Ultra-running is having a moment — especially on trail races and up and down mountainsides. Maybe you’re a former half-marathoner looking for a new challenge, or a cross-country runner hoping to go just a little bit longer, for whatever reason, you’re drawn to the world of ultra-endurance … Embrace it!
But what should you expect when you line up at your first race? Even if you’ve put in the big miles, hitting anything longer than marathon-distance will likely feel like a shock to the system. That’s why we rounded up some ultra-runners to get their best tips and find out what they wished they had known before the gun went off and the race was underway.
PICK THE RIGHT GEAR
In ultra-running, in particular, there are more gear challenges than you’d face in, say, a 5K. Suddenly, that shirt with the seam that sticks out on the side isn’t just annoying, it’s chafing and rubbing away layers of skin after mile 20. The running hydration pack you bought for hiking works fine on a day hike, but pounding away on a downhill for 3 miles is making it bounce up and down frantically. Don’t take your gear for granted: Months in advance start figuring out exactly what works for you, down to the socks that work best with your shoes and what cap keeps hair and sweat out of your eyes without boiling your head.
RELY ON THE RELIABLE
Race week is not the time to start making swaps for fancier equipment. If you do want to switch something up for the race, like swapping minimal road shoes for a more trail-ready option, do it months in advance. The same applies for food and drink — if you’re planning on eating and drinking what’s provided at the aid stations, make sure you’ve practiced eating and drinking that beforehand or bring your own.
Hydration during the race is important, says ultra-runner Nick Brindisi. But arguably just as important (if not more so) is starting the race at a good level of hydration. “Drink loads of water for a couple of days before the race,” he says. Add a pinch of sea salt so your electrolyte balance is ideal on the start line. That way, you have more leeway when it comes to missing an aid station.
KNOW THE COURSE
It sounds obvious, but several ultra-runners noted that knowing the course — and not just the length — is key to a good day. Take a look at the elevation profile so you can plan your pacing appropriately, and on race day, you won’t be shocked by that vicious 2-mile climb at the very end. Additionally, take a look at where aid stations are situated, and use that intel to decide if you want to run with a pack or vest or with just a handheld water bottle.
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR HEART RATE
You don’t need to stay in a perfect heart rate range during an ultra, and during a more mountainous one, expect it to oscillate wildly as you go up and down. What you do want to look for, ultra-runner Harry Hamilton says, is signs your heart rate is getting depressed in general. If you’re having a hard time keeping it in your normal endurance zone, that’s usually a sign of serious fatigue setting in, and it might be time to back off the pace a bit, have a snack and take a few sips of water.
BREAK IT UP
“Compartmentalize the race into digestible chunks in your mind rather than think how far you have to go,” says Brindisi. “And congratulate yourself on how far you came!” Some people like doing the math and knowing what percentage of the race they’ve finished. Others thrive on how far they have to go. Know what’s going to motivate you, and what’s going to depress you. By compartmentalizing the race into chunks like Brindisi suggests, you might get a mental boost at the end of every 10-mile ‘segment’ and make yourself feel like you’re restarting the race entirely! (This is also a great tip for if you’ve hit a wall or had a bad couple of miles: Give your brain the ability to hit the ‘reset’ button and start over, even when you’re mid-race.)
When it comes to navigating rocky terrain, Under Armour athlete and ultra-runner Sarah Cotton says that you need to just have a little faith. “Sometimes, the more cautious you are, the more likely you are to fall or twist an ankle,” she adds. “I’m not saying you should close your eyes or anything … obviously watch where you’re going, but you have to learn to let go of your tension and fear and just let out your inner mountain goat. This was very hard for me at first and still is!”
PREPARE TO BE HUNGRY
The sheer number of calories needed for racing and training can be shocking. “When training for a 100-miler, I go through months of volume training culminating in one last cycle I call hell week: 8 days, 200km and 25,000 vertical feet. I could literally fall asleep on cement and eat three meals at once during it,” Brindisi says. Listen to your body and make sure what you’re eating is reflecting the number of calories expended during training.
KEEP CALM, CARRY ON
Despite the conditions or whatever’s happening in the race, try not to get irritated. That’s a tall order, but if you can stay calm and not get frustrated, the day will be smoother. “Especially after coming from doing a majority of my running on the track and roads, I would always get really irritated at first when the muddy/wet terrain slowed me down,” says Cotton. “It’s going to slow you — and everyone else — down; but you just have to muscle through it and try to stay as relaxed as possible.”