Are you considering running your first ultramarathon? Fantastic! Running an ultramarathon will not only change your running for the better, but it will change your life.
Although ultramarathons are challenging, there are several ways to make the process easier. You can make ultramarathon running as easy or as hard as you’d like, the choice is yours.
The following tips are not for those in a quest for a record-breaking race day performance. Most of those runners are coming off fast marathon times and expect an even speedier ultramarathon debut.
So who are these tips for?
The following tips are for the rest of us. They are for the majority who are ready to attempt something new. Those who quite possibly will be tackling the biggest challenge of their lives. It’s for those looking to do one thing, and one thing only: SURVIVE!
When I first started LongRunLiving.com, I released an article titled, ‘10 Tips For Running Your First Ultramarathon’. Those 10 tips have helped many runners and are also worth a read. But if you’re looking for a survival guide for ultramarathon running then look no further! Here you will receive 14 simple ways to survive your race and cross the finish line of your first ultramarathon.
1. Run The 50k Distance
If ultramarathon running is entirely new to you, allow me to explain. An ultramarathon is any distance longer than the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles. The 50k is the shortest distance. Beyond the 50k is 50 miles, 100k, 100 miles, and even longer! There are also staged and timed events, not to mention all the other distances that fall somewhere in between them all.
To survive your first ultramarathon, run the shortest distance first, that is, run a 50k. The 50k distance, or 31 miles, can either feel like a short ultramarathon or a long marathon. Which one depends on how you handle yourself on race day.
I’ve run 50ks on fast tracks that felt magical, and I’ve run 50ks on technical trails that sucked the life out of me. So, if you’re only looking to survive your first ultramarathon, choose an easier course. Now don’t get me wrong, all ultramarathons are challenging. However, some courses are relatively easier than others. So, sign up for a race with a wide-open track, little direction change, or even one on the road. This will be especially convenient if you’re coming from a marathon background.
Once you cross the finish line, it will build your confidence to run on tougher terrain. By choosing the path of least resistance, you will survive your first attempt. You will run your first ultramarathon and officially become an ultramarathon runner!
2. Pick A Flat Course
After committing to the 50k distance, to survive your first ultramarathon, pick a flat course. As you search through various races, be sure to look at each course description. The key is to look for the term “beginner friendly” or a place to “set a new PR.” Running a flat course will cover the same distance as other courses but will take less effort.
Here’s an example of a flat, beginner friendly, 50k course description: This 50k aims to be the fastest race in (State). With its mostly flat course, easy aid stations, and wildlife to watch, this beginner friendly course is the perfect place to set a new PR.
3. Have Only One Goal
To survive your first ultramarathon have one goal and one goal only: cross the finish line. There will be plenty of opportunities to go after other goals later. But to increase the odds of having a ‘later,’ first, put your energy only on crossing the finish line.
Trust me, no matter the course, the feeling of crossing the finish line of your first ultramarathon will be an incredible experience. You’re not going to cross the finish line and think, “I’d feel better about this finish if I would have run a more technical trail.” No way! You’re going to be ecstatic! You’re going to think “I am an ultramarathon runner! Woohoo!”. The same psychological benefits are present whether the course is flat, steep, wide, or tight. So pick a flat course, get across the line, and then go after your other goals. Faster speeds, longer distances, and higher elevations will all come in no time at all.
For an easy to follow training program, grab a copy of my book, The Ultramarathon Guide: A Simple Approach To Running Your First Ultramarathon.
4. Start Very Slow
Your first ultramarathon is going to seem long…very long…very very long. Once you begin, between pre-race jitters and adrenaline, it’s natural to run faster than normal. However, if you want to survive your first ultramarathon, I’m here to warn you not to increase your pace. Keep it slow and steady once the race begins. Save your energy for later in the race.
Look at your first ultramarathon as a bank with energy as your currency. You only have so much energy to withdraw on race day. Fueling will add more to the account, but processing takes time. Meaning, it takes time to convert fuel to usable energy like it takes time for a check to clear in your account. If you withdraw all your funds at once, even when you’ve deposited more funds, you will go broke. Being out of energy 15 miles with 16 more miles to go during a 50k is a lonely place, so be conservative.
5. Speed Hike Hills
Hills can be your best friend or your worst enemy; the choice is yours. You can attack the hills, or you can use them as a break to let your running muscles rest. Even if you choose a relatively flat course, you will still likely face some hills. If it’s your first ultramarathon, consider speed-hiking a few of them. This strategy will give you a break from your fast pace but prevent any potential loss of momentum.
Place your hands on your hips or knees or swing those arms and speed hike upwards. Once on top, begin running, and make up your time on the downhills. Fly down those quad-screaming descents with the brakes released, and watch gravity work its magic.
