The Top 10 Ultramarathon Training Tips

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.

May 20, 2013
Outside Magazine
ultramarathon guide training

Runners at the Donadea 50KM Ultramarathon in Ireland.    Photo: 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

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.”

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