12 Tips For Moving From Marathons To Ultras

Duncan Callahan finished the 2014 Leadville Trail 100 Run in 20:27:20. Photo: Glen Delman

A 100-mile race isn’t out of reach—if you prepare properly.

Maybe you’re more than a little curious about the idea of running an ultra—even a 100-miler. Yet where to start can be a daunting proposition, even for an experienced marathoner.

Duncan Callahan, a two-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100 Run and an official coach for the race, says that with consistency, training for and completing a 100-miler is completely attainable.

“If you are fit, have run some marathons and are used to the occasional 60-mile week from marathon training and want to do a 100, you can,” Callahan says. “For my clients running the Leadville 100, I look at a six-month chunk of time.”

Here are Callahan’s 12 tips to get started on your road to running 100 miles.

How To Train

“I prescribe six days a week of running and one day completely off per week. Each week usually consists of one long day (those may go to every two weeks once the runs get longer), a speed workout, and a day of longer intervals and then for the rest, whatever type of running my clients enjoy. They may get up to 80-90 mile weeks at the top end of training. I break the six-month training block into three two-month blocks and have clients do a 50K and 50-miler as training runs.”

Run Consistently

“When it comes to ultra training, running consistently is more important than running fast. Many folks coming from a road running background focus too much on pace and mileage. There is really less of a science behind ultra running. You just need to run every day. If you’re feeling bad, slow down. If you feel good, go faster.”

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Time on Feet

“An ultra takes a long time, and one of the important metrics I look at in training programs is time spent on feet. And then, I consider how much of that time was at a hard effort. It is much more telling than mileage, pace or vertical gain.

It’s A Lifestyle Sport

“Daily training won’t get you to the finish line if you don’t consider other aspects of your life. It’s important to eat well, get sleep and be functionally fit—whatever that means to you. It could be doing cross-country skiing, jujitsu, cycling or CrossFit or something else, but full-body fitness is important.”

Ultrarunning Is Primarily A Metabolic Sport

“Nutrition is critical when it comes to running long distances. Ideally you can train your metabolism to burn fat as fuel instead of relying so much on quick-hit, high-glycemic carbohydrates. Yes, gels serve a valuable purpose in a race, but eating fewer processed foods, more real food, lower glycemic foods and carbohydrates from fruits, veggies and tubers will serve you better over the long haul. And remember to start your run slowly, so as not to immediately burn through your glycogen stores.”

Mental Competency

“An ultra is a mental game and the more you can prepare your mind for the rigors ahead, the better you’ll fare. Don’t look for the perfect day; it’s not going to happen. And that’s simply a practicality. The combination of 100 miles, remote roads and trails, long hours and logistics means that something will always go wrong. If you accept that fact, you won’t be surprised when it does and will be better able to rally.”

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Consolidate Your Training

“With work, family and social commitments and increased mileage, something has to give. And it’s usually sleep, the thing you truly need to recover. Yes, chances are you will sacrifice some sleep, but try not to do it on a chronic level. Grouping intense training days will be tiring, but the reward is a cluster of easier days and more sleep.”

Cross-Train If It Works For You

“I don’t tell my clients they have to cross-train, but if it works with what they already do, I think it’s a good idea. If you know how to swim, getting in the water once a week is helpful. Laps, kicking with a kickboard and aqua jogging all work. It isn’t so much about the cardio workout as it is about the positive pressure from the water on your body. Then, think about the exact opposite thing from ultrarunning—Olympic or power lifting. If you aren’t comfortable in a gym, you can skip it, but full-body, maximal strength training is a great benefit.”

Training For Elevation And Climbing At Sea Level

“Anyone can find a 60-120 second running hill. Use it for hill running and bounding repeats to boost strength. I don’t force people to get on treadmills, but, if they are into it, running on a steep incline can help. Stairmasters work, as does running steps and leg strength training work. Altitude is a tough one. Acclimatizing is the best help. Pre-running some of the course, if you can, may help and then spend as much time at altitude as possible. Otherwise, stay well-hydrated and even train during the hottest time of the day. That won’t exactly help with altitude, but it does train your body to process more liquid, which will be a benefit at higher elevations.”

One Foot In Front Of The Other

“This is true in any endurance sport—especially ultrarunning. Just keep moving. Even if you’re having a bad day, off day or just an OK day, whether during training or a race, just keep moving. Everyone walks at some point during an ultra, but jut keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

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Simplify

“Many get into ultrarunning because it has more freedom than road running or triathlon. But then we grab it tight by the neck and complicate things. Don’t. Pare down and simplify your options. For gear, have a few good options instead of lots of options you’ll never use. Get rid of mental clutter too and simply focus on running.”

Take Time Off

“Plan to take two months off after you run a 100-miler. You can exercise, but it should be unstructured and not attached to a training program. It’s important for your mental, physical and hormonal recovery on a macro level. Embrace the break and reconnect with the rest of your life. To combat post-race blues, choose a new event, but look at the long term for scheduling.”

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