Ultra running stretches beyond the marathon, featuring distances of 50k, 100k, 100 miles and even further. If you’re intrigued by the endurance, the strategy, and the sheer willpower required to conquer these events, you’ve come to the right place.
Whether you’re here to simply learn more about ultra running, a runner aiming to tackle your first ultra, or a seasoned ultrarunner looking to optimize your performance, this guide provides all the information you’ll need, including strategies to prepare, compete, and thrive in the world of ultra running, long term.
What is ultra running? Let’s start by answering the most obvious question.
Ultra running elevates the experience of running to an extreme level. Unlike a traditional marathon which covers a distance of 26.2 miles, or a half marathon with 13.1 miles, ultra running encompasses events that extend beyond the marathon distance, for those who just want more.
A 50 kilometer race is the best distance to target if you’re planning to start training for your first ultramarathon, as it’s really the “shortest” recognised ultramarathon distance and therefore the most accessible – it also happens to be my favorite ultra distance.
I say “shortest” but 50km is still a serious challenge, especially when you factor in all the elevation gain, technical terrain, eating (yes, a large part of the challenge is learning to eat enough during an ultra without the gut bombs), and running at elevation that you’ll likely experience during the race, or as I like to call it, the ‘journey’.
The most popular categories of ultra running races are 50k, 50 mile, and 100 mile distances, and the majority of ultramarathons will actually take place on the trails.
Renowned ultramarathon events such as the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR) in Italy, Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix France, Western States 100 Endurance Run in Northern California, and Hardrock 100 in Colorado have carved out their distinct niches in the world of ultra running, showcasing some of the world’s most challenging and scenic trails.
The current world record for the longest distance ever run is held by Ashprihanal Pekka Aalto, who covered an awe-inspiring distance of 77 miles daily for 40 days in 2015 (a total distance of 3100 miles) – It’s one of the many astonishing facts about running.
The allure of ultra running, why would anyone want to run so far?
What draws individuals to the arduous world of ultra running? The allure of this wild and wonderful sport lies in:
- Its unique combination of physical and mental challenges make it addictive when you realise it’s actually possible to complete such a huge challenge, as long as you commit to a smart training plan, and eat the right foods during your training runs and races.
- Its ability to foster a deep connection between yourself and nature – trail and ultra running is so good for the soul.
- The personal growth and accomplishment it inspires is one of the many benefits I get from trail running in general but ultrarunning is next level.
- Its role in improving mental health and addiction rehabilitation has been seen time and time again. Runners find solace in swapping their previous addiction for bagging miles instead. It’s much healthier, confidence building, and provides ‘Ikigai‘, that’s ‘a sense of purpose’, or ‘a reason for living’ in Japanese – yes, they have a word for it because it’s so important to mental health.
If you’re still not 100% convinced, have a read of some of these ultra running books; they should provide all the inspiration you need to get into it.
The icons of ultra running
Now, let’s shift our focus to a couple of the luminaries of ultra running who have significantly contributed to the sport’s expansion and popularity, including:
- Kilian Jornet
- Courtney Dauwalter
These athletes have accomplished remarkable feats in the sport and continue to inspire upcoming runners but of course there are so many more which I can’t get into in this article as it would turn into an ultra in itself. I’m merely listing two of the greats to inspire you to go search out other runners.
Kilian Jornet has exhibited stellar performances in ultra running, with victories in prestigious ultramarathons such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Grand Raid de la Réunion, Western States, and Hardrock under his belt. Furthermore, he holds the title of world champion in Skyrunning and Vertical KM, and is a European champion in Skyrunning, Ultra, and Vertical Kilometer events.
He has also set an incredible amount of Fastest Known Times (FKTs) for summiting Everest without supplemental oxygen or ropes, and also world records for ascending and descending famous mountain peaks around the world, including Mont Blanc, The Matterhorn, and Aconcagua to name a few.
American ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter is another force to reckon with in the ultra running world. She won the 2017 Moab 240-mile race in Utah outright, beating the second-place finisher (a male runner) by more than 10 hours. Her winning time was 2 days, 9 hours, and 59 minutes.
In 2023 she made history by becoming the first athlete to win three prestigious 100-mile races in the same year: the Western States 100, the Hardrock 100, and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).
