If you are reading this- you have found Trail Sisters, so you are already in the right place! These are tips if you are looking to increase to the ultra distance on trail. First off- congrats on making the jump to ultra! But the excitement of the unknown can also feel a bit daunting. Even after you have been doing this for years, you never know what kind of a day you will have or what new puzzle pieces you are going to have to solve. That’s part of the journey, and the fun! You are unlocking a gift that will awaken endless possibilities. It’s going to be a wild ride. Let’s do this!
1) Know Your Intent. Ultrarunning is any distance over 26.2 miles (50k, 50miles, 100k, 100+mi) and usually on trails. There are countless reasons why people run ultras. Dig deep to find yours. Is it to get into shape? To explore the backcountry? To challenge yourself to new heights? To find new friends or other mother runners? Start with your goals- and then write down some bucket list races (UltraSignUp is a good place to start).
2) Start Slow. For races- I recommend starting at the 50k distance- and then increase distance as desired over time. Of course- this all depends on your running background. The slow increase will help in adapting gradually to the aerobic and musculoskeletal stress of ultras. But it isn’t only to build durability in muscles, tendons, and ligaments to sustain the distance. It takes time to learn how to pace yourself and to prepare yourself for the ultra mindset. Don’t rush the process- enjoy the journey!
3) Seek a Trail Running Community. Whether you are toeing the line for the first time or are an experienced trail runner- we are all a part of the same trail family. Use Strava or other group resources to reach out to others to run, or connect with others at your local running store. Volunteering at a local ultra is a great way to meet other ultra runners. We really are a friendly bunch! We thrive on big adventures in the mountains and showing new ultra runners the ropes. Lean in for support and help with discovering trails. Friends make training more exciting. With busy work and family life, hitting the trails with friends is a part of my social life that I can depend on.
4) A Family Affair. If your partner or spouse isn’t supportive of you training for an ultra- your dreams of getting to the event in a happy state of mind may be short lived. Start with open communication to address concerns. Training for an ultra takes time- set clear expectations. Plan in advance when you can run during your family reunion weekend. Try involving them in planning for your first race as crew at Aid Stations. Get the kids involved with planning your routes online or with paper maps, and get them out for a hike after your run. The earlier you can expose your kids to the great outdoors the better! You are setting an example to your kids (and/or all of the kids in your life- nieces/nephews/ kids you babysit/ grandchildren:) to pursue their dreams with consistency and perseverance.
5) Be a Sponge. Stay humble! There are decades upon decades of “do’s and don’ts” of knowledge in your local trail running community. Ask the questions and listen! I highly suggest trail running podcasts, books, or magazines- (DM me for my favorites!) to soak up all the knowledge you can. My caveat to this: every ultra runner is going to have tips and tricks- try them out for yourself and see what works for you! Pickle juice never sounds good to me in an ultra- but some people swear by it. Use training runs to experiment.
6) Get a Coach. I can’t emphasize this enough. Having an objective insight into your training is priceless. Coaches can teach you how to manage training loads- when to push, and when to back off. It’s critical to be open and honest with how you are feeling emotionally, mentally, and physically. Your coach should know about every niggle and every big stressor.
7) Consistency. This is the key. If running is a scheduled part of your day, it will happen. Set yourself up for success! I like to hit the trails early to make sure that it gets done. Lay out your favorite running clothes, shoes, and fuel/hydration (packed and ready to go) the night before. I always set a timer on the coffee pot! Bring your running clothes to work so you can hit the trails afterwards. Running with friends helps with accountability, especially initially. It’s about progress, not perfection. As the saying goes- don’t try and be consistently great, try and be great at being consistent! In training- there will be days that you aren’t feeling your best. Acknowledge it. And when you are feeling good- USE IT! Make the good days count by seeking out a challenging hilly route or using that extra energy to practice downhill technical running.
8) Fuel and Hydrate. I always joke that whoever fuels the best wins- but this is truly from experience. I don’t believe in a “race weight”- focus on getting strong. Fueling on race day is a huge part of success in an ultra. Fuel and hydrate EARLY- that goes in training or racing. I train how I race so that my gut is accustomed to taking in fuel when running, especially in the weeks leading up to a long race. I aim for 70 grams of carb/hr and 200-300 calories per hour- including calories from hydration. We know hydration status is a predictor of race performance- use it! I aim to drink 12 to 16 ounces of fluid per hour in training, but more likely I drink 20-30oz when racing with increased intensity (and more if it’s hot or at altitude). On a day to day basis- ultra runners should prioritize eating! If you want longevity in the sport- you need to eat, and I mean a lot. Carbs for fuel are your friend and protein is crucial. I aim for 100grams of protein daily- which for me, usually means taking in protein powder sporadically throughout the day.
9) Fuel the Stoke. Fueling isn’t just food and hydration- it’s about staying engaged in your training. Seek out new trails. Plan a big adventure with friends. Race in places that excite you!
10) Practice the Ultra Mindset. Grit, perseverance, flexibility, having a positive outlook at all times… these are core attributes to all trail runners. If you are looking for overnight success- this is the wrong sport! The “success” is in the life lessons you learn from pushing yourself to your greatest potential.
