How To Train For An Ultramarathon

Ultramarathon Training 101
(Image credit: Unknown)

Ultramarathon Training 101

Courtesy of Dr Andrew Murray, an ultramarathon champ and Merrell UK ambassador.

How much training do you need to do?

It depends on the nature of the event you are doing – some ultras are 30 miles and flat, while others are several hundred miles through a mountain range or desert. The best tip is to speak to people that have done the same race before and learn from them. The single most important run of the week is the long run – to run far, you need to run far in training.

How should you split up your training?

Personally, I do two sessions of hard effort in the week – typically one hill sprints, and one 30-minute “eyeballs out”. On Saturday I usually do a long run which could be anything from 15 to 70 miles. I’ll take Sunday off completely.

I also do some strength work – press-ups, sit-ups and exercises to work the glutes, hamstrings and quads – twice a week. When not on recovery, long run or session days, I’ll just go for a “normal” run.

What’s the really crucial session?

That depends. If finishing is the goal, then the long run is easily the most important. If you are looking for a fast time, then the long runs and the sessions at high intensity are equally important.

How do you get faster?

It’s pretty simple. Eat like a champion, sleep like a champion, and run faster twice a week in training.

Where do most people go wrong?

Many people think that fancy gadgets and training tricks are the answer. There’s really no substitute for doing the training that’s in your plan – put the alarm clock on the other side of your bedroom if you need to. The other big problem is that many people don’t get enough sleep – seven hours plus, at least six days a week, is the minimum – or eat sub-optimally. Look at the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners – they do the basics incredibly well. Eat well. Train. Sleep.

What do elite runners do that everyone can learn from?

Do the simple things well. Don’t get distracted. And don’t make excuses. Elite runners are relentless. They get the training done, and that helps on race day.

Ultramarathon Training Tips

For more advice on preparing to tackle an ultra, we turned to Tom Craggs, running coach and ambassador for recovery shoe brand OOFOS (opens in new tab).

Don’t forget to push the tempo

Time on your feet is certainly important, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s all about easy miles. Build in a weekly tempo run where you get used to building up blocks of time at a “controlled discomfort” effort, where you can only speak in three- to four-word bursts.

During a 45- to 60-minute run, start with a simple 5 x 5 minutes at this effort with a short 90-second jogging recovery, and then build up to 6 x 5 minutes, 3 x 10 minutes, a session of 20-, then ten-, then five-minute intervals, or even 30 minutes continuously as the weeks progress.

Hit the hills

Ultras need strength. You don’t need to look like a bodybuilder, but you do need strength endurance – the ability to maintain your effort and posture after many miles.

One way to do this is to do your tempo runs along a stretch of hills. Getting used to running faster uphill and downhill is great for building all-round strength.

Walk the walk

If you are running a longer ultra or racing in the mountains, the chances are you’ll be walking for stretches on race day. Don’t let your ego ruin a great race by not practising this in training – come race day an effective walker could overtake you as you try to run if you haven’t practised.

Practise power-walking, especially on steep gradients, leaning forwards slightly to mimic the gradient of the hill, either driving your arms forwards or putting your hands on your quads on very steep gradients.

Train on the right terrain

Whether running a 5K or an ultra I would always recommend doing the majority of your training miles off-road, but try including stretches of running on your race terrain in the final 60 to 90 minutes of your key long runs.

Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.