Dauwalter set new women’s course records in both the Western States 100 and the Hardrock 100 in 2023, further cementing her status as one of the most elite ultramarathon runners ever – and she does it all with a huge smile on her face! What a star!
Getting started with ultra running and choosing the right training schedule
If the stories and achievements of these ultra running icons have sparked your interest in the sport, understanding the right way to embark on this journey is essential both for staying motivated and injury free, long term.
Now for some important aspects such as laying a solid foundation, choosing the right race for your first event, and the importance of investing in the appropriate gear and nutrition.
Building a solid foundation
Building a solid foundation for ultra running involves gradually increasing your mileage, incorporating strength training, focusing on proper running form, and taking particular note in recognising how well your body is recovering during training blocks, from running longer distances.
For more information on how to increase your mileage the smart way, and training for your first 50km ultra marathon, download our FREE 50K Training Plan, and follow my advice in the accompanying post which is full of insightful, and useful information.
Lastly, practicing proper running form is essential to prevent injuries and ensure efficient running.
Selecting the right race
Choosing the right race is crucial for a positive ultra running experience. Factors such as the race distance, terrain, elevation gain, altitude, time of the year, number of participants, and location should be considered when selecting an ultra running race.
The terrain and altitude of an ultra running race will significantly impact the difficulty level, performance, and overall experience of your race. It’s crucial to select a race with terrain that aligns with your training and preparation to ensure success and enjoyment.
Furthermore, if you can’t simulate certain race route conditions in training (via local hills, or treadmill workouts), choose a location that aligns with your training conditions and terrain preferences to ensure adequate preparation for the race.
More about selecting your race can be found in my 50K Training plan and race guide.
Essential gear and nutrition
Investing in the right gear and nutrition is equally important for any ultra runner. Here are some essential items to consider:
- Trail running shoes that are comfortable, durable, lightweight, and suitable for various terrains.
- Hydration pack for carrying water, food, and belongings.
- Technical running hat for head and face protection.
- Breathable running socks for comfort and dryness.
- GPS running watch for navigation, distance and elevation tracking, and heart rate monitoring.
- Windproof/waterproof running jacket for weather protection.
- Phone protector case for safety and device protection.
There’s other very helpful, but not essential running gear to consider too, including:
- Running poles for aid in mountainous terrains.
- Sunglasses for eye protection and comfort.
- Running headlamp for early morning or late-night runs.
- Gloves for warmth and protection in cold or technical sections.
- Wireless headphones for motivation through music.
And don’t forget to check your chosen race’s website in case there is mandatory gear which can include items like:
- headlamp for visibility.
- crampons for snow and ice.
- extra water for extra hot conditions or races with sparse aid stations.
- Waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers in case there’s inclement weather in the mountains.
- Emergency whistle for getting attention incase of an emergency in the mountains.
The ultra running community is amazing and super friendly
The ultra running community comprises a lively and encouraging network of runners, volunteers, and race organizers. This community plays a vital role in the sport, providing a platform for runners to connect, share advice, and find training partners.
We have a very active Strava club where you can meet other trail and ultra runners as well as a Facebook group which is available should you like to ask us or any of the other group members a question about running, trail running or ultra running.
Local running clubs and online forums
Local running clubs and online forums serve as valuable platforms for runners to establish connections, exchange advice, and locate training partners.
Volunteering at races
As a volunteer, you’ll have the opportunity to contribute to a positive and supportive environment for the runners, gain deeper insight into the sport, share in the joy of others, assist fellow runners, and take part in celebrating human endurance :).
Sharing stories and experiences
The act of sharing personal stories and experiences within the ultra running community serves as a potent means to inspire, encourage, and enlighten fellow runners. With that said, I’d love for you to share what inspired you to get into ultra running – Let me know in the comments!
Ultra running is more than just a sport; it’s a testament to human endurance and resilience.
Whether you’re drawn to the physical and mental challenges, the connection with nature, the personal growth and accomplishment, or even the potential role in addiction rehabilitation, ultra running provides a unique and rewarding experience.
With the right preparation, training, and community support, anyone can embark on this extraordinary journey. The world of ultra running awaits you, and we are here for you, every step of your journey! Happy Trails! -Alastair