11) Train for Race Specific. I recently ran a race and did not take my own advice. I trained on local trails, then traveled to another country where the terrain was VERY different than what I am used to. It would have been helpful to have sought out more technical terrain for training prior to the race (unless this sort of surprise is fun for you!). If you will be racing in the heat- practice staying cool while running. Racing on big vert? Practice on your training runs! My tips for racing in heat: I use my hydration pack w softies with electrolyte mix and then use a separate handheld of ice water just to douse my hat and my core while running. I also use an ice bandana around my neck and put loads of ice in my sports bra. In cold weather- choose layers! Remember a base layer to wick away moisture, a mid layer for warmth, and an outer layer that’s thin and lightweight (and waterproof if rain is a possibility). Don’t forget to lubricate high chafing areas! Also- make sure you pack a (waterproof!) drop back with warm clothes for after the race. Being exhausted is one thing, but freezing and exhaustion is a different animal.
12) Run with Trail Specific Shoes. If you choose shoes that are specific to the trail- your chances of injury decrease and chances of happiness greatly increase! I have shoes for warm weather training, for racing, for technical, for mud and rain, for ice and snow. Reach out to me if you need some suggestions! But essentially- find your favorite shoe for the task at hand.
13) Safety. This has been on the forefront of our minds since the devastating incident in China when 21 ultra runners died of hypothermia and the tragic death of a runner at TDS. This has shaken the global trail community deeply. Safety measures are critical in the backcountry. Especially at higher elevations, when temperatures can change quickly and storms can roll in unexpectedly. Bring a lightweight rain/wind jacket, gloves, and an emergency blanket in your hydration pack. It’s worth a bit of extra weight- and could save your life. Unexpected delays can happen on trail adventures. Bring more water and fuel than you think you need and tuck away a light headlamp. Plan your route in advance and share with loved ones. Satellite phones can save your life in the case of an emergency in an area with no cell phone service. Hitting the trails with at least one other person, especially in remote areas- is always a good idea. Remember wildlife may be around. We are playing in their territory, so always be respectful and stay calm. Do not try to outrun wildlife, back away slowly. Be familiar with animals that live in the area you are running and act accordingly. Here is a good resource for do’s and dont’s.
14) Use the Long Run. The long run isn’t just about “time on feet.” It’s about learning what fuel works best for you, how to sip and eat while running and trying out gear you will use on race day (especially headlamp or poles!). I also like to train with a full hydration pack. Even if I’m not running long enough to use all of the hydration- it’s an easy way to incorporate core strength work and prep the body for what’s to come on race day. I always carry essential items with me on long runs- including a tampon (for menses or a broken nose:), chapstick (in case of chafing), and a bit of KT tape in case of a rogue hot spot.
15) Enjoy the Intensity. Speed work and hill repeats are fundamental to building strength. But it’s not for every day- so enjoy it when you do it! Most of your runs should be truly “easy”, but adding in strides, tempos, and hills WILL make you faster. As always- listen to your coach!
16) Recovery is Key. Success in running doesn’t end after the run. End every run with carbs within 30min of finishing to replenish your glycogen stores. Mobility is key- try to do the Myrtl Routine and foam roll daily. I recommend some band work to activate and strengthen glutes before and after runs. Weak glutes are the runner’s nemesis!
17) Protect Wild Places. This is more than not dropping your gel package on the trail. This is about being environmentally conscious, a climate advocate. Exploring nature is fundamental to being human, and therefore, it is critical to protect these natural places for future generations. Find what interests you in making a difference. It might be trail maintenance work, becoming involved with Protect Our Winters and other climate advocacy groups, voting for legislation and representatives that work towards clean air and against climate change. Progress not perfection. We may not have all the answers- but we can all do something.
18) Celebrate Race Day. As my coach, David Roche, says “Training is the test, racing is the celebration.” Celebrate your hard work and dedication. It is undeniably a mental feat to race long distances. Believe in yourself and decide that you are going to have a positive day- no matter the outcome. You are stronger than you think you are. Start your race SLOW. Pace yourself. Races are won and lost in the 2nd half. If you have a history in road racing- give up the splits! Trails have differing vert and technicality. The work has been done- all you can do is your best on that day.
19) Expect to Suffer. At every ultra- you will enter the town of Sufferfest. When you enter, take note that you WILL reach the far outskirts of this town, and eventually get out of that rough place. Undoubtedly, the next town over is called Endorphin Rush. You will have lows, but know that after the low, there will be a “high” waiting for you. Smiling will help unleash a flood of much needed happy vibes. Cheering on other runners and thanking volunteers at Aid Stations also helps! Remember- the best stories are when you smile through the suck and get yourself out of Sufferfest. No matter how deep you dig, you can always give more.
20) Run with Gratitude. Running is a gift, and you never know when it will be your last run. Don’t lose sight of this profound gift. Trail running is a privilege. It is a luxury to have the time and transportation to hit the trails (and feel safe while doing so), and to have the physical and mental ability to run. Keep perspective.
21) Have Fun. Don’t take yourself seriously! If you aren’t having fun, you are doing it wrong. If there is ever a time you are dreading a run- it is OK to back off! Yes, consistency is key- but you should never dread running- and if you do- decrease mileage or intensity…or take a rest day, or three. The goal is to be mentally and physically HAPPY and HEALTHY!
Ready or not- ultra running will transform you. I guarantee that you will be a better human after running far on trails. You will begin to be shocked at how you ever lived your life without a daily dose of some sweet singletrack. Running an ultra distance race gives you the opportunity to experience life more fully. There is a life long trail runner in each of us waiting to explore. But don’t take my word for it- find out for yourself!