Moving From Marathon To Ultra Marathon Distances

Crossing the finish line of a marathon often leaves distance runners to question, “What’s next?” Many distance runners consider ultra marathon distances after successfully completing the marathon. By definition, an ultra marathon is any distance greater than the 26.2 mile marathon distance. Ultra distances come in many different distances and terrains. Distances can range from 50k, 50m, 100k, 100m, 200m, and 500k’s. Ultra races are largely done on trail, but some are done on road as well.  

There are a few things to consider when moving from marathon to ultra distances. The biggest difference and challenge is time on your feet. A marathon cut off time on a course is usually 6 hours. A 100 mile ultra marathon has cut off time of 30 hours. That is a long time to be on your feet. Managing your time and taking care of your feet can make all the difference. When working on a training plan, it is best to run for time and not focus so much on distance. For example, for a long run weeks before a 50 miler, you will need a 6 hour training run. It is time on your feet. It does not matter how many miles you go in that 6 hour run time. You just need to successfully complete that time on your feet.

Another big change from marathon to ultra marathon distances are nutritional needs. Your body needs fuel to run. You will need between 200-300 calories per hour when running an ultra distance. 300 calories at a 30 hour time cutoff means you will need to consume close to 9,000 calories to keep your body going! The aid stations will look a little different than typical marathon aid stations to accommodate these needs. Instead of just water or sports drink with an occasional energy gel, the ultra aid stations are stocked with many food items from candies, to hamburgers, potatoes, and soups. Getting in calories is a must to keep you going strong.

The type of terrain and gear used when running ultras is also a big change from marathons. Instead of your typical racing flat or road shoe, the trail shoes have multi-directional lugs on the bottom to help get traction in the dirt, mud, snow, and any type of trail terrain. You will want a hydration pack or handheld water bottle, as many trail ultra races are now cup less to help preserve the trails. You will also want to have layers of clothing on you or in a drop bag when racing an ultra distance. Being out on a course that long leaves you at greater risk for exposure to elements. Ultra races are rarely canceled due to inclement weather.

Running ultra marathons can be a rewarding feeling. Educate yourself on the type of shoes that you will need for your race and stay on top of your personal nutrition. And most of all, respect the distance and have fun. Happy Trails!

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