Looking for the next step after running a marathon? Condition your body and mind to take on the ultimate fitness test.
Seasoned runners will know Russ Cook, aka 'The Hardest Geezer' (@hardestgeezer), as one of the most influential voices in ultra running.
Sponsored by Huel, the 26-year-old endurance athlete is currently taking on ‘Project Africa’, an incredible endurance feat that will see him attempt to become the first human being to run the entire length of the African continent for charity.
If you’ve been following Cook’s journey online, you’ll know that deciding to run an ultramarathon isn’t a decision to take lightly. So before you consider upping your marathon mileage, let’s take a look at what the challenge entails...
In basic terms, an ultramarathon is a run that covers any distance longer than that of a standard marathon. While marathons conquer 26.2 miles of pavement, these races typically start at 50 kilometers (31 miles) and only get more challenging from there.
Courses aren't confined to smooth, city streets either. Ultras take place across some of the most rugged and unforgiving terrains on the planet, from arid desert sands to steep mountain peaks, and often with the weather and climate working against you.
Statistics show that ultramarathons are growing in popularity, so they’ve evolved to offer a diverse range of options for running enthusiasts. Some of the most common types include:
These races take place on rugged, often hilly or mountainous terrain, and are known for their challenging and scenic courses.
Held on paved roads, these races can extend to distances like 50 kilometers, 50 miles, or even 100 miles.
These races are spread out over multiple days, with runners covering a set distance each day. The most famous of these is the Marathon des Sables, a multi-day race through the harsh Sahara Desert.
Some ultramarathons take place on standard running tracks, where participants push themselves to the limit, running extremely long distances. Think 24-hour races where runners aim to see how far they can go within a 24-hour time frame.
Technically, ultras were once considered the domain of elite athletes, but they’ve gained traction with amateur runners in recent years, despite the gruelling physical and psychological demands. Research conducted by RunRepeat and the International Association of Ultrarunning found that roughly 80% of all ultras are believed to have taken place worldwide since 1996. The same report showed a 345% increase in participation globally over the past 10 years.
"People are realising that ultramarathons are a lot more accessible than they might have previously imagined," says Sabrina Pace-Humphreys (@sabrunsmiles), a seasoned running coach who has conquered several ultramarathons and was the thirteenth UK woman to cross the finish line at the 2018 Marathon Des Sables.
"An incredible variety of races are popping up worldwide, offering a wide range of distances to suit all levels of runners. This simply wasn’t the case 20 years ago.” This inclusivity has drawn the interest of both elite athletes and amateur runners alike.
Pace-Humphreys believes that amateur runners, such as her, are increasingly drawn to ultramarathons because of the challenge they pose to those who have already conquered the traditional marathon distance. "People want to test their physical and mental limits,” she says. For many runners, ultramarathons represent the ultimate test – the hardest, most demanding, and most rewarding race of all.
“It's rarely about finishing with a time either,” she continues. “It’s more about digging deep to find the strength to keep moving forward when your body is telling you to stop. Despite how tough it is, there's nothing like the endorphin rush you experience when you cross the finish line, whether you've covered 30 miles or 300.”
Ultramarathons stand apart from traditional marathons in several key ways. "Terrain plays a bigger role," notes Pace-Humphreys. While marathons generally involve flat, predictable surfaces, ultramarathons can involve taking on mountain trails, deserts, or extreme weather conditions. "Runners have to adapt to these landscapes and contend with uneven footing, steep inclines, and unpredictable weather, adding an extra layer of challenge."
Because the courses are longer too, runners need a chess-level strategy to conserve their energy. In marathons, racing is all about sticking to a consistent pace. In ultramarathons, even the most elite athletes incorporate periods walking and fast hiking into their race plan.
"There might be parts of the course where you'll approach an incline and ask yourself, 'Is it more economical for me to walk or fast hike this hill than to run it?’,” Pace-Humphreys ellaborates. “In this way, it's a real strategic, tactic-oriented run, because it's not just about how fast you can go. It's about how you can get yourself to the next checkpoint or the finish line without being completely exhausted, fueling your body correctly, and being as efficient as you can with your running to get there."
Speaking of fuel, nutrition and hydration become a bigger deal too. While marathons typically involve minimal eating and drinking during the race, ultramarathoners have to carefully plan their calorie intake, electrolyte balance, and hydration over the extended race duration, which can span an entire day or more.
Anyone whose run a marathon will know that training usually involves plenty of sprint work and tempo runs whilst slowly building mileage in your weekend long runs, all taking place on a flat pavement.
“With ultra training, we follow a similar routine of scheduled weekly runs, but there’s more of a focus on endurance and long-distance running, rather than building speed,” says Pace-Humphreys. “It’s also really important to train on the type of terrain that you’ll be facing on race day, so you’re used to the demands of the surfaces.”
While marathoners often rely on quick energy sources like gels and powders, ultramarathon runners adapt to consuming real foods for sustained energy during extended durations.
"A common misconception is that lighter is better, leading some people to restrict calories,” says Pace-Humphreys, “but strength and efficiency are the most important factors in these races.” Daily nutrition and good protein intake become vital as runners tackle longer race distances, or they risk the dreaded ‘bonking’ phenomenon mid-run - a sports condition where the muscles run out of fuel and participants are forced to bail out of the race.
Lastly, cross-training, including strength and conditioning exercises, becomes a vital piece of the ultramarathon puzzle. "Strong core muscles are really essential for ultras, not just for hiking up hills and improving your running economy, but also for carrying all of your gear on your back,” says Pace-Humphreys.
Try these golden rules for reducing pain and fatigue after your next mammoth race effort.
Recovery after a marathon usually lasts a few days to a week, but the ultramarathon recovery process is a lot longer. “Everyone has their own pace for resuming exercise. Avoid rushing back into running too soon to prevent the risk of injury or burnout,” says Pace-Humphreys.
Active recovery, also called active rest, is when you do some sort of movement that is less intense than your regular workout days. Engaging in gentle activities like yoga and sports massage can help to alleviate stiffness and painful, post-run DOMS.
Protein provides the essential amino acids your body needs to build and repair muscle, which gets damaged from pounding the pavement. "Expect to get post-ultra hunger too, which can persist for days or even weeks,” says Pace Humphreys. “Listen to your body and don’t restrict the calories it needs - you’ll need to focus on a period of rest and nourishment before you return to regular training.”
Words: Liz Connor
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