Ultrarunning or trail ultramarathons have gained popularity in recent years along with increasing interest in trail running. Ultrarunning usually requires intense training and can cause sweat and tears (sometimes even blood), but the experiences it brings in the middle of the beautiful nature are worth it all.
Ultrarunning may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is not as mysterious and unattainable as it may seem at first glance. Here’s tips and advice on preparing for your first trail ultramarathon and a detailed 16-week training program!
- What are the ultramarathon distances in trail running?
- How long do you need to train before your first ultramarathon?
- What is a good training program for ultrarunning?
- How to make sure that you are mentally ready for an ultramarathon?
- A 16-week training plan
What are the ultramarathon distances in trail running?
Ultramarathon distances are long trail runs or trail running races usually over 50 kilometers (31 miles). In principle, any distance longer than a marathon distance (42 km / 26 miles) is an ultramarathon. The most popular ultramarathon distances are probably 100K and 160K, but the distances can also be several days long and even 300 kilometers (186 miles) long.
Ultrarunning is challenging because it requires very long-duration running, often on uneven terrain, which usually includes steep ascents and descents. The toughest ultramarathons are run in the mountains.
Why do people run ultramarathons?
Motivations for running ultramarathons vary from runner to runner. Most are looking for challenges and the opportunity to test their physical and mental limits in endurance running. For many, nature and scenery combined with sports are a big part of the allure of trail ultras.
Ultrarunning can also offer an opportunity to meet new people and find community among other ultrarunners. Running alone can help to relieve everyday stress and enjoy the feeling of freedom that running brings.
More than just endurance running, ultrarunning can be thought of as a personal journey towards oneself.
What kind of trail and route should you run for your first ultramarathon?
The best trail, terrain, and route for a first-timer in ultrarunning depend on many factors, such as experience and physical fitness. Generally, however, it is recommended to start with easier trails and routes with not too steep ascents or descents. If you are not used to tough hill training, e.g., Herajärvenkierros Trail in Finland will demand a good sense of humor.
If you are not aiming for a specific race, the easiest thing to do is to run an ultramarathon on your familiar local forest or mountain trails. A 15K (9.3 miles) route in your local nature becomes an ultramarathon when you run it three times in a row.
How long should you train before your first ultrarun?
Before your first ultrarun, it is advisable to train for a long time and regularly to ensure that your body can handle the strain. By running long distances, you also find out how your body responds to energy and fluid intake, and which products may not stay in your stomach. Endurance training, long runs, and hill training are your friends during training weeks, as your endurance is tested in a trail ultra.
A training program of 16-24 weeks is generally recommended. The amount of training depends largely on how long you have been running and what you aim to achieve with your ultrarun. If you're starting from scratch, training for six months is probably a more reasonable approach than four months. If your goal is simply to finish the ultra-distance without time pressure, less training may be enough.
You also need to include adequate rest in your training so that your body can recover. Without adequate recovery, you may bump into overtraining, injuries, and general exhaustion. If you are a woman and a vegetarian, you should also pay attention to your ferritin and iron levels, that may deplete because of running.
Everyone's body is different, and development occurs at your own pace. A good training program should be flexible, and you should enjoy even small steps and achievements. Progress in trail running is smoother when you focus less on performance and more on the beautiful nature.
What does a good training program for an ultrarun look like?
A good training program for an ultrarun should include a variety of exercises, such as long endurance runs, interval training, hill runs, and strength training. Long endurance runs are an essential part of training, as they help the body get used to prolonged strain.
Interval training and hill runs develop speed and strength, which is especially important for steep ascents and descents. Strength training helps the body develop muscle strength, which helps to avoid injuries and makes running easier.
For example, if your goal is to run a 50K ultra, you can start training six months before the trail ultra. Longer training programs allow for more recovery time and help the body get used to running.
Ultrarunning is a physically demanding exercise for the body. Discuss with your doctor if you have any illness or injury that may affect running, for example asthma.
How can you make sure you are mentally ready for an ultrarun?
An ultrarun is a long journey that can also feel long (like never-ending torture). Running for hours requires mental endurance. Visualize running and the challenges that come along the way in your mind beforehand and practice your mindset for different situations.
During a long run, you may experience (several times) a runner's low, a mental and physical exhaustion where you feel like giving up. Think ahead of time how you can motivate yourself to continue through these stages. You can promise yourself to persevere for another two kilometers, and then another two kilometers until your energy levels are restored.
Also, consider why you want to run an ultrarun. Is it a personal achievement that you want to reach, or do you want to test your limits? When you know why you want to run, you can keep reminding yourself of it and push through any challenges that come your way.
Running an ultramarathon alone
If you decide to run an ultramarathon alone, be carefully prepared for potential challenges. Tell someone where you plan to run, when you plan to run, and when you plan to return. Also, make sure you have a way to quickly get help in case of an emergency.
