The Bullshit Report

‘I Could Never Run an Ultramarathon’

WELCOME TO EARTH: Fartlek Training

I was on the bus yesterday, and I heard a stranger say, ‘I could never run an ultramarathon.’ And I thought, ‘Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!’ Or maybe I shouted it really loud. That would explain why I was kicked off the bus. That and the pamphlets. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that if someone else has done it, you can do it. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. For example, you and I will almost definitely never invent waterproof cigarettes or roller-skate across Europe with Corey Fieldman, but as a general rule, you can achieve nearly anything you set your mind to, and today I’m going to convince you, dear reader of long things, that you can run an ultramarathon.

Since this is your first ultra, let’s make it an easy 50km one. Fifty kilometers is really just a marathon with an extra seven and a bit kilometers at the end, which isn't so bad when you stop and think about it. If you’ve ever run a marathon, you’ll know that when you reach the finish line, you sense that you could probably keep running because you definitely don’t feel like you might shit your pants and die if you don’t stop. That was a joke. Marathons are hard. But if you can run a marathon, you can certainly run an extra seven and a bit kilometers and be an ultra-runner, and the training for both is very similar. Sort of. Full disclosure: I’ve never run further than a marathon, but having done that, I’m cocky enough to believe I can tack on those extra kilometers and change my Instagram bio to ‘Ultra Athlete.’ And so can you if you observe the following.

The first thing you need to do is evaluate your current fitness level. How fit is you? Are you very fit or just sort of fit? Are you unfit? Did you empty all the styrofoam balls out of a beanbag and start wearing it? Knowing where you are on the fitness scale will help you cobble together an effective training plan. When I ran my first marathon, I didn’t have a training plan; I just built up my mileage over a few months until I could comfortably (and when I say comfortably, I mean without crying) run about 35km. This was very stupid of me because had I created and adhered to a rigorous training plan, I might’ve won that marathon instead of coming 8635th. But you live and learn. Assess your fitness level and plan accordingly.

Once you know how fit you are, draw up a training plan. The internet is lousy with these, so we won’t recreate one here. And anyway, there’s no ‘right’ way to train for your first ultra. Everyone’s different, and everyone’s training plan will be different to a greater or lesser degree. But here are some things you’ll need to factor in. Firstly, you’ll be required to run a lot. And you’ll need to run even more as you creep up on race day. Your daily runs will get longer and your long runs will get really long as you build up your base. You’ll also need to cross-train for strength, which sucks, but more on that soon. The most crucial aspect of your training plan will be building up your weekly mileage, which is fun because that’s when you start to realize, ‘Oh, shit. I can actually do this!’

Another aspect of your training to consider is the terrain your 50km ultra will cover and whether you can simulate that in your training plan. Your ultra is going to be up a mountain probably (unless it’s one of those flat, paved ultramarathons), so finding the same conditions could mean heading out to the woods for your weekend long runs, or it might just mean finding all the hills where you live and running those until you have legs like Zach Miller (forget it, you’ll never have legs like Zach Miller). Do what you can to replicate something like the terrain you’ll be running because you might get a big shitty DNF surprise if you don’t.

Another thing you must incorporate into your training is interval work, tempo runs, and hill repeats to upgrade your speed, endurance, and your body’s ability to clear lactate from the system. Lactic acid is a byproduct of physical activity; the more active you are, the more lactic acid you produce. Your body needs to clear this stuff away, otherwise it slows you down. Interval work dramatically improves your body’s ability to clear it away. That’s basically how it works.

Next: Cross training. Which sucks. Yoga sucks, swimming and cycling sucks, lifting weights really sucks, it all just sucks. But you have to do it to strengthen your body and avoid injury. ‘Cos think about it—you’re running a lot, basically repeating the same movements over and over again, and that overuse will lead to injury if you don’t do other things to strengthen all areas. It’s a stone drag, but you have to do it. On the upside, maybe you’ll enjoy doing something else a couple of days a week. I doubt it, though. Cross-training is the worst. God, it sucks. It really sucks.

Nutrition! This is also a massive consideration, and like in marathon training, nutrition is something you figure out as you go. Everyone is different; no two people consume or burn up the exact same amount of calories. But if during your training cycle you constantly have diarrhea—you’re doing it right. I find nutrition to be this mystical thing that only the professionals seem to understand. You’ll figure it out, though. Important to note: The diarrhea bit was a joke, but you will experience some gastrointestinal upset. You’re changing your body’s constitution, and the stomach is almost always the last guy to get on board with the new deal. Anyway, eat well, stay hydrated, and monitor your nutrition as closely as you can to avoid any race day surprises.

The final thing you need to think about when training for your first ultra is the contents of your skull. Your brain is going to beg you to stop running, and the longer and more intense the race, the louder and more whiny this inner voice will become. When we asked Kílian how he combats negative thinking during the crazy, long-ass races he does, he said he deals with it by expecting it, and setting small goals within the race that pull you toward the finish line. Another strategy is just chanting ‘Shut-the-fuck-up, Shut-the-fuck-up,’ to drown out any less-than-athletic thoughts.

So, that’s it, the basics of training for an ultra. Of course, you also need to make sure you factor chill recovery days into your weekly running schedule, or you risk getting hurt, giving your bib away, and becoming a self-loathing shut-in who subsists on KFC, Cotton Candy Faygo, and Buffy reruns (which actually sounds pretty sweet).

You can totally do this. Good luck!