A key component of this training will be some long training sessions which are representative of the type of distances and time you are aiming to complete in your event. This doesn't necessarily mean that you complete the full distance of the event in training but that you complete enough of a proportion of it to be representative so that you have practised going long. This will enable you to pace your main event properly and build up the endurance you will need.
Long training sessions which are representative of your event also give you the opportunity to learn how to handle the various other factors that arise in ultras including:
- Sleep deprivation
- Sleeping outside
- Running/riding at night
- Running/riding with others
- Gear (especially important for cyclists who will need to handle mechanical problems, have decent carrying equipment, lights, batteries and a good overall bike set up).
- Pain - when to keep going and when you might need to stop; it will hurt.
Another key component to your training will be adequate rest. In most cases when working with athletes they need far more rest than they realise (and they make far more fitness gains when they take the rest they need). Once you have your practice events in place with an adequate taper and recovery for each then you can plan some training in between. With adequate recovery the practice events themselves will contribute to your fitness.
This athletes training plan is a good example of lots of practice events in the build up to a 200km event with significant rest before and after each practice ride.
For ultra events pacing is key. Statistically those who start off faster slow the most. I often say to athletes 'you need to start off suspiciously easy.' Whilst for the shorter ultra events (50km race, 160km bike) with the right training you might get away with pushing a bit on the climbs, in very long events the pace you have needs to be sustainable and pushing too hard early on can mean that you are unable to finish.
For runners you have the luxury of choosing to walk to keep things easy enough (although walking some steep sections in a mountainous event can still feel like quite a workout). For cyclists it's key to have the right gearing for your event so you are not having to push too hard in events with a lot of climb.
If you have done the right training you will have a really good feel for staying in zone 2 and what this feels like, and with the longer practice events you will have some idea of what you can maintain.
That being said, many events have time cut offs (some more generous than others) so you will need to make sure that your sustainable pace matches these.
There is a balance that needs to be held. Whilst you want to keep going easy, you also want to be just in that sustainable zone if possible because the slower you go the longer it will take you and the accumulated time is also tiring. This can be particularly pertinent on multi stage/day events where the longer you take each day the less recovery/sleep time you get. This is why the right training is so important because you are aiming to develop a pace that feels easy and is sustainable but is fast enough for you to be able to sensibly complete your ultra.
Nutrition and Hydration
Getting your nutrition right during your ultra will make a massive difference; you need to be able to continue taking in energy as you will be using a massive amount. As a minimum requirement aim to consume 50 to 60g of carbohydrates (200 to 300 calories) per hour. This is a minimum and studies show that if you can consume more this will support and improve your overall performance (up to 90g of carbohydrates per hour which is over 400 calories).
As you can see from this athletes summary of a 50 miles running event, the estimated number of calories used was 4384. At 300 calories per hour over 13 hours she would still be in deficit with calories.
The logistics of this are complicated and you will need to train your gut to take on the carbohydrates you need. If your event is very long and/or over many days you may not be able to start out with all the food you need but will have to buy food along the way. It's a good idea to develop a nutrition plan to follow on your event (it can be as simple as 'eat something every half hour' with an alarm set on your watch/training computer).
Your food needs to be easily accessible and organised at all times so you can get what you want when you want/need it. I usually allocate certain pockets as 'sweet' and others as 'savour' and have them at the front of my pack/in the easy to access pockets where all I need to do is reach in and take it. For cyclists having products that are pre-opened or easy to open when you are riding is also important.
As the event progresses runners especially may experience some gut distress and nausea making it difficult to eat...but you have to eat to keep going. You need to identify a mixture of foods that work for you and those that don't with a variety of sweet and savoury options to avoid taste and texture fatigue. My article on nutrition might help. Some athletes prefer to 'front load' especially if they know that other factors (e.g. the heat) might affect their ability to eat in the later stages of the race.
