How to train for your first ultra-marathon

So you’ve done some OCRs or some road racing and now you’re ready to step up to the long game. Now what? As a qualifier for the US Men’s 24-hour team (143 miles in 24 hours) and 14-time race winner, I’ve learned a few things along the way.
First and most important question: WHY? Every athlete has their own, very personal, “why” they train and race. What is yours? Is it to push yourself mentally and physically? Is it to check off that bucket list 100-mile race you’ve read so much about? Is it to help build your endurance for the Spartan Ultra Beast or World’s Toughest Mudder? Whatever the reason, you need to know what that reason is and keep it close.

Josh, Jesse, Greg, and Sean at the 2013 WTM.

Once you know your why, the rest comes a little easier. Next comes the distance. Any race over 26.2 miles is considered an ultra. Which do you have in mind? Just stretching your legs a bit to a 50k or do you want to jump in and test your mettle with a 100 miler? Picking your first goal race will be a fun adventure. Mountains? Road? Trail? Desert? Snow? Local? Travel? The options are plentiful, and that’s one of the great things about this sport.
So you know why running an ultra is important to you and now you’ve determined your goal race/distance. All that’s left now is to train for it. That’s not so hard, right? You’re basically doing it already. All you need is to tweak the mileage and how you’re spending your time to achieve the goal. It might be more miles, it might be more elevation. The thing about ultras is training specificity and getting your body ready for your specific “A” race. Here are some tips to get you through.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously – athletes who go into every workout and every race as make it or break it will inevitably burn out in the sport. Not every run will go perfectly and not every race will end how you want it to. Understand this going in and it’s a lot easier when it happens. So, if you need the extra rest, skip the morning run. If you haven’t seen your friends or family in a while, go out and enjoy the time. Being an ultra-runner takes a big commitment not only from you but everyone around you as well. In the end, a well-rested body supported by those closest to you will propel you much further than a few extra miles will.
  • Build slowly – no matter your current weekly mileage the chances are strong that you’ll have to add in more time and mileage, but don’t freak out about it and don’t expect it to happen overnight. Most effective training blocks are at least 16-20 weeks long with a good existing base, longer even depending on the athlete and goals. You’ll learn where to add a little more time into your running routine each week as needed to meet your goal and simultaneously your body will get stronger through the process. Remember your why and keep focused on it.
  • Run commute – try it out. If you’ve got a shower at or near your office, this is one of the most efficient and enjoyable ways to get in some extra miles and even save some gas and time sitting in traffic. If you can’t run to work, try getting a few miles in during your lunch break instead.

  • Consider using a professional coach – while there will be an added cost to this, it may be worth it depending on your goals and expectations. If you do decide to hire a coach, make sure to interview several of them. You want someone you feel comfortable with 100% of the time, otherwise, it just won’t work. (I know from experience)
Once you’ve gotten all of the details figured out just remember to smile along the way! The ultra community is one of the best out there and very similar to the OCR community in this regard. You’ll see athletes come together and support everyone from the first to the last finisher. Getting out on group weekend trail runs or hitting 20-30+ mile training runs around your city and exploring areas you’ve never seen on foot is some of the most fun ultra training has to offer. If you have any questions along the way or want to talk coaching you can connect with me online through At Your Pace Coaching.
Enjoy the Journey!
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Greg Soutiea

Coach/Endurance athlete at At Your Pace Coaching
As a 14-time race champion in 6 states and qualifier for the US Men's National 24 hour team Greg is always striving to find his limits. Hopefully he never will.
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