[ed note: Everyone’s got their own opinion on how to train for their first ultramarathon. In the first of a series from different runners/authors, below is Joel Hubert’s method that he’s used for success at the fifty mile distance and follows a pretty traditional method in terms of training and gear. If you’ve got a way that’s worked for you, Email me here and let’s share it.]
Stay True to Your Goal
This is the most important advice I can give anyone. You must remember that this goal will only be met if patience is included. Don’t expect to be able to run forever just yet, unless of course you are a freak athlete—which you very might well be. After all, you have decided to push your body and mind to their limits. Reaching a sought-after distance in running requires you to work your way to it. Follow the training guide I’ve provided as best as you can. This was the one I used for the 50 miler, and I’m probably going to stay relatively true to it for this run—100k—as well. If you are able to stay true to your training, your goal will be reached.
Listen to Your Body
If you feel any sort of pain other than soreness, pay attention to it; it’s telling you something! When I was training for the Rome Marathon in 2009, I experienced a sharp pain on the bottom of my left foot, and rather than pushing through it and making it worse, I decided to take some time off. This was my first marathon (and first training for anything), and it concerned me greatly. I am so happy I took some time to let my foot heal, because it only would have gotten worse. The moral of the story: take time to recover when injured, even if you sprain your ankle while running! Trust me, it will likely happen once or twice.
Your choice of running gear is going to be important very soon. Getting used to your gear is even more important.
- Shoes—Expect blisters. Find a pair that you fall in love with, and then buy another. Shoes are key to your success, and finding a pair that suits your comfort is incredibly important. Once you find that one shoe, you’ll need to have two pairs. Break them both in by alternating between runs. A fresh pair of shoes at mile 40 is going to be a Godsend.
- Socks—My buddy doesn’t wear socks and loves it. Try it if you want. I do wear socks. Either way works.
- Headgear—If you won’t be training in any cold weather, winter advice isn’t needed. If you are training in freezing temperatures, it’s important to know what works best for your comfort. Try different things (hats, neck-warmers, etc.) In warm temperatures, though, keeping sweat out of my eyes is necessary. I wear bandanas for this reason. A hat will work as well. If you find that if the sweat doesn’t bother you, then no worries!
- You should also invest in a headlamp if you don’t already have one. Safety is important for any early morning/night time runs. Many races also require that you have one, so it’s a good investment.
- Tops—Alternate between wearing a shirt and not wearing one. Ladies, you should also alternate between wearing a full t-shirt and just a sports bra. You need to learn your hotspots for blisters so your body can form calluses in those regions. I typically get hotspots underneath my armpits. I used to get nipple blisters (these are real and can cause severe pain and even blood), but through time, my body has adapted and I no longer get them.
- Bottoms—Find shorts that suit your comfort. I like having a built-in lining, as it cuts back on laundry. Otherwise, I have to wear spandex. You should only need one good pair of shorts for this. It’s worth spending $50. The nether regions also develop hotspots, so be wary of that. For cold weather, I wear running tights. These things are so wonderful, especially if you can find a pair with a couple of small pockets for anything you might want to carry—cell phone, iPod, keys, I.D., etc.
- A Pack—Running packs are absolute necessities for ultra-running for two reasons:
- The aid stations for many races are far apart, and
- There will be no aid stations on your long training runs. Essentially, you need to have supplies packed. Think of it like hiking. A pack is a must. Find what works for you, but this is the type of pack I use. They are expensive, but perfect for long runs. Remember that training with it on is a requirement, as your body needs to adapt to it being on your back for extended lengths of time. Remember that many ultras will take 12+ hours!
- [ed note: Lots of pack reviews right this way.]
Thinking you won’t chafe is crazy. It’s inevitable, so the best thing to do is prepare for it. I always keep with me Vaseline. It works when your underparts are under duress. Furthermore, to avoid it as best you can, apply some lube before your runs if and when you find hotspots.
Having to use the bathroom can be upsetting on your longer runs. Having to pee usually isn’t an issue for guys, but when you have to shit, you can experience some anxiety. Trust me; I’ve had to drop my drawers in places of which I’m none too proud. Here’s what you can do: always try to poop before you go out on a run; carry with you a small supply of toilet paper (it beats having to lose a shirt, if you know what I mean); and scope out places of business you could make a quick entrance and exit if needed.
You won’t survive the run without sustenance. Learn what works and what doesn’t with your stomach. It’s also about trial and error.
- Pre-run—I like to have at least something in my stomach prior to going out for a 10+ mile run. I eat peanut butter toast and a banana. I also consume chia seeds. They are incredible! Also, you should consume some water pre-run, but only a small glass.
- Mid-run—This is where it gets tricky. You have to eat what 1) you enjoy and 2) what will benefit your workout. I find that the body will naturally crave ANYTHING when hungry enough, and I use that as my mantra. I eat what I want, as long as it will help me in the long run, no pun intended. I eat the following:
- Swedish Fish—I’ve brought four people back from the dead during endurance challenges with these little guys. They are amazing.
- Apples and bananas
- Clif/granola bars, though these can get expensive
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
- Water—drink it consistently, even when you don’t feel thirsty. If you ever feel thirsty, it’s too late. Consistently drinking is only for your longer (15+) runs.
