How to Become an Ultra Runner: A complete Guide for Beginners

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I started documenting my thoughts on my passion of ultra running and fat adaptation. So far I have mainly written about the diet that I follow. Lets switch some gears today and dive into the amazing world of ultra running.

In this post, I will layout some of the important factors that determine ultra marathon success. I have learned most of these lessons by running and experimenting with myself over a period of 5-6 years. Building running endurance takes time, but it is certainly doable with consistent hard work. If you put in the work, you will be successful.

What is ultra marathon success? Well, this is very relative. For some, it is completing the distance and just finishing the race. For others, it is going faster than they have ever run in the past. A few define success by their position in the race.

Whatever your definition of success is, I have found that some of the universal wisdom is always helpful in training for ultra marathon and to move the needle further.

What is an Ultra Marathon: Ultra Marathon Definition

Let us first start with the definition of ultra marathon. The only thing that separates marathon and ultra part of it is the distance. Any distance more than 26.2 miles (42 km) is classified as ultra marathon.

All runners want to challenge themselves. This is either by running a longer distance or by running faster. No matter what your goal is, this proven strategy will help you achieve your running goals. Here are some tips on ultra marathon training for beginners.

Build Base Mileage

Base mileage is one of the crucial factor in ultra running success. If you do not have a solid base mileage, you may find yourself struggling in the race. Building running muscles over a period of time is one of the most important element for ultra running success. Depending on one’s goal, base mileage may vary. If you want to just finish the race, you may get away with lower volume of miles in you legs. However, if your goal is to finish the race in a specified time, then running a lot of miles will certainly help over a long period of time.

Building Base Mileage is Necessary

Do Speed Workout

If you want to run a faster ultra marathon, atleast one speed workout per week is essential. Speed workout enhances your aerobic capacity. What is aerobic capacity? This is how efficiently your body can use oxygen to produce energy. More you train, better you get.

This means that your body will quickly learn how to use oxygen efficiently. Another thing that I have observed during last few years is that interval or speed training helps you run faster even when you are going very long distances. Gasping for oxygen on a uphill wont be as much of problem as it used to be. Therefore, If you want to maintain a good pace for a any distance, then interval training will surely help you.

Include speed workout in your training and your lungs will thank you during the race. Your lungs will hate you during the interval training though. But that is how it is. Embrace the pain and get results.

Interval workout

Race Specific Training

Human body is very adaptive. It can adapt to any circumstances. But we need to train it for that situation.

If you are a road runner and have signed up for hilly race. Best plan would be to include hill workout. Training you body for a specific race is the best strategy. You do not have a hill around, use treadmill. The only downside of using a treadmill is that you can not train your quads for downhill strides.

I used to run on flat road just because it was easy. Then I ran Boston marathon and learned a lesson. Boston is a hilly course. Does not matter if its a net downhill or not. If you do not train for hills, there is no way you can run them fast. Do what is needed. Running a hilly ultra, find the steepest hill in the area and keep going up and down whenever you can.

Race specific training helps

Lose Weight

During my boston qualification attempt, I read somewhere on the internet that for each pound of body weight, we lose 2 seconds per mile in our marathon time. This means that if my marathon pace is 8 minutes per mile and I lose 2 pounds, I can run a marathon 2 minutes faster than my usual time. Next time you want to run your marathon PR, make sure to shed some weight and you will see some extraordinary results. Apart from that, your regular runs will become enjoyable and you will feel better about yourself.

I tried hard to qualify for Boston Marathon without changing my diet or losing weight. That did not work even when I was consistently putting 60-70 miles per week. Think about it, 10 pounds off and 10 minutes marathon PR, WOW. This sounds untrue but keeping the training log almost the same, you will get faster. That is why I switched to ketogenic diet and always try to stay in the state of Ketosis. There have been some great improvement in my life just because I choose this diet for my weight lose program. If you want to know how this diet works, read this.

Lose weight to get faster

Mix It Up

So when I say mix it up I mean to say that your speed workout and other runs should not be the same every week. For example, in the very first week in your training you do interval workout. In the next one, you should do the hill work out. In the following week run at a tempo pace.

Sometimes, you should also do a downhill workout to keep things interesting. That’s how you don’t get bored with your work out. Additionally, always try to find a different route for your run so that it becomes more enjoyable.

I even mix up my long run. Some days my pace hovers right around 9 mins/mile and other days i can easily pull a 7:30/mile for a 20 mile long run. Depending on how your body is feeling from the week’s workout, adjust the pace.

We sometimes, get hooked up to a particular pace even though we are tired from the previous workout. “Listen to your body” is the best lesson that any ultra runner can learn. But, it takes some time to realize this fact.

Sooner you start hearing what your body is signaling, better it would be for your future races. So next time you feel tired while going for a run, slow down and run it as slow as you can.

Stay Consistent

In my experience for the last five years, I have found that one of the most important factor in running success is the consistency.

One need to run consistently. In long term perspective, it does not matter how talented you are. You need to make a schedule and be disciplined. Yes, there will be days when you do not want to go run or train. That is totally OK. Go for 2 miles instead of 4 miles that you have planned for. I like this quote from Aristotle.


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit”

Once you are determined and motivated to get your runs. Go for it.