Personally, when running hills, I prefer taking much smaller steps. Keeping your strides short and quick uphill will change the overall dynamic of your motion.
Try this: first, while progressing uphill, take a few lunges. Next, make your way up the same hill, but this time, take small shorter steps. Which takes less effort? It’s the latter every time.
Similar to shifting a bike to a lower gear, a shorter step requires more revolutions but less energy per revolution. The change in motion can feel as if you’re running on flat terrain. In this way, the hills begin to disappear, and your experience becomes much more enjoyable on race day.
6. Carry Extra Fluids
Staying hydrated should be of the utmost importance during an ultramarathon. Without proper hydration, your electrolytes will become out of balance. Then your body won’t be able to complete any distance, ultramarathon or not.
There have been numerous times I’ve fallen and landed on my handheld water bottle spilling my fluids. Losing your liquids between aid stations leaves you up a creek without a paddle. Since I’ve run so many ultra distances, in addition to my nutritional approach, that’s no longer an issue. I can run far with no fuel. But if it were my first ultramarathon, it would be a big problem.
So, to avoid any unnecessary issues that lead to dehydration, pick up a hydration pack. If you’re coming from a trail running background, you may already own a pack. If not, please allow me to explain. A hydration pack is worn like a backpack. Inside there’s a bladder which holds liquids. Attached to the bladder is a tube which you suck like a straw. At the end of the tube is a mouthpiece with a valve, typically one you bite. When you’re thirsty, it’s as easy as biting the valve to take a sip. What’s most beneficial about hydration packs are how much extra fluid you can carry. This way you always have a drink when you need it, and any possible thought of dehydration vanishes.
7. Make Quick Pit Stops
Walk if you have to, crawl if you must, just never give up. ~ Dean Karnez
The first piece of advice I ever received in ultrarunning was the simplest piece of advice I ever received. The tip I received was to keep moving forward no matter what.
As you may know already, we all have good runs, and we all have bad runs. But during ultramarathons, sometimes those bad runs can get pretty ugly if you let them. There will be ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and valleys, but whatever you face, keep your forward motion relentless.
Here’s the thing, when you stop moving during an ultramarathon, you become weak, stiff, and tired. Starting back up takes a substantial amount of energy. And the longer you stop, the harder it is to gain momentum again.
Remember the merry go round example in ‘Supercharge Your Run With The Secret Power Of The Endurance World’?
Here’s a way to view momentum:
Remember when you were a kid and played on a merry-go-round with your friends? At a standstill, a full merry-go-round was tough to move. But the more you pushed it, the easier it became. Soon you could barely keep up, so you jumped on and spun around in circles with your friends.
Then to keep the momentum alive, as it would slow, you jumped off and gave it another push before it reached a full stop.
Momentum is the same on race day. You must keep your merry-go-round spinning at the aid station. Get in, grab what you need, and get out before reaching a full stop. Because if you remember, a full merry-go-round at a full stop takes a lot of energy to start back up. And what you will find on race day is the longer you stop, the more energy it will take to begin running again. When you hit the aid station keep in mind three words: aids station efficiency.
8. Look Down or Go Down
If you look up, then you’re going down! Most ultramarathons take place on trails, so chances are you will be racing on a trail. Unlike the road, on a trail you must keep your eyes glued to the ground. Trails have hidden rocks and roots with frequent direction and elevation changes, all tripping hazards in your path on race day.
To prevent a face full of mud, look at the ground 10-15 feet ahead of you at all times. Also, be conscious of how high you lift your feet. The more tired you become, the lower your feet will hang. This leaves you vulnerable to the potential rocks and roots sticking out of the ground.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked UP only for a split section before going DOWN. It’s funny how your view goes from a beautiful sky to a clump of dirt within a fraction of a second. Just recently I was running a mountain in Arizona and couldn’t help but look up and take in such magnificent scenery. Unfortunately, in the later stages of the race, its scenery became far less incredible. When you slide off the side of a trail, roll onto your back, and turn over to see a cactus a few inches from your face, it sure puts things into perspective.
The point is this: If you look up then you’re going down!
9. Slow Your Pace Or Pass
Remember, you must be conscious of how you distribute your energy if you want to survive your first ultramarathon. Every part of race day demands your energy. Take your form for instance. You can run in a way that feels natural, but you could be heal striking hard. This is like driving a car with the brakes on. Every time your foot hits the ground you create greater resistance. And it’s not just your form; it can be how you fuel, the terrain, or even the stress from what’s on your mind. Stress, no matter the type, is resistance we must overcome, and it takes a lot of energy to do so.
