Are you ready for an ultramarathon? Six things to consider before signing up for your first race
Part of being an athlete is a constant curiosity about your body’s limits and the search for continued physical challenges. Ultramarathon races, or any race that exceeds the marathon distance of 26.2 miles, are growing in popularity among athletes of all kinds. You may be curious about these races, and you may have even looked into training plans or race types. But how do you truly know if you are ready for an ultramarathon? Consider the following points to help you decide whether an ultra distance is right for you.
1. Your current health, fitness level, and injury status
First and foremost, running an ultra takes a physical toll on your body. Before diving further down the ultramarathon rabbit hole, consider your current health status and fitness level. Are you physically capable of running for multiple hours in variable weather and terrain? Are you up for the demands of regular training runs and strength training? A good training plan will progress so that your body is pushed to redefine its limits and prepare you for your race, but you will need a solid long-distance running foundation to be successful.
Similarly, it is best to delay training for an ultra until you are fully healed if you have any current injuries. Again, ultra training and racing are stressful to our bodies and can exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Plus, you won’t be racing at your full potential if your body is still working to overcome an injury. Even if you are not currently injured, consider past injuries and whether they have recurred for you. Recurring injuries may be indicative of problems with running form or of muscle weaknesses that may require correction. Addressing these issues before you start training for an ultra can help ensure you stay healthy through race day.
2. Previous race experience and current training
In general, training principles dictate that race distances should build over time – meaning that as a new runner, you probably would not sign up for a half marathon before completing a 5k and then a 10k. Why? Because a progressive training strategy allows your body to adapt to longer distances while minimizing the risk of stress or overuse injuries. Following this logic, it is probably best to complete a marathon injury-free before running your first ultra. Although this should not be the only factor in your decision whether to run an ultramarathon, it is worth seriously considering if you have not previously run a marathon. Mile 22 will feel much different in your body than mile 11. Runners who have experienced the physical and mental challenge involved in running a marathon will be better prepared from the start of ultra training than those who have not.
Along with your previous race experience, you may also want to consider your training has felt (and how consistently you’ve trained) in the past few months. Training for an ultra requires consistent running at progressively longer distances and strength training. It will almost certainly require you to increase your current training volume. If you feel motivated and capable of tackling more than your current training, then you might be ready for an ultramarathon distance event.
3. Mental preparation
Plenty of research has pointed to the power of mental training in athletic competition. Ultramarathons are no exception – your mind will be one of your most important assets at specific points during your race. Consider times when you feel like you have hit a mental wall during previous races. Were you able to push through? Did you feel empowered or defeated by the experience? The more you increase your distances during training, the more likely you are to encounter mental blocks to the demands you are putting on your body. For many runners, this helps them push past discomfort and fear and makes them stronger in future races.
4. Resources required for training
Likely the most significant resource you will need to invest in ultramarathon training is your time. Depending on the ultra distance, most training plans call for a minimum of 25-30 miles per week at baseline and gradually build to 50-60 miles per week or more over several months. In addition to weekly mileage, a training plan should also incorporate resistance training and/or cross-training exercises on at least one to two days per week. Before signing up for your first ultra race, be sure to research training plans (Sunrise Running Company offers multiple programs) and consider whether you are willing to log the necessary hours to meet your training goals.
Aside from time, you may also want to consider the cost of new gear and expenses associated with fueling correctly for your training and long runs. You will need to have a nutrition and hydration strategy for your long runs. This may require testing out different fuel sources (such as energy gels) and hydration packs.
5. Training support
There is no way around it: training for an ultramarathon is a massive time commitment. Training can take away from time you might otherwise spend with family or loved ones, especially when you are committing to long runs on the weekend. And when you are not training in your free time, chances are you will want to be either eating or resting. So before committing to your first race, you might consider how training may affect your family life, or you may want to discuss your training schedule with your partner. Setting expectations around your activity with your loved ones might make your new program less challenging to adapt to in the long run.
Perhaps the most critical consideration in deciding whether you are ready to run an ultramarathon is defining your purpose or goal behind your race. Consider what may be driving you to run an ultramarathon, and ask yourself what you want to get out of your race. It does not have to be overly complicated or results-driven. It could be something as simple as pushing yourself to complete a race beyond the marathon distance. Taking the time to define this purpose before beginning training will help you be intentional in your commitment to the training process and achieving your goal.
So are you ready for an ultramarathon?
While these considerations may be helpful in your decision process, you should trust yourself to know if and when you are ready to run an ultramarathon. And it may be that you never feel 100% prepared to take on such a big challenge – but you will surprise yourself by exceeding your mileage every week during your training, and you will learn the limits of your body’s capabilities. If you feel ready to take on an ultramarathon, Sunrise Running Company is prepared to help with training plans and advice.