Beginner’s guide to ultra running


Ultra running, or running long distances, is a fast growing sport. We bring you a guide to getting started.

Ultra running is generally defined as any race over the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. At its most extreme, there are races that last for multiple days and those that challenge runners to run as far as they can in 24 hours. Most ultra races start from 30 miles.

Ultra races take place off road, on road and running round and round a track.

The build up to ultra running

18343927674_125c17a06a_kIt is generally advised that you have completed a marathon type run before embarking on the build up to ultra distance events. Marco Consani, pictured above, one of the UK’s top ultra distance runners, says: “You don’t need to have completed a road marathon but something in the 20 to 26 mile range or four hours off-road is a good starting point for progressing to ultras.

“Apart from allowing your body to become familiar with running these times and distances, it also gets you used to running consistently in training.”

The key is to never rush the build up and never try for an ultra when you are injured, even if it is just a niggle.

Training should be slowly progressive, moving up the miles over many months. And it is important that you also do a mix of training, including slower and longer sessions and shorter and faster workouts on road and off-road.

Marco, from Glasgow, says: “No matter what type of ultra you are doing, road or trail, you will benefit from mixing it in training. Road training for miles on end can fatigue the muscles and stiffen the legs.

“I find some sessions off-road will loosen things up. Off-road can make you slow and so I find a road session helps to speed things up. In the end, mentally and physically, it is good to mix and match.”

Another experienced ultra runner, Carol Martin, pictured below on the left, has discovered that successful ultra distance running comes from learning to slow your pace. It might seem obvious but endurance is about know the pace you can run for many hours at a time, or even for days.

Carol, 47, says: “My success has come after I learned to run a bit slower and to develop a high level of endurance. If I don’t feel completely comfortable when I am running a long distance I slow down and I am no longer tempted to speed away at the beginning of an event.

“I find that if I keep to a slower and steadier pace I tend to gain places in the later stages of the race when others become tired.”

carol martin on left

Training tips for ultras

 Ultra running is very similar to marathon training. As well as building up the longer runs, it’s important to also include speed sessions, recovery runs and the tempo (at race pace) runs. What is different is that the long runs will obviously be longer.

It’s a good idea to train on terrain that is similar to the race that you are focused on.

Yet running too far in training can also be detrimental to performance. Marco says: “I have learned that I should not run more than 35 miles in one go in training. Any more than that and I feel that the recovery starts to out weigh the benefits.

“If I want to do more miles then I start to do back-to-backs – so perhaps 25 miles on a Saturday and 25 miles on a Sunday. This has to be slowly increased week on week.

“These long runs should be at an easy effort with always one mind on being recovered enough for the next run.”

Many ultra runners will include regular gym sessions for strength and conditioning and also yoga for helping to stay flexible and avoid injury.

18345915213_7bf30ce02b_kUltra running nutrition

All endurance sports require careful planning for fuelling. The muscles require energy in the form of nutritional fuel, especially after many hours of exercise.

The key for ultra runners is finding foods that they can consume while still being able to run.

William Sichel, an ultra runner who takes part in multi-day and non-stop events, has trialled and tested many foods over the years. His favourite running food is ice-cream because “it gives me the right amount of energy, it’s easy to consume and doesn’t upset my stomach”.

Other ultra runners will race only with gels and high-energy drinks.

A lucky few can stomach all kinds of foods, in small quantities and at frequent intervals while running. Many prefer savoury to sweet after running dozens of miles.

It’s a question of trial and error to find what your body can cope with while running and for many people it’s a case of learning by what doesn’t work.

“Runner’s trots” are common, as are stomach cramps, but by keeping snacks very small it is possible to maintain adequate levels of carbohydrates to fuel the muscles over very long races.

Marco also believes that an all-round healthy diet is also important for ultra runners. He says: “I have found that when I increase the amount of fruit and vegetables that I eat my recovery times decrease dramatically and I feel so much better.

“I don’t think that it is a coincidence that so many good ultra runners are vegetarian, although I haven’t gone that far.

“As much as possible I try to not eat processed food and I don’t tend to drink alcohol. My only vice is coffee!”

The right kit for ultras

If you are a runner you will already have most of the right kit for ultra running. Lightweight, long-lasting and good quality are the keys to many comfortable miles of being on your feet.

Many ultra runners train off-road so they will own several pairs of trainers for road and a range of trail terrains. Most footwear brands sell trainers for off-road running.

Another key item is a rucksack or hydration pack. If you are out running for many hours you will usually need to carry spare clothes, such as a baselayer or waterproof jacket, gloves, food and water.

It’s a good idea to buy a running rucksack or hydration pack that is specific to running because it will fit neatly and not jump about while on the move.