For stage races what you eat between stages can make a big difference to your performance day on day; if you can start each day well fuelled (and therefore better recovered) this will enable you to be stronger for longer.
It's also important to note that food can change in texture and taste in extreme heat or cold so be sure to try your foods in the weather conditions you will be facing on your event (as far as you know).
Your body needs to be adequately hydrated to function at any level but particularly so when you are putting it through the strenuous demands of an ultra. Dehydration will happen to a certain extent in ultra events, but this needs to stay within safe and sustainable levels. If not your muscles will not be able to function properly, you will not be able to manage your body temperature and your brain function will be compromised.
I would always recommend that people ensure that in addition to plain water they are getting enough salts into their blood stream to avoid a dangerous reduction in the salinity of their blood (hyponatraemia). Most decent branded sports drinks if mixed properly will do this for you so it's worth trying a variety in training to find what works for you, in particular one that you like the flavour of so that you are motivated to keep drinking. Some also have added carbohydrate so it can be an easy way to get some extra carbs in.
In addition as the race progresses you may become tired of your sports mix (taste fatigue) so you need to find product(s) that you are motivated to drink throughout the event. Athletes I coach find that a mixture of sports mix and water can work well or gels that have a hydrating element. Other things that can work include switching up the flavours, bouillon (if it's cold), slushies (if it's hot).Hydration needs vary from person to person and are weather dependent. Here are a few other things of importance to note:
- In cold weather your thirst signals are blunted, but you still need to drink, following a schedule can help (e.g. one or two mouthfuls every 10 minutes).
- In hot weather, when you sweat more you will need to drink more
- If you have gone more than 4 hours without peeing you are not drinking enough or something else is wrong.
- Your hydration needs might increase in the later stages of the event.
- Liquid is heavy so planning how you are going to top up and how much you are going to carry with you is key. Training with that weight will help acclimatise you to carrying it. Researching hydration that you might be able to use en route is worthwhile and might save a lot of weight.
- Like your food, your drink needs to be accessible whenever you want/need it so having it in a place where your can easily take sips at all times is key; if you can't drink on the go you will need to practise! There are many hydration systems out there for both runners and cyclists so try a few out and find what works for you.
Knowledge about Your Ultra
Starting your event with the maximum knowledge possible will enable you to train for it appropriately (e.g. hill training if needed, downhill technical training if needed). The more you know the more you can mimic aspects of the event in training, the better prepared you will be. Things to consider are:
- How you enter. This might include completing some qualifying events, going into a ballot and paying by a certain day.
- The route - this might be a set route or you may be able to choose your own route between points. It is worth researching this as much as possible and I usually advise athletes to train on the route where at all possible so they really know certain sections. This can be a good basis for endurance training blocks where you might spend time practising tricky bits, familiarising yourself with difficult to navigate sections. It massively increases an athlete's confidence if they are familiar with at least some of the route.
- What the rules of the event are. Specific event rules are there for a reason and you can risk disqualification if you do not comply. In particular mandatory kit requirements, bike components that may or may not be allowed, behaviour during the event and time barriers at certain points.
- What (if any) aid stations there are, where they are, what they provide and how they work.
- What other services are available for you to use during the event; Events can have very specific rules about what is and isn't allowed, for example some events do not permit support crews. Once you know what you are allowed to use, researching the options available to you on the route is also important - you don't want to rely on a shop that is not going to be open when you pass.
- Start and expected finish times - starting an ultra going into the night can feel very different from starting before dawn going into the day. If you know when your event starts you can then do some training sessions at a similar time to get an idea of how this feels.
- The season - checking out the season the race is held in will help you decide whether you need to do some heat/cold training. This can be particularly important if you are travelling from one hemisphere to the other as you could be going from training in one type of weather to something completely different. Equally, if you are doing a spring race where the majority of your training could be in the cold but it could be hot on the day of your event.