So, while you’re conscious of your energy usage, keep an eye on the person in front of you. If you’re running a race on a single narrow track, chances are you will run up on a fellow runner. When behind a runner quickly decide if you want to pass or follow them. Running on and off their heals continuously changing pace can drain your energy. So, make a decision: pace or pass.
When passing a fellow runner just kindly announce “on your left.”
Likewise, if you hear a runner approaching you from behind, attempt to find a spot to allow the runner to pass.
10. Run With Other Runners
Many thoughts will go through your mind whiling surviving your first ultramarathon. In addition to fuel, pace, and terrain, you must also keep an eye on the course markings. The course markings are usually colored ribbons directing you in the right direction. Following course markings are essential in preventing yourself from running off course.
To survive your first ultramarathon, try running with a group. As the field spreads you begin to fall into your race day pace, here is where you find runners at your speed. The group could be one of interaction or one you trail behind and follow. Either way, running with a group will help you avoid becoming lost.
Follow the person ahead of you but still look up for a course marking from time to time. It’s not uncommon to follow someone off course. There’s been a handful of times I’ve had someone yell back and ask, “has anyone seen a ribbon lately?!” And whether on or off course, the person in front of you may be following the next runner ahead of them. So, if you do decide to follow a group, remember to keep an eye out for the course markings for reinsurance.
11. Protect Your Body
Protect your body from the elements. Many possible minor irritations can develop during your first ultramarathon. It’s better to overdo protection than under do it. Believe me, if you don’t, one day you may find yourself running through the night while dumping a bag of corn starch down your pants! To prevent those awkward, possibly race ending irritations, I will explain how to protect yourself to survive your first ultramarathon.
Gaiters are a trail runner’s best friend. They attach to your shoes and act as a shield to prevent any rocks or dirt from entering into them. Sure, clearing rocks out of your shoes seems like a minor nuisance. But stopping every few minutes wastes time and interrupts your momentum. Time and energy, two critical factors toward your progress on race day. When surviving your first ultramarathon, gaiters become a lifesaver. During an ultramarathon, a small pebble in your shoe will eventually feel like a jagged boulder by the end of the race. I’ve had holes in my feet to prove it. So pick up a pair of gaiters and hit the trails protected!
Lubrication is important to apply to all friction spots. You will thank yourself later in the race. Reapply during the race periodically and proactively- more so if it is raining. Try products like Bag Balm, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, or Vaseline.
Compression socks have many benefits, from preventing lactic acid to a faster recovery. But there is one benefit that is often overlooked. Compression socks do much better in wet conditions than other socks thus preventing blisters on your feet. So add a pair of compression socks as another layer of protection when surviving your first ultramarathon.
Sun hats will protect you from the sun on race day. Your body works hard to maintain its internal temperature. However, when you’re running, it must work overtime. Next, add in the exposure to direct heat, and your body is working double to stay cool. Then add in sunburn, and it’s working a triple shift to heal itself; not to mention the dehydration you will experience. All this extra physiological effort can take a lot of energy and tire you out fast. So how do we prevent excess sun exposure? Try a sun hat. There are different models but the best is a hat that protects the head as well as the neck and face. So if you plan on racing your first ultramarathon in the sun, consider a sun hat. Even if you choose a normal cap, add a cooling scarf for extra protection from the sun.
Suntan lotion will help prevent sunburn on hot and sunny days. Apply it to your skin before the race and carry some with you to reapply in its later stages. When the sun is out, and the temperatures are high, sunburn can change the entire dynamic of your race. It’s painful, irritating, and prevents the body from cooling down. It absorbs energy for healing that could otherwise be used for running.
So, what does protecting yourself on race day accomplish? Basically, it prevents cuts, chafing, blisters, and sunburn. These irritations all can contribute to preventing a runner from finishing. Remember, minor irritations during an ultramarathon can eventually turn into big problems. So protect yourself and be as comfortable as possible during an event that’s nearly impossible to be comfortable in.
12. Wear A High-Quality Jacket
I remember the time during a 30-mile training run when a dog jumped up and bit my elbow. The dog put a hole right through my brand new winter rain jacket! Because of the tear in the liner, I went from completely dry to soaked. By the time I arrived home, I was wet, shivering, and freezing from the cold winter rain.
Here’s the point: there’s nothing worse than being wet and cold during an ultramarathon. It’s demotivating, uncomfortable, and it makes the cold feel even colder.
You’ll find out quickly, a high quality insulated jacket makes a world of a difference during an ultramarathon. This also goes with winter jackets when the freezing temperatures hit. A warm jacket is how I’m able to continue to train and race through the cold winters where I live. A high-quality winter jacket can keep you outside running in the cold longer.
