Yes You Can: Run an Ultramarathon

An ultramarathon isn't just a race: It's a windy, rocky, leg-trashing trail to self-enlightenment. Get ready to run your first 50-miler with tips from our ultra experts, plus nutrition advice and a complete 20-week training plan.

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
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Any ultrarunner will tell you each step past 26.2 miles is transcendental. “It’s a willingness to get really uncomfortable for self-enlightenment,” says ultra coach Jimmy Dean Freeman, who ran his first 50-miler in 2005 after seeing “Ultramarathon Man” Dean Karnazes speak at the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco.

Thanks to books like Born to Run and celebs like Karnazes, participation in ultrarunning events has more than doubled over the past five years, according to Ultrarunning Magazine. Last year, more than 52,000 people tested their grit at 717 ultra-distance events held in North America.

The draw lies in something beyond tight abs and a roaring metabolism. Forget worrying about time and rank. Running 50 miles is an exploration of your own resolve—a psychological challenge that borders on a spiritual awakening. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

“Don’t do it!” is the first thing Freeman tells runners considering a 50-miler (a typical intro distance for aspiring ultramarathoners). “Imagine how difficult it is to train for 26.2 miles, the sacrifices and the challenges both physical and mental." Then tack on a battered immune system, amplified exhaustion, and a higher risk of injury.

“You’re not doubly as healthy running 50 miles,” Freeman says. “You’re not doubly as fit.”

So why go the distance? It all comes back to the mental challenge and the opportunity for personal growth. “I definitely have learned new levels of patience, perseverance, and focus through participating in 50- and 100-mile mountain races," Freeman says. "I’m a better person than I might have been otherwise.”

The Top 10 Ultramarathon Training Tips

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Runners at the Donadea 50KM Ultramarathon in Ireland. (Peter Mooney/Flickr)

It goes without saying that running 50 miles at a stretch is far from easy. “There’s a different understanding of the human spirit that comes about when even getting food down is a luxury,” Freeman says. Below, the country’s top 50-mile runners share their tips for going the distance

Your Advisers

Michele Yates, Two-time national 50-mile trail champion and course record holder

Cody Moat, 2013 national 50-mile trail champion and course record holder

Jimmy Dean Freeman, owner of Coyote Running coaching and training programs, five-time 50-miler finisher, and finisher of more than 30 ultra-distance races

10. Pick your hydration pack
Yes, there will be aid stations. But there’s no telling how much time will pass between them, so bring your own fluids in a handheld bottle, pack, or belt. Which one you choose is a matter of preference. Yates favors a belt, citing a 2010 study that found carrying loads close to the core is more economical than handheld bottles. That said, Moat set a course record at the last 50-mile trail championships running with a handheld he fashioned out of a plastic water bottle and duct tape.

9. Test everything
“Spend time on your runs trying stuff out,” Moat says. That includes your race-day fuel plan and the extra clothes and gear you’ll wear to compete. “In a road race, I’ll usually just wear boy-cut shorts and a sports bra,” Yates says. “But in a [trail] ultra, I’ll also have compression socks, gaiters, and a longer tank top to eliminate the possibility of chaffing from my hydration belt.” Longer socks, she says, are especially important on singletrack where prickly plants and bushes can cut up your legs. You’ll also need a headlamp, as many races start—and can end—in the dark. So get comfortable running in everything you might wear or carry in the race. The big day is bad time to realize you need a bandana to keep your headlamp from denting your skull.

8. Organize your drop bags
Drop bags are sacks of personal items that will be accessible at one or more predetermined locations along the course. Arrange everything in yours for quick and easy access. “You’ll see a lot of people going through their stuff really slow,” Yates says. She streamlines the process by breaking all of her bars into bite-sized chunks and placing them in plastic baggies—no unwrapping required.

Don’t know what bag to use? Victory Sport Design makes a popular drop bag with clear pockets that make it easy to identify your food and gear.

7. Do doubles
“The longer the distance that you run or race, the higher percentage it becomes mental,” Freeman says. The best way to train your brain for a 50 is to run two long days in a row. “The second long run is about getting out there on sore, tired, fatigued legs and continuing to run, fuel yourself, and practice a mental strategy,” Freeman says.

It’s also about learning how to make adjustments on the fly. “Doubling your distance takes smart planning, and also the ability to throw that plan out and base everything on instinct,” Freeman says. You’ll hone your intuition on that second long run.

6. Forgive yourself
The secret to finishing your first 50 is learning not to sweat bad days or missed workouts. “If you go in not at your best fitness, but you have a sharp mental game plan, it’s possible you’ll have the best race of your life,” Freeman says. “Conversely, you could enter the race as fit as you’ve ever been, and if you haven’t done your mental homework, you’re gonna have a tough day.” Think of a terrible training run as a mental exercise in disguise.

5. Study the competition
Before Moat ran—and won—his first 50, he researched his competitors. “I knew there was somebody in the race that was going to run the race smart, who had experience,” Moat says. “My strategy was to follow him and let him show me how to do a 50-miler." If your race posts an entrant list, research your competitors and try contacting a few who might be willing to share their wisdom, or even run with you.

4. Watch the weather
“Know what the weather conditions can be,” Yates says. That’ll help you decide what to put in your drop bag. This year’s USA Track and Field 50-mile championship in Rocksprings, Texas, for example, started off at 37 degrees before warming up to a high of 66. Runners threw gloves, hats, jackets and other cold-weather clothes into their drop bags as the day heated up.

3. Chill out
“Go out conservatively,” Yates says. Don’t dash off the start line in a nerve-fueled sprint. “There is so much time to pick it up, and you’ll be ebbing and flowing. Just pray that the negative part isn’t really bad, and when you’re flowing, you’re going.”

