Starter kit: Ultramarathon edition
by Prince Hew
Always wanted to run an ultramarathon, but never knew where to start? Our founder and head coach, Prince Hew has some tips for you!
Over the weekend, I just finished the Titi Ultra 2019 50km ultramarathon on one of the toughest trails in Malaysia. With an elevation gain of up to 934 meters, it was not an easy feat. I ran with Jasmin, one of my clients – whom I have been training for the marathon – and I realized that beginners don't usually have a lot of guidance when it comes to attempting an ultramarathon.
As an experienced ultramarathon runner, I often get asked, "what is the best training advice for beginners?". Let's face it, there are very few ultramarathon training plans for beginners, but with valid reasons.
There are a multitude of factors involved and it is close to impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all plan. So my best advice is, you need to become your own coach.
What is an ultramarathon?
An ultra distance run is anything over 42.5km. Distances can vary from 50km up to above 200km, over various terrains such as flat roads to alpine adventures at altitude and even trails. Running these distances is not an easy feat.
Races can take anything from 5 hours to 24 hours or longer, depending on your pace. I remember doing my first 100km ultramarathon in Penang, Malaysia, in 2017 took a gruelling 17 hours.
Where to begin?
If you're still willing to go through a test of mental and physical strength, read on. The only way to prepare for an ultramarathon is through customized training. Every ultramarathon will be different due to its characteristics – distance, terrain, weather, temperature, route stages, etc. It is important to choose one that you are comfortable with and do lots of research about it.
One thing that helped me through the 100km was a "cheat-card/sheet" that my friend Jane helped me create. The sheet indicated the minimum pace, elevation points and the cut-off times of each checkpoint. These sheets are usually available at every event, but just in case, make one of your own.
You also need to understand your body and how it responds and recovers. Through training, you will also realize what you need to get to the finish line. Combining an understanding of the challenges of the race and what YOU need to do is the key to reaching the finish line.
Be an expert of YOUR body. You need to fully understand your body to know how far you can go before you break down. You need to know how much sleep you need, how long it takes to recover from long runs, cross training and handle back-to-back runs.
For me, the real race began at 50km. I did not have time to sleep or rest at the checkpoints because pacing myself was more important to me. Learn to listen to what your body is telling you. YOU are your best coach.
Setting goals and determining motivation factors
Creating short-term and long-term expectations is extremely important in getting ready for an ultramarathon. This helps with your mental strength during the race. Consider why you want to run an ultramarathon. Are you just looking to tick one thing off the bucket list? Or are you already a seasoned runner looking for the next big challenge? Setting your goals and expectations will also help in how you approach training for an ultra-marathon.
You also need to determine your motivation factors. Are you motivated by competition, fun, scenery, new experiences, friends or (for the more sadistic of you lot) pain?
For some of my friends, they see an ultramarathon as a getaway or a "me-time". For me, I want to experience various ultramarathons so I can share my experiences with those who want to attempt one. Also, if a middle-aged man/woman can do it (sometimes at an even faster pace), why can't I?
To start with, answer these two questions posed by Joe Uhan, a competitive runner for over 20 years and a 9-year ultrarunner: "What are you running away from?" and "What are you running toward?".
Does it take long to train for your first ultra?
It depends on how your body recovers from training and how much running experience you have had. A friend of mine completed his first 50km ultra within a year by just training with 1-2 runs a week.
Ideally, as long as you start with two- to three-hour long runs a week three to six times, you should be ready in a year. These sessions can be at a minimal pace as your goal would probably be just to finish the actual run itself. Include walk breaks as some races include steep hills that are near impossible to run on. This will also decrease your recovery time.
Do I just run or incorporate some cross- or weight-training?
Cross training is very sensible – I hike and cycle – especially for those training in high volumes of 50km per week or more. Weight training is also really worthwhile – especially lunges and squats.
However, do focus your weight training on your core strength and use free weights instead of machine weights as they utilize the whole kinetic chain rather than muscle groups.
How far should I run per week for my ultramarathon?
There is no real formula to this. Again, it is about how much your body can take. Learn to be patient and build gradually according to your own body. It is wise to have a structured training program to so you can peak at the right time and this is where a coach can help make a big difference in staying injury free.
You could try the "10 percent rule" where you increase your mileage by 10% every week. If you start at 20km a week, your following weeks can be 22, 24, 27, 30, 33 and so on. Though there have been studies that this rule could increase the risk of injury as the body takes longer to adapt. However, other studies show 20 percent increases at low volumes are effective. At the end of the day, just be consistent and listen to your body.
Is the taper important in ultras? How should I taper for an ultramarathon?
Tapering is when you train lesser, sleep in and eat more as you approach near the marathon. It is extremely important to taper as you want to start an ultramarathon well-rested. Most ultramarathon runners do two to three weeks of tapering, usually keeping the frequency of runs, but reducing the mileage.
To taper properly, you should cut your weekly mileage volume by 20-30 percent each week from your peak. For example, if your peak mileage week was 40km, you would cut your mileage by 8-12km for week one. Whilst you cut your mileage, keep the same race pace and intensity. No faster, no slower,
I also personally do not sleep well the night before the big race as races often start at night or in the wee hours of the morning, so try to get much-needed rest two to three nights beforehand.
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