How to Break into the Rewarding Sufferfest of Ultrarunning

It won’t be easy, and you’ll probably lose a couple toenails, but Coach Hafferty’s tips will carry you across the finish line of your first ultra.

Standing at the trailhead of New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness less than nine hours after I started in the same spot, I thought, “How did I do that?” The trail was always right in my backyard, but completing 30 miles of single-track, climbing over 8,000 feet of elevation, and summiting eight of the gnarliest peaks in New Hampshire in a single day never crossed my mind before I started running.

I’m a former offensive lineman and rugby forward who pushed a pudgy 250 pounds and complained about 40-yard sprints. But when I ran my first 5K in 2011, the running bug bit me. I built mileage up slowly and enjoyed the journey along the way. If I can crush 30+ miles, you can, too. Here are a few simple tips I learned along the way to help make the most of your ultra training.

1. Commit

If you truly want to run an ultra, the time is now. If you’re comfortable running consistently and don’t shudder at the thought of a double-digit-mile run, you can easily build off that base to get your legs in ultra shape. Give yourself three-to-four months to increase milage according to a healthy training plan, and jump in. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just sign up for a race and put your money where your mouth is—I promise you won’t regret it.

2. Believe Distance Is Relative

Don’t forget: 26.2 is a completely arbitrary number that a lot of people see as the end-all-be-all of running. Imagine you just finished a marathon when the race director gets on the bullhorn and announces, “We measured the course wrong, so everyone just completed a 28.8-mile race.” Your body wouldn’t know the difference. So don’t be intimidated by the idea of running 30+ miles.

3. Have a Plan

Consistently follow a training plan (Create your own here!) or invest in a coach to build mileage wisely. A general rule of thumb is to increase weekly mileage by 10 to 15 percent for three to four weeks. Take one week to recover by dropping your mileage to let your body adjust. Then, start building back up again. Long runs should also follow this pattern to avoid overuse injuries and overtraining. Busy schedule? If you can’t get at least one long run in per week, you can use two-a-days or back-to-back medium runs to build mileage on tired legs.

A “long run” depends on your distance goal. Try to fit in 80 to 90 percent of the race length over a day or two. This is best done two to three weeks before race day. So, if you want to tackle your first 50-miler, a 40-mile weekend is a great prep for the race. There are a few ways to fit in your long runs:

  • Go for the full distance of your long run.
  • Sign up for a 40-mile race that lines up nicely time-wise (two to three weeks before race day).
  • Plan a 20-mile run on Saturday and another 20-miler on Sunday.
  • You could also do 10 miles Saturday morning, 10 more Saturday night, another 10 on Sunday morning. Then, cap it off with 10 more to finish on Sunday night.

4. Remember to Allow Time to Recover

Listen to your body early and often. Ultramarathoner and coach Tommy “Rivers” Puzey tells his athletes, “Injuries and overtraining symptoms whisper before they scream.” Whatever plan you decide to use to build mileage up and prepare, your body should be the ultimate gauge of health and fitness. Don’t hammer out more miles if your body can’t take it. It will sideline you inevitably. The key here is gauging sore muscles vs. hurting body parts. If it’s your leg muscles are aching, you’ll probably be just fine. But if the pain is rooted in your joints or your running form is affected, you should visit your doctor before going out for more miles.

You can also try to stay ahead of the pain. Invest in some mobility tools like a foam roller or a muscle rolling stick. If you can hit a yoga class once a week, even better.

5. Research Your Race

Read up on the terrain well before you get to the starting line, and plan your training accordingly. Nothing should surprise you on race day. If the course is hilly, you should hit hills of similar grade to prepare your muscles for the incline. If the course features super technical trails, you should find some similar terrain to train on and work to strengthen your ankle stabilizers. Be sure to study the course, too. (I accidentally extended my first 50K to a 60K with one wrong turn.) Plus, find out what nutrition will be offered on race day and train with the same type of food and drink.

6. Enjoy the Ride (Yes, Seriously)

An ultramarathon is not only a physical battle, but also a mental and emotional journey. It is an out-of-body experience as much as a this-hurts-my-body experience. You didn’t sign up because you thought this would be easy, and I can guarantee you’ll want to quit at some point. But that’s part of the race and journey. When it gets hard, stop, take a deep breath, smile, and take one more step. Try to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Ditch your headphones. It’s hard at first, but it may help you stay in the moment and push through tough times.

Race Day Bonus Tips:

  • If the race permits crews and pacers, and you like running with people, choose your crew wisely. Surround yourself with positive and supportive people who have preferably run ultras or crewed before.
  • Brace yourself for unadulterated conversations about poop. It’s inevitably in your ultrarunning career.
  • There’s no shame in walking up tough ascents. If you hit a steep hill, hike it. You won’t lose much time and you’ll save a ton of energy.
  • Embrace your fellow runners. The ultra community is one of the most welcoming of any sport because of the camaraderie in all the suffering out on trails. Chances are, you’ll see a lot of the same participants at your next race.