13. Stay In The Now
While running, do you ever find your mind wandering? Are you usually so caught up in the finish line that you’re not engaged in the actual run itself?
It can be difficult to keep your mind in the NOW when you become tired and still have miles to go. But you see, that’s the exact problem. Sometimes when trying to survive our first ultramarathon, we get so tired that we begin to wish the race was over thus pulling us away from the NOW. We start to focus more on the finish line creating less enjoyment on the run itself. And the less enjoyment, the more we wish to finish, thus creating an even larger fixation on the finish line.
Some get so caught up in the struggle it causes their mind to rationalize quitting as a better option than continuing forward. It’s a vicious process that takes us further and further away from the NOW. We focus more and more on the finish line, making the act of running more and more agonizing, taking us further and further from the present moment. Unfortunately, here is where some runners will give up. Here is where some runners will not survive their first ultramarathon.
To avoid this vicious cycle, do your best to stay in the NOW, that is, keep your mind in the present moment. This will make your first ultramarathon far more enjoyable and increase your chances of crossing the finish line.
When your mind’s in the present while running it’s no longer a race to finish, but a journey to travel. It’s never a finish line but always an arrival. So put one foot in front of the other, and one way or another, you will cover the distance.
I’ve been 3 miles from a finish line and it’s felt like an eternity and I’ve been 30 miles from a finish line and it’s felt like a walk in the park.
What was the difference?
It always has and always will be in the condition of my current mindset and how well I was able to stay in the NOW.
Not only does a present mindset shift your focus from the finish line, but you’re able to direct more energy to the run at hand. Remember, where focus goes energy flows.
Now instead of being a bystander to your run, you’re actually a participant and you’ll feel a much greater sense of purpose and contentedness to the race.
When you take a step back and think, you realize finding an appreciation in the act of running is a reason in and of itself to start being in the NOW. Then the finish line will arrive when it arrives. And guess what? It always does!
So how do you stay in the NOW? From the moment you wake until the moment you arrive at the finish line be GRATEFUL. Be grateful for the day, your health, and your strength. Be grateful for your feet, your clothes, and your food. Be grateful for the trails, the trees, and the sun. Be grateful for your feet, your legs, and your eyes. Gratitude brings you into the present moment because it connects you with your authentic self. Also, when you’re grateful, it’s impossible to feel bad. And in a sport where pain is a guarantee, gratitude will help keep your mind in the present and your heart in the race. Life is a miracle, and you’re living in it, be GRATEFUL for that.
14. Have A Powerful Positive Mindset
A positive thought reflects the principle of creation, while a negative thought reflections the principle of destruction. That’s why most consider a positive thought to be 100 times more powerful than a negative one. So staying positive during your first ultramarathon is 100 times more powerful then becoming negative. Reasons to quit are always available, but guess what, so are reasons to finish.
When discussing positive thinking, I’m not saying to believe an imaginary thought. I’m only referring to seeing your current situation from a different light. For example, if you cramp during your first ultramarathon, don’t think “this cramp is a big problem.” Instead think, “there is a reason for cramping, and if I caused the cramping then I can cure it.” This way, instead of wishing there were no weeds in your garden, you acknowledge them, and then pull them out. Because we all know if you don’t get rid of one weed, more will grow!
Let’s Take It Home
When it comes to running your first ultramarathon, some runners will have very lofty goals. But for the majority of us, for our first ultramarathon, we only wish to survive and make it across the finish line in one piece. By following these 14 tips for surviving your first ultramarathon, you will simplify the process.
Remember, the simple things in life are the most extraordinary. However, it takes an extraordinary person to realize running is a simple process. Sure it’s a challenging process, but it’s one worth accomplishing.
Know that all the highest highs come from the lowest lows. If valleys did not exist then neither would peaks. When you perform a weight lifting exercise, you must dip down before you can push up. When you have an idea, you must put in the work before your creation is born. When you run your first ultramarathon, you must go through weeks of training before crossing the finish line. We must first go through struggles before we achieve any goal, running goals included.
Although adversity is a constant, we can make it much more manageable on race day with these 14 tips. You will have a much more enjoyable experience and create the confidence you need to start your ultramarathon journey. Once you finish your first ultramarathon you will now have the certainty to run even further and to race even faster and to climb even higher. But it will all have started with the foundation you built. The foundation for SURVIVING your first ultramarathon!
REMEMBER…there will be ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and valleys, but whatever you do, keep your forward motion relentless.
Ready to become an ultramarathon runner? If so, click the image of my book below and start training for your first 50k TODAY!
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