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Training & advice

Ultra running

For some runners the marathon is just not far enough! Once you have ticked the marathon off your list of 'must do before I die' what will you aim for next? Maybe it will be an ultramarathon.

What is an ultra?

An ultra-marathon is an event longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Ultras usually take one of the following forms:

  • An event where the challenge is to run and/or walk a set distance as fast as you can such as the Comrades Marathon , an 87km  held each June in South Africa
  • An event where the challenge is to run and/or walk as far as possible within a specific time, for example a 24 hour race.
  • A stage race where the challenge takes place over several days, like the Tour de France

However, some runners devise their own ultrarunning challenge.Here at runbritain we've written about are Dragon's Back, Comrades, Western States and UTMB but there are also those runners who set themselves a solo challenge. Over the past two years we've featured runners who have set off to run from Boston to Austin in America, California to New York in America, Scotland to the Sahara and John O' Groats to Lands End to name just a few.

 If you look back to the history of ultrarunning you will discover that human beings have been walking and running phenominal distances for ever and it became very popular in the 1950s and 60s when the London to Brighton race was inaugurated.

What is noticeable about ultrarunning is the tremendous sense of camaraderie amongst the participants. The difference may be that the runners tend to run against the clock, the distance and their own limits rather than each other and so they support each other, share their food and equipment and the pace, if they are running in a group.

Many ultra races take place in iconic or inspirational places. There are ultras that cross deserts, the arctic and jungles as well as other remote places. Travelling to the location of an ultra race is often as exciting challenging yourself to the actual distance.

Why would you run an ultra?

The motivation of many runners is to raise money for a charitable cause that is close to their heart. Once friends and family have sponsored you to run a few marathons you may feel that you need to go further to justify this support. Perhaps the marathon is too easy and not challenging or inspirational enough. By firing your sponsors’ imagination with a new challenge such as an ultra you may secure even  more support for your chosen charity.

As a runner you will enjoy seeing yourself improve your times and  positions in races. This continues for a time and then, as you get older, you will find it harder to shave the seconds off your race times and beat your younger competitors. Your stamina stays with you for much longer and so, once the times stop improving, you can move up the distances and gain success over longer races.

How do you train for an ultra?

If you have already done a marathon you will find that the training is much the same for an ultra.William Sichel described himself as "an ordinary marathon runner" who, when he stopped improving at the marathon distance made the step up to ultramarathon. We asked him a few questions for advice on how to get into the ultrarunning scene:

What inspired you to do ultras?

My marathon best was sticking at around 2:38 but I wasn't exhausted at the finish. An experienced friend suggested I try ultras. Always up for a challenge - so I did!

What was the furthest you had run before this?

About 30 miles in training.

Do you run laps, one big circuit or from A to B?

In training I usually use some form of lap simply for convenience.

Do you do hill work?

Yes. I am a big believer in hill work both up and down hill work. They are vital for ultra running, in my opinion, as they toughen the leg muscles in a way that is advantageous for ultras, especially the down hills.

Do you do speed work?

Yes. Always have done.

How important is speed for an ultra distance runner?

It all depends on your goals and ambitions in ultras. If you want to set PBs, records, get a high finishing position, achieve your full potential etc then speed is essential. No matter how long the race, it is always the fastest average speed that wins. This should never be forgotten.

Do you prefer to run on the road or off-road?

Road. My background is that I came into running in the marathon boom of 1981. So for me it was all road running which suited me. My first ultras were all road and I had a traditional entry to ultras focussing on the 100km road races then 24 hours and so on. Also I have developed a very low, economic and efficient leg swing, just skimming the ground. This doesn't work so well off-road.

How many miles a week do you do?

About 50 miles a week but it does depend on the training phase I'm in. Those 50 miles are done at a high intensity either by being run fast and/or with a weight vest weighing 8% of my body weight. Also I race about 5 ultras a year and do 'Crash Training' weekends too [back-to-back long runs – long run both Saturday and Sunday]

What do you do to stay injury free?

A runner is only as good as their musculo-skeletal system allows them to be. I do a very extensive cross training programme involving twice weekly, heavy weights sessions, plyometrics, flexibility, power walking, running specific exercises etc to support my running and racing. It must be working, as my last injury was 10 years ago!

What do your family think of your ambitions and your lifestyle?

They are proud of me and amazed that I am still producing life time bests at the longer events

Are you able to fit family time in?

Yes, I am very flexible and am happy to train early morning or late evening if necessary to fit in with social demands. As our two girls are grown up now and have moved away from home it has made this a bit easier.

Do your dietary requirements fit in with family meals?

Yes, no problem there. Sometimes I miss meals due to training times, so I do my own thing or use liquid meal replacement products.

How would you advise a marathon runner to train if he/she wanted to move up to ultras?

Train the same but do some longer training runs to get used to being on your feet for that much longer. Put your ego to one side and adopt a run-walk strategy, from the start, which can be hugely effective in ultras because you don't slow down so much in the second half. Also rehearse your race nutrition in training, as that is a vital component. Mental approach is of the utmost importantance and you need to know why you are doing it and what you are aiming for - have a number of clear goals to aim for.

What sort of volume should they aim for?

I couldn't put a figure on it. I wouldn't increase the volume much at all when trying an ultra, that isn't going to be the key to success. Mental attitude and race nutrition will have a much bigger influence.

Are there any races or events you would advise for someone who is starting out?

There is a huge variety of ultra events on road, track and trail. The first choice is do you tackle a point-to-point or a lap course first. I would suggest either a short point-to-point ultra or a longer one on a lap course - often a mile or two of road in a park or similar. The beauty of a road lap is that you have full access to the aid station or your crew area at any time you want, you will never be left behind, you can easily pace yourself as you will be given an exact lap measurement and you can run without pressure of any kind without getting lost.

Note from the editor – Rest and recovery becomes even more important when you are training for longer events so don’t forget to factor this into your ultra training.