A good way to gain knowledge about your ultra and how you will perform is to do those practice events. For many ultras you will have to do some qualifying events in any case and these are also good training. This way you can put your body and mind through some of the aspects of the actual events. This isn't just a case of 'doing the training' but of learning from the experience.
After each practice event, whether that is a long run, long ride, back to back long days I encourage athletes to make detailed notes on:
- What they drank and how they responded to it.
- What they ate and how they responded to it.
- What went well
- What they would like to have done differently/better
- What equipment worked and what didn't
- Where they felt strong and where they felt weak (physically and psychologically)
- What learning they are taking into the next event
- Drinking and eating strategies
- Where their strengths are
- What needs some work
- What equipment needs adapting changing and what needs maintaining
- Where the focus of training needs to be to bridge the gap between strengths and weaknesses
- What psychological strategies we might need to practise/learn.
You can also learn a lot from others who have more experience than you so talking to knowledgeable people who have done your event before can be helpful. While the way they approached it might not work for you, they may have useful insight on the route and process that you only learn from doing the event.
If you decide to be coached by someone their input can be very valuable, because aside from their own experience they have the knowledge and experiences of all the other athletes they have coached, some of whom may have done your event before.
The right mindset
In an ultra event the chances are at some point you are going to need to overcome the desire to stop. You are going to get tired, you are going to get sore and your brain (and possibly others) are going to ask you why you are continuing to do this? Having the right mindset to deal with these low points is key to success and there are some good psychological tools that can help
Self-talk - identifying the negative things you tell yourself and replacing them with positive, motivating phrases that ring true for you will help bring you psychologically through difficult moments.
Resilience - developing resilience takes time but is key to being able to overcome the difficulties psychological and practical that you might face in training and on your event. Doing long training sessions will help do this physiologically and the more problems you face in these sessions and solve the better. A good way to maximise your resilience is to have a list of life difficulties (training or otherwise) that you have overcome along with the skills you used to do so. I often go through a list of 'what ifs' with athletes in preparation for a big race so we have a list of things that could go wrong and ways to deal with them; this always include 'the unknown thing,' so we have a fall back general plan for any unknown problem.
Visualisation - positive visualisation can work really well to keep you motivated. If you can develop a powerful positive image for your event that stirs positive emotions in you then you can use this image when you need. A good example would be an image of you finishing your event and all the associated feelings you might feel. You can practise bringing up this image whenever you clap your hands/clench your fist/take a deep breath to anchor it.
Mindfulness - Mindfulness has shown to be a great technique to help keep people going and manage their pacing during an ultra. Mindfulness is about being fully immersed in the moment and trying to filter out distractions. Focussing just on the task of pedalling/putting one foot in front of the other, how that feels, what that does to your breathing rate, your muscles can help you become really in tune with your body and make small modifications to help you manage that situation. It takes practice but can be a great tool to use in your ultra event once you know how to do it.
Gratitude - expressing gratitude has shown to have a positive impact on mood and mind set and during ultras is no exception. You can express gratitude outwardly to volunteers and helpers, to the fact that you are privileged enough to be able to take part in such an amazing event. You can also express gratitude inwardly - to your body for all that it is doing for you and how hard it is working. I often have as a goal in ultras 'smile and thank helpers at all aid stations,' not only is it common curtesy but it generates the feeling of gratitude which will help you feel much more positive when things start to feel tough.
If you are planning on completing an ultra distance event you are going to have to spend a long time running/riding, both in training and in your events. You really need to love what you are doing, love it enough to keep doing it even when you are tired and want to stop.
When athletes ask my advice on what event(s) they ought to do I always tell them to do the ones that excite them the most. If you are excited about your event you are far more likely to make sacrifices so get there and put the effort required into training, even when it starts to get hard.
Can I do more than one ultra in a year?
With careful planning you can plan for a season of ultras. Some of these you can class as your long practice event. You do need to leave enough time between your ultras to recover and ensure you take a good season break at the end.