Your ultra marathon training guide
Three runners tell us how they prepare for long-distance races over long time periods and, sometimes, in adverse conditions
When he was 8, ultra runner Darek Strychalski was hit by a truck and went into coma for two months. The accident left him partially disabled; he had to relearn how to write, walk and talk. “Running was the most natural reaction after I got bullied for walking differently than others after the coma. Later, running ultra marathon challenged me even more,” says the Poland-based Strychalski, now 41.
Strychalski has completed over 30 marathons and tough non-stop ultras such as the Badwater 135 and the Spartathlon. Earlier this month, he participated in the sixth edition of La Ultra—The High, an ultra-run with three categories, 111km, 222km and 333km. It is held in the high-altitude desert region of Leh-Ladakh. The course crosses the highest motorable mountain pass in the world, Khardung La (17,700ft). Strychalski participated in the 222km category.
An ultra marathon, also called ultra distance, is a race longer than 26.2 miles (42km). The format and courses vary. Very often, you have to overcome challenging obstacles such as windy weather, elevation changes or rugged terrain.
The races aren’t for the faint of heart. “But you don’t need to be an athlete or a fitness freak either,” says 28-year-old Sean Maley, who won the 333km this month with a time of 64:3:35. “I usually just work on my joints and muscles before any ultra marathon,” says Scotland-based Maley, a civil engineer who has taken a year off to run races around the world. In April, he won the Joggle 2015, covering 860 miles over 17 days.
Nevertheless, the thought of your first ultra marathon can be overwhelming. You may have trained hard, but small mistakes can make all the difference on race day, be it wasting pre-race energy or not paying attention to nutrition.
We asked three ultra runners how to prepare for, and run, a race.
Be prepared physically for the challenge. After all, the ultra marathon could be three or more times the distance of a marathon. It is important that you condition your muscles, tendons, ligaments and, most importantly, your core and hip muscles at least four weeks in advance. “You can do tempo runs beginning with 10 miles and increase the pace and decrease the time as you go along,” says Strychalski. “The idea is to train your mind and body to keep going on for several miles even though you might be running out of fuel in the body,” he adds. “Make sure that your endocrine system and legs are in good shape,” says Maley.
Ultra runners believe that 50% of the challenge of completing an ultra marathon is in the mind. Certainly, you should be prepared for the difficult elements of the course, including acclimatization to the weather and surroundings, and difficult trails. “But it is futile to overthink about the race,” says 26-year-old Saurabh Aggarwal, a New Delhi-based ultra marathon runner. “The idea is to always think positive and be confident that you can do it and that nothing will go wrong,” he adds.
Maley believes the first step should be to understand why you are doing this. “There will be many times during the race when you will think, what is the purpose of this, and that is the time when your answer will motivate you to keep going,” he says.
Mentally preparing yourself also includes planning your course of action through the marathon. In ultra marathons, the key to covering the long distances is to pace yourself. “The ideal way is to mix pace and divide the overall distance of your race into day-goals,” says Aggarwal. “You can mix the plan by running for 20 minutes and walking for five and racing intensely as you head towards the end of the race,” he adds.
You need to eat right and remain well hydrated during the race. Have protein bars, energy gels and salt tablets. Drink every 15-20 minutes, including electrolyte-loaded sports drinks. “My plan is to always start eating as early as the first 15 minutes in the race. And make it a point to eat and drink well at each aid station,” says Strychalski.
Aid stations for ultra marathons offer food, water and sports drinks. “But make sure you don’t rely solely on aid stations and carry dry fruits, protein bars, cookies, glucose, etc., in your backpack. The idea is to have enough salt and sugar in your body to keep going,” says Maley.
The most important piece of equipment for any marathon or race is shoes: You need a pair that is comfortable and offers stability, traction and durability. You should also carry a small backpack with food, first-aid supplies, fluids and other essential items. “Make sure that the bag is light and easy enough to take off and on, and comfortable enough to run with,” says Strychalski.
Apart from energy bars, candy bars or gels, he says, your bag should include sunscreen, a nylon windbreaker, clean socks, an extra pair of shoes and a body lotion. “You should also wear a hat or sunglass to protect yourself from the sun or heatstroke, and must carry a rain-shield,” says Maley.
Wear clothes that are comfortable but keep you warm if the weather is cold. “Avoid wearing tight clothes as they can result in muscle cramps,” adds Maley.
The last word from Maley: Be comfortable and always enjoy the race.
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