourself a few options.

What I did: on long runs, for every hour that passed, I had something to eat: a banana, a Natural Valley or a Cliff Bar. I’ve no idea of the nutritional content of these items – I can’t imagine a pro pulling out a Nature Valley – but they seemed to go down ok, and they took the edge off the hunger.

All the gear
If you’re running a race of up to three hours in length, I say don’t worry about kit. Pull on the Karrimor short shorts and crack on. But for anything longer, it pays to have the right gear. That’s not say expensive gear – just something that works (in the case of waterproofs) and that is comfortable (in the case of tops and tights and race packs). If you finish a 20 miler with mild chafing, imagine the damage after 50.

What I did: I was never going to need my compulsory kit (whistle, compass, space blanket) in Epping Forest, but I took it anyway. It’s not just getting used to the weight of the pack; it’s learning how to pack your bag so that it sits comfortably on your back and so that the important things are accessible.

If you feel like you’re running too slow, go slower
It’s obvious, but it should never be underestimated: If race pace is going to be three minutes per mile slower than marathon pace, get used to it.

What I did: with long long runs and back-to-back long runs, it was quite easy to clock up to 100 miles a week. I reached a point that will be familiar to any marathoner who is nearing their target race: that permanent state of weariness. In reality, it took very little effort to go slow, but telling myself that it was ok to do so? That was much, much harder.

This week’s running

Monday: 7.46 miles in 55:37 (AM); 6.14 miles in 44:29 (PM)
Tuesday: 5.95 miles in 44:39 (AM); 5.81 miles in 42:40 (PM)
Wednesday: 1.61 miles to Regents Park track; 10.01 miles, including 15 minutes at 5:40m/m, 3 minutes easy, 5 x 4 minutes at 5:20m/m, 3 minutes easy, 15 minutes at 5:40m/m; 1.7 miles back to the office
Thursday: 6.10 miles in 46:02 (AM); 7.41 miles in 55:16 (PM)
Friday: 7.56 miles in 56:23; 5.63 miles in 42:05 (PM)
Saturday: 2.62 miles in 20:00 to Hackney Marshes; 4.34 miles in 25:38 (6 x 3 minutes on the grass); 2.06 miles in 16:05 warm down.
Sunday: 20.01 miles in 2:33:00 (7:39 m/m) off-road in Kent

2 Replies to “From marathon to ultramarathon: how to adjust your training”

  1. Thanks Sam this has been really helpful in the lead up to my (ridiculous) attempt to try an ultra in June. Im also aiming to win, which im sure is completely achievable. My only concern is that itll be too easy!

    Keep up the blogging, great work


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