How To Run An Ultra - Women's Running

How To Run An Ultra

Author: Chris Macdonald

Read Time:   |  July 26, 2017


Nothing beats the thrill of finishing a marathon. Nothing that is except… finishing an ultra marathon! And yet many of us shy away from ultras because we erroneously believe that to do an ultra you have to be ultra-fast, ultra-hard – or ultra-crazy! I’m none of those things, and yet I’ve gone from being a multiple marathoner to doing two 89Ks (and completing 79km of my third attempt at this iconic South African race). So what’s my secret? Firstly I’d have to say, actually wanting to become an ultramarathoner. Secondly, convincing myself I could (many experts say that up to 80 per cent of ultra success is in the mind). And thirdly, being willing to put in a little bit more training than I did for my marathons.

Up your mileage slowly

Ultras are anything longer than a marathon. So if you had a long walk to the station after a completing a marathon, you’ve already done an ultra! The different race lengths mean that far from having to do an Eddie Izzard by signing up for the M2M Ultra, which involves running thelength of Ireland (344.5 miles) over 11 days in 32-mile stages, you can dip your toes in the ultra waters by doing a much shorter race such as the 30-mile Croydon Ultra first.

What about extra training?

If you enjoyed your marathon training, and fitted it into your life by running in your lunch-hour and during your commute, it shouldn’t take over your life. ‘If you’re doing a 30-mile ultra, for example, it’s only slightly longer than a marathon, so you don’t need to change much,’ says personal trainer and ultrarunner Ian Campbell/ ‘But, if you’re targeting a 40-, 50- or 60-miler then you need to have a solid marathon base and simply add several weeks of decent long runs. Aim to do one long, easy run of four to six hours combined with perhaps one or two semi-long runs (10+ miles) per week plus speedwork and threshold runs to keep up the momentum.’

The rule of thumb is that the longer the distance, the longer training period you need, so for the 56-mile Comrades, Don Oliver, former Comrades Marathon coach and author of Make Sure Of Your Comrades Medal suggests a 21-week programme during which you run between 5K and 12K on five days a week and then do a longer run – anything from 15K to eventually 65K – on Sundays.

Mind of steel

And there’s more good news if you’ve got an ultra in your sights: according to Campbell, no matter what body type you have anyone who has completed a marathon is capable of doing an ultra. Oliver agrees: ‘Comrades runners come in all shapes and sizes but what really matters is having a strong mind. Training always improves your body’s performance but the most important benefit that results from those long hours on the road is the development of stamina and perseverance.’

Tortoises take gold

It’s also interesting to note that if you’re a slow marathon runner you’ll actually have an advantage over faster runners as you’ll already be used to spending far more time on your feet. ‘During an ultra you should walk as little as possible but have a short walk whenever you feel tired,’ says Oliver. Campbell agrees: ‘It’s advisable to incorporate power-walking breaks in your training so you’re familiar with them before the race,’ he says. ‘Use them to practise eating and drinking.’


Nutrition is arguably the most important factor deciding success or failure, according to Campbell. ‘If your target ultra is much longer than 30 miles you generally will not be able to survive on gels and water alone, so get used to carrying your provisions in a backpack or belt and eating while you’re running,’ he says. ‘Try bananas, sports bars, salty biscuits and chocolate plus gels and see what suits you.’

Thinking of an ultra? Email us at [email protected] or talk to us in the comment thread below – we will do our best to get back to you soon. Join the Women’s Running UK community for more comment, analysis and race information direct to your inbox. Follow us on twitter via @womensrunninguk

Chris Macdonald

Editor-at-Large, Women's Running

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