Home » How to Survive an Ultramarathon – 7 Tips for your First Ultra Marathon

How to Survive an Ultramarathon – 7 Tips for your First Ultra Marathon

Running through a field with pink socks

Here are my 7 tips on how to survive your first ultramarathon, that are based on my experiences so far. They’re in no particular order, and I’ll no doubt want to add to them as I learn. Some of them are things I knew, but haven’t been able to put into action; but all of them are designed to make your first ultra marathon just that bit more enjoyable.

Start off slowly, your legs will thank you later on

Every race I’ve entered I make the mistake of going off too fast.  

You’re feeling fresh, you’ve put in all that training, and race day has arrived.  The temptation is to go off too quickly, and for me it’s not until the first mile is clocked I realise my speed.  The reality is your race pace should feel super easy, and will likely be slower than your long run training pace. 

It’s an (ultra) marathon not a sprint… 

Perhaps the most important of my tips on how to survive your first ultra marathon, that equally applies to more seasoned endurance athletes, is maintaining consistent pace.

In every ultramarathon I’ve really suffered later on in the race, paying the price for going off too fast.  Whilst a certain amount of suffering is to be expected, it’s about carefully managing your stores of energy and trying to keep to a consistent pace throughout the race, thereby delaying when the fatigue sets in, and protecting those legs.  Don’t think about losing time in the first couple of hours, or worry that other competitors are overtaking you.  Your patience will be rewarded, as your legs will be fresher, and you’ll be overtaking many more later in the race.

As a friend who competes in 24 hour races once told me, her secret was to maintain as consistent pace as possible over the course of the event.  Sure enough, after 4 hours she would be last, by midway she’d be in the middle of the pack, and by the end, she’d be up at the front.  Have the discipline to put your competitive self aside, and your patience will be rewarded.   

Easy to say, so difficult to do in practice though, as you can read in my Race to the Stones review and in my London to Brighton Ultra review. On both occasions, my aim was to keep a consistent pace throughout, but things don’t always work out as planned.

Walk the hills, be more Bambi on the descents

I personally prefer races with hills.  Not because I love running up hills (I don’t!)… but because I generally walk them, which allows me to get some rest, use different muscles and take on some fuel.

Of course, whether you run or walk will depend on your fitness level, the length of the race and many other factors.  Just bear in mind that your race pace on the hills and flat should always feel super easy.  If it starts to feel hard, walk, or if it feels ok, keep on jogging.

I used to think that running downhill was the reward for reaching the top. But running downhill puts pressure on your quads, causing damage that you could pay for later in a race.  So rather than taking long strides; be nimble, take small light steps, where possible, limiting the strain on your legs.  Think Bambi (but not on ice)… 

Keep Fuelled & Hydrated

When it comes to hydration: Little and often is the key. 

Don’t wait until you feel thirsty.  If you’re thirsty you could already be dehydrated.

Personally I carry 2 x500ml bottles on my front, one with water, and one with tailwind (or equivalent), and rotate my sipping of the bottles on these.  I refill these at every aid station, and depending on the heat, may top this up with a glass or two of what’s on offer before heading off.

As for nutrition, fortunately my best mate married a dietician, and she helped me put  together a fuelling strategy that works well for me.  Again I try to eat little and often, ensuring I consume 40-60g of carbs/hour via energy bars, gels or latterly bagels, topping it off with jelly babies that I love.  

Jelly babies aside, on longer races I do get to a point where I find it difficult to digest sweet and sickly energy bars, and crave savoury, which I’ll either carry or rely on aid stations providing.  I know some runners struggle with eating whilst running and are not so tolerant of variety.  I would seek professional advice from a medically trained sports dietician, to help you build a plan.  Of course, it’s also important to try everything before race day, to build that tolerance.  Read more about what kit to pack for your first ultra.

Keep going… one step in front of the other & Don’t spend too long at the aid stations

Relentless Forward Progress – whether it’s a run, jog, walk or shuffle, every step is one step closer to that cold beer at the finish

There are times in a race when your legs will be screaming at you to stop.  The temptation is to take a seat and put your feet up.  My advice is: don’t spend too long at aid stations, and keep moving… personally, the longer I stop and rest the harder it is for me to continue.  My muscles tighten, and more importantly my mind starts getting ahead of itself.  ‘You’ve only gone xkm, and look at the state you’re in, you can’t possibly do another ykm’.  

I enter the aid station, mentally ticking off that achievement; I sort out my fuel for the next leg, and I continue.  Unless I’m totally broken I spend no longer than 5 minutes at each station.

Thereafter, when I’m back out on the road, I repeat a simple mantra when things get tough: ‘You can do this, keep going’.  I know if I keep moving forward, however slow, I’m ticking off those steps.

Talk to people, but be prepared to be alone

I’ve met some wonderful people in ultra races. 

Everyone has their own personal goals, but collectively you’re all there on the same day, on the same course, trying to get over the line.  This creates a wonderful sense of camaraderie and intimacy that I’ve not experienced in road marathons. 

Chatting with other runners has the great advantage of passing time quickly, your mind is focused on the present, and the miles seem to fly by.  Just be mindful that every runner has their own pace… don’t get caught up in trying to keep up with someone because you enjoy their company.

Obviously it depends on the size of the race, but I find that for the first half I run with more people and chat with other runners.  However, in the second half of races, as the field breaks up, I am on my own, and can get lost in my own thoughts.  These can be tough times.  

In my first 100km race: London 2 Brighton Challenge Ultra, 30km in I started to feel early signs of fatigue, and my mind got ahead of itself thinking of what was ahead, rather than living in the moment.  Thankfully I caught up with a wonderful bunch of runners from Eastbourne, and the banter over 20minutes or so was enough to bring me out of my downward spiral and focus on the moment.

I also recommend carrying some headphones.  Personally, I love podcasts and audiobooks, so download a mix of motivational or story-based content before an ultra.  Now though I only wear one earpiece, after taking the wrong turn on the South Downs Way 50 because I didn’t hear the people shouting at me from behind… a painful lesson learnt.

Take in the scenery, smile & enjoy

The most important thing of all… Smile & Enjoy the Experience!

Smile & Enjoy the Experience

Whether you’re doing your first ultra or you’re an elite runner, if you do just one thing… smile! 

Smiling reinforces a positive mindset, and it’s also scientifically proven that runners who smile are more relaxed, and more efficient.  According to the study, smilers use less oxygen, run more economically and have a lower perceived rate of exertion than frowners (Ulster University & Swansea University study).

So there you go… smiling will not only make you feel better, it will also make your run faster… tick!

Revel in the Glory

Nothing will prepare you for turning the final corner and seeing that finish line. The release of emotion, the sense of achievement… You’ve done it! You’ve achieved your goals.

Revel in the Glory - 7 tips for your first ultra marathon

If I could bottle up the feelings I get when I cross the line… it’s what keeps me coming back.

Enjoy the moment, you’ve earned it!

Summary of my Tips for your First Ultra marathon

Why 7 tips for your first ultra marathon I hear you ask? Because I’m late for a train, and am rushing to the start of the Race to the Stones 100km!!!

The 7 Tips for Your First Ultra Marathon

  • SLOOOOOWWW DOWN: Start off slowly, your legs will thank you later on
  • Walk the hills, be more Bambi on the descents
  • Keep Fuelled & Hydrated
  • Keep Going… one step in front of the other & Don’t spend too long at the aid stations
  • Talk to People, but be prepared to be alone
  • Take in the Scenery, Smile & Enjoy
  • Revel in the Glory!

Have I missed anything? Please share your thoughts in the comments below…

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