The most important thing is to listen to your body and your feelings. If you experience pain or unusual fatigue, slow down or take a break to rest.
A 16-week detailed training plan for ultrarunning
Here is an example training plan for an ultramarathon. You can find many (also free) detailed training programs online, which can even tell you what to do on a daily basis. A general program also works just fine, and you can adjust the training to suit your needs.
The training program's intensity gradually increases, giving your body more work gradually. You can run longer distances by gradually increasing the distance for 2-3 weeks, then running a shorter distance, and then running the next three distances a little longer than the previous one, for example:
• Week 1: 15K / 9.3 miles
• Week 2: 18K / 11.2 miles
• Week 3: 21K / 13 miles
• Week 4: 18K
• Week 5: 21K
• Week 6: 25K / 15.5 miles etc.
If you are not aiming for the records, I recommend going entirely according to your own body's feelings. Commit only to the training that feels good and motivating. You can probably run an ultramarathon even if you have not followed an excellent program and are not physically an astronaut.
Image: Ultrarunning training goes smoothly when you wear 'Käärijä' leg warmers!
Weeks 1-4: Basic fitness
Start your training program with basic fitness training that gets you used to running on trails and builds endurance. Add sprints or interval training to your weekly routine. Towards the end of the period, you can add one long run (e.g., 15K) per week to the program. (When starting from zero, 15K is an incredibly long distance.)
- 2-3 times a week, easy runs for 30-60 minutes on flat terrain. Once a week, you can try to push a bit harder and get your heart rate up.
- 1-2 times a week of interval training to develop speed and endurance. For example, 4x4 minute hard runs with 2-minute recovery periods.
- (1 long run, it's ok to walk sometimes)
- 1-2 rest days per week. On rest days, you can go for a walk, do yoga, or cycle.
Weeks 5-8: Developing endurance
After a month of training, the majority of runs are still easy, but the distance increases. Also include one longer run per week at this stage.
- 3-4 times a week, do an easy run lasting 45-90 minutes. Increase the heart rate slightly once a week.
- 1-2 times a week, do interval training and hill running to develop leg strength and endurance. For example, run uphill 3-5 times and walk down to recover. You can also use stairs to train.
- 1 longer run (it's okay to walk occasionally)
- 1-2 rest days per week. Rest at least before the long run. Light walking, yoga, kayaking, or other gentle exercise is also okay on rest days.
Weeks 9-12: Long runs
The longest runs of the training program are done a few weeks before the actual ultramarathon. Those training for longer ultramarathons and races may already run a full marathon at this stage, but if you started from zero, a 30-35 km (18.6 - 22 miles) run is quite enough (also to see whether you should go for the 50K).
- 3-4 times a week, do an easy run lasting 45-90 minutes. One run should be at a higher pace.
- 1-2 times a week, do interval training and hill running to develop leg strength and endurance.
- 1 longer run (it's okay to walk occasionally)
- 1-2 rest days per week. Rest at least before the long run. Focus on resting well during this phase.
Weeks 13-16: The last month
The goal for the last few weeks is to maintain good fitness and prepare the body for the ultramarathon. Avoid running marathon distances at this point and save your energy for the ultramarathon.
Do exercises based on your own feelings, but train lightly compared to weeks 9-12. During the last week before the ultramarathon, make sure to get enough rest, food, and drink.
- 3-4 times a week, do an easy run lasting 45-90 minutes.
- 1-2 times a week, do hill running or interval training
- 1-2 easy longer runs during weeks 13-15
- 1-2 rest days per week. Rest at least before the long run.
Throughout the entire 16-week training program: Remember to drink enough water and eat enough energy during training. Also focus on stretching, muscle maintenance, and recovery after each workout. Even though the intensity of the training program is gradually increasing, it is good to reduce (based on your own feelings) the training load every fourth week, for example.
Be especially careful, if you catch a cold during the training period. You should not exercise when you are sick, and you should not try to catch up with the weekly training program.
Preparing for the ultramarathon a few days before the run
In the last week, do a couple of light runs lasting no more than an hour. Two days before the race, you can start taking carbohydrates, which helps to store energy for the ultramarathon.
The day before the race, you can do a light workout, such as a 45-minute jog or walk. Also, check all your equipment and pack your running vest if you are leaving early in the morning. Remember to get enough sleep the night before the ultrarun.
Do not take any new gear on your ultramarathon, but use the trail running shoes and gear that have felt the best during your trail running training.
On the morning of your ultrarunning day, fuel up with energy and fluids according to how you have learned to understand your body's functioning during long runs. Warm up lightly and head to the trail with a happy mindset!
Cheer up your training with a pair of 'Käärijä' leg warmers that you can easily make from an old running shirt. Try using them also as a bolero and feel the Cha-cha-cha!