Top to toe in Inov-8

Inov-8 is a leading running product brand and the company sponsors Marco. He wears inov-8 Terraclaw 250 shoes, Race Elite 6″ Trail Short, Race Ultra Shell, inov-8 Base Elite SSZ t-shirt and Base Elite Merino LS top. He also carries an Inov-8 Race Ultra 5 vest pack.

He says: “I am very fortunate to be supported by Inov-8. When I joined them I already ran in quite a few pairs of their shoes and knew how good they are but I was pleasantly surprised at how good all of their equipment is too.”

But what about the injuries?

Go on to any ultra running forum or listen to a group of ultra runners and you will hear people who can’t run because of a range of different pains, niggles and injuries. Most injuries are in the feet, legs and hips.

Again, injuries are more likely to happen if training is too quickly progressed. Knowing the right footwear, wearing orthotics in shoes if required, recovery, regular massage and staying flexible will all help to prevent the potential for injury.

“And when you feel a niggle, back off,” advises Marco. “Have a rest day rather than risk aggravating it more.”

Who is ultra running for?

There is no typical ultra runner and many people are surprised by the many different shapes and sizes of ultra runners. However, the field is often packed with runners over the age of 35.

However, it’s not a sport that excludes youngsters. It might be that ultra running comes about after runners have tried all the shorter distances first.

It is true that time and patience are rewarded with endurance for ultra runners and if you are able to run a 5k then it follows that eventually you will be able to do an ultra distance event.

Carol, a mum-of-three, is a good example. She says: “I got into running after the birth of my third son nearly 15 years ago. Previously I kept fit at the gym but with that pregnancy I suddenly longed to be able to run outdoors.

“I did a very traditional build up to running ultras. First a 5k, then 10k, before half marathons and then my first marathon around 2003. I ran marathons for a number of years before discovering off-road running about six years ago when I started doing multi-day events. I then found out about the Scottish ultra races and I have never looked back.”

Marco, 40, is also a dad to a young son and has a wife, Debbie Martin-Consani, who competes very successfully at ultra races. Marco says: “Ultras takes dedication and focus and both Debbie and I have full-time jobs plus we are parents.

“Ultras have become our social life, I guess, but because we really enjoy it and have made great friends through the sport it works for us.”

ultra runnersThe friendly sport

The time-consuming nature of ultras often results in runners making good friends with other ultra-distance runners.

Many runners also talk of the friendly atmosphere of races. Marco says: “During one race I was battling hard with another runner, a Spaniard, for 40 miles or so. I couldn’t speak Spanish and he couldn’t speak English. Towards the end we looked at each other and somehow agreed that it would be unfair for one of us to lose. What other sport do the two winners cross the finish hand in hand?”

Marco continues: “And in what other sport does the person who finishes last deserve more respect than the person who finishes first?

“What other sport can the girls not just compete but also beat the guys? Ultra running to me is a community of like-minded people that respect each other no matter if they are fast or slow, fat or thin, and where you can learn just as much from the elite guy who finishes in record time or the person who comes in last but had to battle over two nights while the elite runner was sleeping.

“That’s what I love about ultra running.”

Learning from other ultra runners

The ultra running community is very supportive of its members and you can learn a great deal by asking and listening to advice. A good Facebook forum is the Ultra Dafties Training Group.

Marco says he has learnt a lot by supporting Debbie in her ultras. He says: “Debbie, by her own admission, is not a fast runner but can beat most people in an ultra by using her endurance.

“Watching her taught me to be patient. I would race reckless and push at the start but an ultra is a long way and if you push too hard too early it can be even longer.

“My coach Mark Johnston also taught me to listen to my body, to analyse my performances and have a race plan.

“These two people have made me the runner I am today but also every person I have met on the way has helped me too. No matter whether they are at the front or the back of a race everyone has little hints and tips that help.”

The Scottish ultra races

There are many ultra races in Scotland these days including some of the most famous, such as the West Highland Way Race, The Highland Fling and The Devil o’ the Highlands Foot Race. To start with you might like to enter as a relay team.

For more races:

Scottish Ultra marathon Series

Run Ultra for a list of races in Scotland.

Scottish Running Guide

7 top tips for successful ultra running

  • If you aren’t enjoying it you are running too fast.
  • Consistency is much more important that covering lots of miles. Marco says: “My advice is it’s better to run 20 miles and then run five miles every day that week than to run 40 miles in one go and have a week off.”
  • Run slower and build it up to longer runs over many weeks and months
  • Enjoy your surroundings as you run. It should be a good experience rather than a slog.
  • Eat small amounts, often. Every 30 mins is a good guide.
  • Test, test, test. Make sure you test everything in training including nutrition and gear so that nothing is new on race day.
  • Rest is as important as training. Rest days are allowed and make sure that after a race you take time off to physically and mentally recover.

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