No matter what, things will certainly fall into place keep increasing your volume as described in the previous sections. Even if you have to do 2 miles or 3 miles every day just go for it and stay consistent. You will see results not in a matter of weeks but certainly in several months and years.

Consistency is the key to sucess

Run at an Optimum Pace

This may sound very weird to most of you but running slow will certainly make you faster. This is backed by facts and science. There is science behind it. In this article they describe how low-moderate intensity and improve your fat oxidation capability. The other benefit of long slow run is that it increases the capillary density. More capillaries mean more oxygenated blood flow to your muscles. More here.

Have you ever heard about Lydiard method of training. Base building is the basis of running success. This means that you need to run a lot of slow-moderate miles to establish your body for optimal performance. Here is a great article on the Lydiard theory. Lydiard base training takes time but this method is a secret of many successful runners.

MAF Training

MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF). Dr. Phil Maffetone is pioneer of this type of workout. I heard about this term in 2015 when I was trying to qualify for Boston Marathon and found a wonderful blog called Extramilest. Floris does an amazing job in finding success stories of MAF technique. Here is a great video of him explaining MAF training.

Floris of Extramilest talking about MAF training

According to this method, you need to always train at your maximum aerobic heart rate. How Do I know my maximum heart rate? Well, as a rule of thumb, subtract your age from 180. For example, if you are 30 years old then your maximum heart rate would be 180-30=150 beats per minutes. If you train at that rate, you will gain maximum benefit from training.

As an example, back in 2018, my heart rate for a 6 mile run on a treadmill would jump to 160 bpm at 8 mins/mile pace. Today, I did 7 miles on the treadmill and my heart rate was 145 bpm. How did that happen? Well, I trained my heart to sustain a particular pace and it got better with time.

This means that heart does not have to work as hard as it used to maintain a particular pace. Even more, it got better at it. 7:15/mile today vs. 8 mins/mile last year.

Next time you plan to run an a long distance race, MAF can be your ultra marathon heart rate.

Watch/Improve Your Running Form

When I started running back in 2013, I usually had shin pain during and after a run. Even when I pressed gently on the shin pain the pain was intolerable.

I was a big heel strike and never paid attention to that. My shins were always sore and pain persist most of the time. So, I did not enjoy my most of the runs. I had pain even while standing on my feet. I started reading about that and tried several methods like icing and all but nothing helped at all.

Then I watched a video on Youtube about how running form can impact your shins. I watched my running form by making a short video and undoubtedly, I was a heel striker. What is heel striking. You are landing on your heel and the impact on your leg is huge.

Why heel striking is bad for you

Lets take a simple approach why heel striking is bad for you. When we run, our feet lands for a fraction of second and the impact is felt by whole body and more so by out leg and feet. Now that impact is pressure on your body which can be defined as

P=F/A

Where A is your area that your body is landing on and F is the normal force on your body, F depends on your weight. More weight you have more Force will be exerted on your body.

Now when you land on your heal, you decrease the A and hence P will be huge. You do not want P to be more. How you can reduce that? Well, either by reducing weight or by landing on full feet. This will maximize A and minimize P. That is why they say that mid foot landing is the best form of running strides.

Some runners say that we can not change it. This is our natural style. As a matter of fact, this is not true. It can be done by practice. I have done it and so you can do it too. When you go for a run, pay attention to your strides and try landing mid foot. Things take time. If you keep practicing, You will see results in 2-3 months.

Swinging arms?

Do you have back pain? Again, running form may be the culprit. I used to have upper back/shoulder pain and I am still working on that. This was largely due to my running form. I was folding my hands and running like a chicken. I was also not swinging my arms properly. I am now trying to change that habit by practicing horizontal movement of my arms. It have helped in my shoulders or upper back pain. Though, it takes time to adjust your running form but I can assure you that it helps a lot.

Respect the Distance

If you are planning to switch from marathon distance to 50 mile race, then respect the distance. There is a huge difference between a marathon and a 50 miles run. Your best marathon pace or slightly slower pace of marathon cannot be your 50 mile pace. Depending on if you are running on trails or on the road. The race pace will be totally different.

Ultra running is not a sprint

Do Not Start Fast

We should not start any ultra marathon fast. Fast means faster than your goal pace. Beginner ultra marathoners usually thinks that they can have some time in the bank by starting faster. Sorry guys, this does not work in ultra running. It does not even work in a marathon for that matter.

Not matter what, starting slower than your goal pace should be number one strategy. Number two strategy may be starting at goal pace. And in any case, if you change your plan last minute and takes off faster than you plan. You are shooting yourself in your foot. Do not do that.

So, begin the race conservatively which means that you should start even slower than your goal pace. Try to bring the pace back to your goal pace in the middle of the race and then try to maintain. These are the three phases of a race that we should always consider and must adhere to.

Choose your path and go for it.

Conclusion

So, these are the some of the important points that will help you become a long distance runner.

If your goal is just to finish the race, then you can get away by doing less. However, You must pay attention to all the details that include diet, based mileage, your interval training etc to run an ultra in a desired time.

If you have any questions, comments or concerns or would like to add anything to this blog post, please feel free to leave a comment. If you like this post, please share. Fore future posts, please join my email list.

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1 comment on “How to Become an Ultra Runner: A complete Guide for Beginners

  1. Pingback: Road Running vs Trail Running - Malik's Mobility-Ultrarunning, Ketogenic Diet and Fat Adaptation

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