There are a number of fairly straightforward things that serially successful ultra runners are doing. We’re not talking about the elites here, haring round 100 mile races as if they were parkrun – we mean the really successful ultra runners who doggedly complete race after race without injury, mishap or blisters, and actually seem to enjoy themselves throughout the whole process.
On seriously long-ass races they can often be seen doing such things as ‘smiling’ to themselves, ‘humming’ a merry tune, ‘chatting’ to other runners and ‘fraternising’ with marshals who are now old friends. They can be any age, any size, any sex, any colour and from any background but they tend to stick to the following rules for success.
1. Run slower
Most top level coaches agree that 80% of our running should be at an easy pace and only 20% of it at full effort. “Anything in the middle is like a no man’s land,” says top ultra running coach Ian Sharman. “Pushing quite hard on every single run just means you need more recovery time in between each one and can increase your chance of injury. So most of your running should be done at a pace slow enough to hold a conversation and only one (or possibly two for more experienced ultra runners) sessions of speed work each week where you go as fast as you can in short bursts or a 15-30 minute tempo session.”
2. Train consistently
British 100k record holder Steve Way knows that the key to successful running at all levels and all distances is very simple, “Consistency is king!” he says. Ultra running isn’t just about killing yourself on a long run at the weekend or on your day off and feeling like a hero, but also all those little-and-often runs at chatting pace (see point one above) and cross-training too.
Three runs a week is fantastic, four if your body can take it without injury, and/or a cycle or swim, and 60 minutes of strength work (doesn’t have to be all in one go, see point six below). This will set you up to be a fantastically strong ultra runner with the endurance of an ox.
3. Refuel right
The best ultra runners make sure they eat high quality, nutritious foods most of the time and test out fuel well before race day. Author of The Runner's Cookbook Anita Bean says, “Decades of high-quality scientific research supports a diet based on whole foods, with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts and grains.”
Sugar (simple carbohydrate) has its place in the runner’s diet as the easiest source of energy for your muscles as you run. Many successful ultra runners rely on gels for this but a couple of mouthfuls of your preferred, easy-to-eat sugary snack every half hour as well as drinking to thirst is the way to success.
4. Don't ditch the carbs
If you’re wondering about the recent trend in High Fat Low Carb diets for ultra running, Bean advises against it. “This diet dramatically reduces your carbohydrate intake so your body is forced to burn spare fat for fuel instead, known as ketosis or keto,” she says. “While this can be useful for initial weight loss for those who need it, low-carb diets can be both hard and detrimental for runners to maintain due to their increased energy requirements and the need for carbs in the recovery process. It can also reduce your overall running speed, depress your immune system, reduce recovery rates and in extreme cases lead to muscle breakdown.” Sounds like more cake for ultra runners, then, please!
5. Sleep more
Sleep is often overlooked as a part of ultra running training but actually it’s one of the most important ways to speed up recovery, especially after long runs and races, or intense sessions. Getting a fairly uninterrupted (you’re allowed to go pee!) seven-to-nine hours a night is a healthy aim according to the Sleep Foundation. In fact, scientists writing in PLOS ONE Journal say, “Strategies such as establishing a regular bedtime, avoiding the consumption of alcohol and caffeine and increasing napping can optimise the duration and quality of sleep in athletes.”
A bit of extra shut eye is also a good idea as part of your race preparation , and unless you have a baby or young kids this could be the easiest part of your training. This research also reported that, “Before ultramarathon races, 55% of the ultramarathon runners considered sleep extension as the main sleep strategy to prepare for ultramarathons, largely accomplished through increasing sleep time at night.” Nice if you can get it!
6. Remember the strength work
The hardest part about this one is persuading ultra runners to prioritise regular strength work. We all seem to know that strength training helps us avoid injury and maximise our performance, but week in week out we’d all rather go on a run wouldn’t we? “I find that a large part of my job is actually psychology,” says podiatrist Nick Knight from NK Active.
“What will make this runner want to do the ‘boring’ exercises to strengthen their weaknesses? Ideally the latest research points to 3 x 20 minutes of strength work every week, but if the thought of this leads you to abandon it altogether you need to think differently. Maybe you need to spend 10 minutes first thing every morning, or do one exercise every time you boil the kettle for a cuppa. Maybe you’d prefer to do an hour in the gym or half an hour in front of the TV in the evening.”
Once you know this, strength training becomes part of your routine and your chances of ultra running success start to skyrocket.
