Many runners have heard someone say, “If you can do a half marathon, you can do a whole.” The thought process is that the dedication level is very similar, and the training method is the same — you just train longer. So…does this same logic apply to ultra marathons? If you’ve completed a marathon, does it mean you have what it takes to complete an ultra? Not exactly. The training for a marathon vs. an ultra marathon does have a few pivotal differences that one must consider before making the distance leap.
Ultras are not so much about speed as they are about brute endurance. Of course, like most races, ultras are timed and even have time cut-offs, but you will be hard pressed to find two or more people sprinting to the end to be the winner. More common, there may be an hour or more between the first few finishers. When covering distances of 30, 40, 50….100 miles, the most efficient way for the human body to make it through is to slow down. Training is no different. There is less need for short and fast track workouts, since really long, slow runs that accustom your mind and body to hours of repetitive pounding, are by far more helpful in preparation for an actual ultra.
Most marathon training programs will encourage runners to complete one long run per week, preferably in the morning (as that’s when 99% of marathons begin), and add only 1 mile at a time – up to 20 miles — to the distance. Ultras of 40 or more miles, however, require a minimum of one long run per week, and unless you have several years to train, you’ll need to add more than a mile each week. Although it’s never wise to try and run the full race distance in training, you should go beyond 20 miles at least once. Some ultra runners will run a marathon or shorter-distance ultra, like a 50k (32 miles) as a training run for a longer ultra. This is not a bad idea, as it provides moral support, company, and free food at the end – not too shabby for a training run!
Some people may be able to complete a marathon without taking in anything other than water and a few Clif Block Shots, but failing to replenish your calories in an ultra marathon is not viable. Not only will you not reach the finish line, you will also suffer physical consequences including – but not limited to – a stomachache, barfing, diarrhea, or passing out. Remember, ultra marathoners are burning thousands of calories in a long training run or race; those calories are what provide the body with energy and must be replenished as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to avoid negative physical consequences.
One interesting aspect of ultra marathons, however, tends to be the food offered and consumed at these races. While the aid stations at marathons are generally packed with water, a sports drink, and various gels, the aid station tables at ultras are notorious for having a spread resembling a tween sleepover: Coca-Cola, burritos, Skittles, M&Ms, pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers, grapes, apples, oranges, avocados, and so on. The theory is that when you’re burning that many calories at one time, you desperately need to replenish your body with calories – wherever they come from. Runners and experts alike are certainly divided on whether Coca-Cola and Skittles are really more beneficial to a physically stressed body than nothing at all, but the point is that an ultra runner must be prepared to face these ‘nutrition’ options and have a definite plan as to how they want to manage their caloric intake.
For a marathon, you should plan on wearing about 2 pounds of extra weight – the weight of a water belt with a small pouch in it for whatever you favor as your nutritional supplement. Most ultra marathons, however, have none or few aid stations, so a runner must carry significantly more on them. A favorite packing method for ultra marathoners is a hydration pack, which also has pockets and webbing for things like extra food, extra socks, gloves, Vaseline, band-aids, a headlamp, and a bandana. Ultra runners would only be doing themselves a favor by training with their pack, fully packed, so they can adjust their gait if needed to make it more comfortable, and handle any chaffing issues due to maladjusted straps.
When it really comes down to it, the most important training tool needed for an ultra is the same as a marathon – pure dedication. If you have that, you’ll be just fine.