2. Prepare for a rollercoaster of emotions
“You’ve got to fight the demons back,” Moat says. “You’re going to have doubts." Moat, for example, knew there was a big hill on the last lap of his race. Instead of dreading it, he decided the hill would win the race for him—that running hills is his strength, and he’d use the incline to pull away from the competition. Stay positive, says Freeman, and know that everyone else is going through similar emotional swings, even if you can’t tell.

1. No excuses
Pain, the possibility of injury, the time commitment: You have every reason not to run an ultra. “You just need to decide you’re going to do it,” Yates says. “There are so many things that can go wrong no matter how you well you prepare for an ultra. If that’s your goal, you have to decide you’re going to do whatever it takes to get through it.” In the words of legendary ultrarunner, Ann Trason, “It hurts up to a point and then it doesn't get any worse.”

The Ultimate Ultramarathon Nutrition Plan

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Sweet potatoes, the meal of champions. (Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

If you're running an ultra, you can pretty much expect to face some gastric distress along the way. “It’s not so much if you’re going to have stomach problems, it’s when you’re going to have stomach problems, and what you’re going to do about it,” says sports nutritionist and ultramarathoner Sunny Blende. “Have a plan,” she says, like the one outlined below, “then deviate from it when you need to.”

The Night Before
“Usually we think of carbo-loading the night before an endurance race, but when you get to ultramarathons, you don’t always want a lot of food in your gut,” Blende says. She recommends eating a meal that’s 60 to 70 percent carbohydrates two nights before your event. The rest of your calories should come from protein, like salmon or tofu, and a small amount of fat.

If you do carbo-load two nights before, make sure to drink more the day before. “Try to drink some of your calories so your gut will be pretty clean when you go off the line,” Blende says.

The night before, eat a regular meal with high quality carbs such as sweet potatoes, or whole grain pasta. Stay away from cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, Blende warns, because they can cause gas.

Morning of the Race
What you eat the morning of your 50-miler depends entirely on what kind of runner you are. “If you’re the nervous type,” Blende says, “you should eat a late-night snack rich in complex carbs” so you don’t have to eat much for breakfast. If you don’t mind getting up early, wake up two to three hours before the race starts to eat a good-sized breakfast, then go back to sleep. If you want to sleep as much as possible, wake up an hour or two before the race, eat a light breakfast, then go for it.

Examples of good pre-race meals include a bagel with peanut butter and jelly and a banana, plain oatmeal, a sports bar and some water, or even a rice, bean, and cheese burrito. “The key is to eat something you’ve tried before your long training runs,” Blende says. “You’re just topping off. You’re not trying to eat all of the calories you’re going to burn in the race.”

Blende recommends travelling with your breakfast, and even your post-race dinner, as ultramarathons are often held in remote regions where access to the food you need may be limited.

During the Race
“Off the line, you’re full. You don’t need anything for the first hour, maybe two hours,” Blende says. After that, you’ll have to start eating or drinking calories. But while you’ll burn about 100 calories per mile, your body can only absorb about 240 calories per hour, so it’s important not to eat too much, or you can get sick.

“It’s a deficit sport. You can’t eat all that you’re expending,” Blende says. “The best way to consume calories during a 50-mile race is to think of dripping them in like an IV.” She recommends setting a watch on a timer so it beeps every 15 minutes. Each time the alarm sounds, eat or drink something, whether it’s a gel, chew, sports drink, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a baked potato dipped in salt. “Leave a little of everything in your drop bag,” Blende says. “Leave your gels, your chews, your sports foods, your mixed drinks, because you might need it or you might have dropped something.” As for hydrating, the rule is simple: Drink according to thirst.

Should your stomach get upset, slow down, stop eating, or take in less. Keep up your hydration if you’re thirsty, and then start adding things back in. “Sometimes when you throw up, it’s really just your body saying, ‘OK, I’m wiping the slate clean, let’s start over,’” Blende says. Keep calm, and keep moving.

Post-Race
Drink water if you’re thirsty. Then start taking in calories as soon as possible in a ratio of one part protein to three to four parts carbohydrates. “It’s like if you’re going to build a house, the protein is going to help rebuild the muscle—it’s the lumber and the nails—and the carbohydrates are the construction crew. You need both,” Blende says.

Eat whatever you want, but, Blende advises, “the healthier you eat, the better off you’ll be.” Expect to keep losing weight for up to three or four days after the run. You’ll gain it back eating normally while you recover.

Bonus: No-Grain Experiment
Looking for a good way to avoid having to fuel up during the race? The biggest trend in ultrarunning nutrition right now, Blende says, is training the fat-burning system to work more efficiently by eliminating all grain carbs from your diet for six to eight weeks during the early training stages.

The key is to exercise at a low heart rate where you’re in your “fat burning” zone. “That means if there’s a steep hill, you might have to walk up it,” Blende says. “If you go above that zone, you will bonk.” After eight weeks, your body should be able to burn fat at higher heart rates, lowering your carb needs during your race. “You’ll run faster and easier without having to take in so many calories, and having to take in calories is the nemesis of an ultraunner because it can make you sick,” Blende says.

Once you do the initial six-to-eight-week period of low-heart-rate, no-grain training, you can maintain the results by training that way for two days a week.

The 50-Mile Ultra Training Plan

If you can run a marathon, you can finish a 50-miler. “You just need a different strategy," Freeman says. Follow his five-month plan, an abbreviated version of which is presented here, to toe the starting line in peak physical and mental shape.

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