- Glucose heavy foods for long runs (dried fruits, fresh fruit, etc.)
- Post-run—Chocolate milk is unbelievable after a long run. Sounds crazy, but just try it, and you’ll see. I also tend to drink a beer after long weekend runs. The carbs will treat you well ☺.
- A couple other things to mention about nourishment:
- You may already know this, but because you’re training, eating a lot is important. You lose a lot when running long distances, so feast on!
- Find that one food that you absolutely love and try to incorporate it into your super long (20+) runs. For instance, I pack freshly cooked bacon in my pack for the long ones. Sustaining a jog for hours becomes quite a mental hurdle. I find that eating something I love (only when I desperately need it) sends my aching spirits to the heavens.
- GU is quite popular in endurance sports. Though I don’t consume many in training, I do tend to rely on them for the races. They pack a punch of calories and caffeine (they do come in non-caffeinated versions) that provides a boost you can actually feel. Really, GUs give athletes an easy way to consume the calories they lose. Remember though, that if you plan on consuming GU, train with it. I used to get stomach cramps from them until I forced myself to add GU to my long runs.
[ed note: And check out this chart by sport nutritionist Sunny Blende. If you’re having issues during your run, this will help save your day.]
I so wish this was taken seriously when I first read of its importance. Sure, you can run for miles and miles without your heart rate skyrocketing, but it is essential that you teach your body to work up a sweat when training for an ultra-marathon. I recently trained with my buddy who was attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and we did intense track work once a week. We ran 800, 1000, and 1600 meter repeats. These were basically sprints. Work your way up to it, and find a partner that will run them with you. When sprinting for minutes on end, your body develops the ability to shut out the world and zone in on the task at hand. It’s really an amazing feeling, complete with a massive amount of endorphins. I also run steps, Rocky-esque.
When I’m asked, “Joel, how can you run for so long? There’s no way I could do that,” I respond with this: Running is 30% physical and 70% mental. Sure, you have to be in shape to run, but once you’re there, all it takes a little more “F$&K YOU” than the guy or gal that says they can’t do it. I have a lot of ‘f&#k you’ in me. I don’t say it to others—I say it to myself. I tell my body that it can go fuck itself if it wants to shut down on me. Your legs are going to want to quit. Your chafing is going to hurt so much that you want to give up. Your mind will begin going bonkers. But it’s what separates you from the rest by pushing forward, even when quitting seems to be the only option. See this video for a little motivation. The narrator is my favorite ultra-runner.
Time On Your Feet
As I said, learning to run long distances requires patience. This is never more evident than when you have to be on your feet for four-plus hours. Focusing on time rather than distance is integral to ultra-training. By the time the race rolls around, your pace is going to be slow, so you need to train slowly on your extended (20+) runs. Get used to being on your feet for hours. It will strengthen both your legs and your mind. Try music or audio books to pass the time. You should also be working in some walking when needed. Most ultras include hills that will suck the energy out of you, and running them isn’t always the best option. It’s important that your body understands that just because you’re walking, it doesn’t mean you’re finished running. This can be quite the mental hurdle for new runners.
Also, as you’ll see in the training regimen, there will be a handful of back-to-back long (20+) runs on consecutive days. Try not to miss any of these, as they contribute to building stamina and mental strength. You may not be running more than thirty-five miles a pop in training, but you’ll be running fifty, sixty-two, or even one hundred miles on race day. Your body needs to learn how to respond to soreness and tiredness, and the best way to do that is with back-to-back extended runs.
So you’ve just been out on the roads for three and half hours. Now what? Well, you should start with a cold glass of chocolate milk, followed by water. The chocolate milk will increase your spirits and replenish some missed nutrients. And the water will do, well, what water does: refuel. From here, it’s completely up to you, but here’s my post-run routine. I take a long, hot shower (hot baths work even better if you have that capability) and allow for my tired muscles to loosen up. Next is most important—draining your legs. Check out number eight on this list. I typically drain them for four and half to five minutes. Your legs will feel glorious afterwards. Don’t, however, sit right back down. Let the blood flow by walking (hobbling) around for ten minutes.
Remember that recovery also sometimes requires time off your feet. If you feel that you need a break, take it. One or two days off (or weeks for an injury) will not hurt you. The training guide is merely that: a guide. Do what feels right for your health, both physically and mentally.
It has been decided that you’re planning on running for a LONG time. Go out and get it. Add a little ‘f&*k you’, enjoy the good runs, learn from the bad ones, and always remember this: humans are capable of great athletic feats. I wish you the best of luck!
About the author:
It’s funny that it only took a cute girl in my Italian study abroad program to fall in love with
running. I was 21 years old. She asked if I wanted to run with her. Of course I said yes. Eight miles later…”So Joel, how do you feel?” “Wonderful,” I replied with a grin. Endorphins and hormones are quite the combination. The rest is history. A handful of marathons, one ultra (50m), and another one (100k) on the way define my short running résumé. I also teach high school English and Human and Social Services in Indianapolis, Indiana. My philosophy both on the trails and in the classroom is this: Pushing one’s body and mind to their limits yields some truly wonderful results, whether that is altering one’s preconceived notions of the world through literature and discussion or requiring one’s legs to keep moving even when the mind says “stop”. I live my life to the fullest and encourage my young students to do the same.