7. Recce the course
A recce is not always possible with faraway races and busy lives, but at least someone on YouTube may have filmed a bit or all of the race. For the more famous races you might be able to glean a lot from this, as well as from podcast episodes from past competitors or the race organiser.
All this will definitely help, but recce-ing the course, especially key sections, will give you a better chance of finishing. “I recced the parts of the Montane Lakeland 100 that I figured I’d be running at night,” says three-time race completer Fiona Martin. “I recce-ed them in the day rather than in the dark to make it a pleasant day out but even that really helped me not to go off-course during the race itself. If you can, I would highly recommend recce-ing at least part of the route for a 100-miler, especially the parts where you’re likely to have tired legs and be sleep deprived.”
8. Run slower (again!)
It’s a biggie and we’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating for the number of times that even the pros forget this basic tenet of ultra running success. Start slow. Did you hear that at the back there? START SLOW. The longer the ultra, the more important it is not to fly out of the starting blocks like a greyhound and instead limit yourself to an easy trot.
Many mid-pack and back of the pack ultra runners will be running at a pace where they can easily hold a conversation, so strike up some chit-chat with runners around you to hold yourself back from getting over excited pace-wise.
9. Know when to walk
Combine slower running with walking briskly up the hills (also known by the much sexier term of power-hiking) and you have a recipe for pacing success. But how do you know when to hike and when to run up the hills? If you’re so out of breath that you can only gasp the odd word in a conversation, you’re working way too hard. There might also be other runners leaning forward, hands on knees, or using running poles and hiking faster than you’re running.
Ease off into a brisk walk, take smaller steps and lean slightly forward into the hill. The key is to keep moving steadily forward with your breathing and heart rate under control.
10. Have a plan B
Planning for the worst is an essential skill for the successful ultra runner. “Ultra runners who finish every race time and time again will have a solution for every single possible thing that could go wrong,” explains coach and summer Spine Challenger South winner Tim Pigott. “Read and watch everything you possibly can about the course, absorb the logistical details of the race and note things that have previously made you DNF (Did Not Finish) – check out our guide to avoiding the dreaded bonk –or caused hardship on previous races and training runs. Write down your plan for each problem so you can act quickly without getting bogged down with decision-making when you’re tired, hurting, cold, sleep-deprived or hungry.”
11. Solve problems quickly
Staying calm and collected in a crisis is key to finishing that ultra. “The best ultra runners aren’t the ones who just get everything right with good planning, but those who are adaptable, flexible and problem solve quickly on the fly,” says Pigott. “Just knowing that something unexpected might crop up makes you more able to respond with swift, decisive, positive action rather than getting bogged down in what didn’t go right.” So imagine how you’d like to react if something unforeseen goes wrong.
12. Use mind power
As the ultras get longer, the power of your mind becomes even more important. The majority of runners will be finding things hard toward the end of the race and/or there might be setbacks along the way. Aching muscles, swollen feet, blisters, chafing, energy lows, sleep deprivation, cut-off time stress, gear blunders, drop bag woes and navigation errors (boy, doesn’t it just make you want to enter an ultra right now?) all play their part in nudging that little part of your brain (possibly the part that chose your sofa) that says, “You know you could just stop, no one really cares if you do this apart from you.” So barring injury or danger, unless you really, really, really want to finish this ultra there’s nothing stopping you quitting at the next aid station.
This is where the magic of your mind comes in. The best ultra runners will have a very strong ‘why?’ – their reason(s) for completing the race by hook or by crook will be crystal clear. The key to success here is to find yours. Some will be fueled by competitiveness, others by sheer bloody-mindedness. You might have 100s of sponsors watching your dot on the tracker, or be proving to your mate Bill that you can do it after a drunken bet. Maybe you’re running in memory of a loved one or your kids are cheering you on via text. Some runners swear by a mantra to repeat during hard times, eating a treat food or visualising themselves doing well in the race and crossing the finish line. Whatever gives you the determination to never give up, find it and use it. You’re going to need it!
This article is part of Advnture's Trail Running Week 2023 (running from Monday 27 March to Sunday 2 April), our in-depth look at how to train smarter, choose the right gear, and have fun when things get muddy.
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The co-founder and former editor of Trail Running magazine, Claire now runs the YouTube channel Wild Ginger Running, creating films about trail- and ultra-running advice, inspiration, races and gear reviews. An award-winning journalist, writing for outdoor and adventure sports magazines and websites, Claire's first book, The Ultimate Trail Running Handbook (5k to 50k), is out now. Her second, The Ultimate Ultra Running Handbook (50k to 100 miles), is out Autumn 2024. Claire also speaks and presents at events and races.