Here is my definitive list of essential running gear for your first ultra marathon.
Whether you’re embarking on a 30miler or you’ve gone all out and are taking on your first 100-miler (not recommended for your first ultra btw), you’ll likely be fretting about what kit you’ll need.
‘Failure to prepare is preparing to fail’Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin’s quote has it exactly right! If you leave it to the last minute and if you have not made adequate preparations for the race, you are creating unnecessary problems for yourself.
Use the time before a race to check the compulsory kit list, plan your fuelling strategy and familiarise yourself with the route.
Use your longer runs as ‘mock’ race days
Don’t leave anything to chance.
One classic mistake is introducing new items on race day; whether it’s fuel bars, gels etc., or failing to trial your gear beforehand. If you’re running your first ultra, you’ll most likely be doing longer runs where you’ll be on your feet for hours at a time.
Test your ultra running kit
Use these longer runs as trial race days to test your kit for your first ultra marathon. Get up early; eat the same breakfast; wear the pack; carry the kit; use the feeding strategy you’ll be using on the day. Don’t leave anything to chance on race day.
What is an mandatory ultra running kit list?
What you carry for your first ultra marathon will depend on the length of the race, the time of year, weather conditions and the mandatory gear list provided by the organisers. The mandatory kit list is there for a reason… to keep you safe and in the worst cases to save your life. Some of the items may seem unnecessary, but they are included in the event of an emergency – eg. bad weather conditions, you become disorientated or lost, or in the worst case scenario you become injured and are unable to carry on.
Races with mandatory gear usually check your kit before you start, and randomly at stations along the route. If you fail to produce the items at any point, at best expect to receive a time penalty, at worst: disqualification.
Use the mandatory kit list
Even if your event doesn’t have a mandatory gear list, it’s helpful to look at the mandatory gear lists of established races, to gauge the required kit for your first ultra marathon. Here’s the mandatory gear list for Centurion SDW 50 that I did back in 2020:
- Mobile Phone – fully charged with the number for race HQ or Medical Team in contacts
- Head lamp or primary light source – I use a standard head torch
- Back up light – not just batteries, but a second light (minimum 25 lumens)
- Waterproof jacket – Centurion specifies that the waterproof must have sealed seams and minimum water resistance of 10,000mm. This means the jacket is able to withstand heavy rainfall for prolonged periods.
- Warm Hat & Gloves
- Base Layer
- Survival Blanket – 1.4m x 2m
- Bladder or bottles with 1 litre capacity of liquid
Hydration packs: bladders vs. water bottles
This is personal preference, but I tend to carry two soft 500ml bottles on my front when I’m racing.
The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, I like to have one bottle filled with water, and the other with an isotonic sports / electrolyte drink. I then sip them alternately throughout the day. Secondly, I find it’s easier to fill individual bottles, rather than taking off the pack and removing the bladder at each aid station.
What food should I carry on my first Ultra?
Ultra running for most of us mere mortals is really an excuse to eat and drink continuously, with a lot of walking and bit of running!
What food or ‘fuel’ you carry is dependent on the length of your race, the frequency of aid stations, your support along the way and your own fueling strategy and food preferences.
I’ve found the aid stations with their gels, bars etc. provide enough sustenance to keep me fuelled to the next station, but after 3-4 hours my stomach starts churning, and I crave something a little more substantial. This is usually where the support crew comes in, or a drop bag with goodies at halfway. In any case, I tend to carry a bagel, a few slices of Soreen, as well as a few emergency gels and bars.
I’ve heard other runners talk about researching which brands of gels, sports drinks and snacks will be available at the race and integrating them into their training. This makes a lot of sense, and I’ll be adding this to my preparations for the my next race: London to Brighton ultra.
Do I need a running backpack?
The short answer is ‘yes’. You can probably get away with a normal backpack, but if it’s not designed for running it will bounce around, your running top will ride up, and you’ll likely have chaffing after an hour or two.
What is the best Ultra Running Backpack?
I use a simple and relatively inexpensive running backpack from Decathlon. When I started I wanted one that wasn’t hugely expensive, and ticked the following boxes: had sufficient pouches on the front to carry soft water bottles, my phone, and energy bars/gels, as well as a zip pocket in the rear to store jacket, bladder and safely keep keys and other items.
There’s a plethora of choices when it comes to selecting ultra running backpacks, and I plan to go into them at a later date, but for now if it’s your first one, don’t spend huge amounts of money. Establish what you want from your pack, how big you want it, do your research and make your purchase. Don’t forget to test it out before you race.
My race number belt – milky bars are on me!
Before I started running longer distances, I used to do triathlons. Again, I was no expert but one thing I found useful was a race number belt, and I continue to use it for running events to this day.
Instead of pinning my bib number to my shirt, I attach it to the belt, so there’s no poking pins into material that could potentially ruin them; I can easily remove my belt and change my shirt; and the belt has a few elastic pouches for additional gels… I do look a bit like the milky bar kid with my gel holsters, but hey practicality rules over looks!
multifunctional: Neck Warmer – Hat – Face Mask – Cooler!
I become a little obsessed with weight and not carrying unnecessary items when I run long distances, so it’s a win-win to find an item with multiple purposes….
A cotton neck warmer or snood is a must have on my kit list. In Winter it keeps the wind out around my neck, and doubles up as a hat. Whilst in Summer, I wear it wrapped around my wrist and wet it in aid stations to keep cool, or to keep the Sun off my neck. In these Covid times, it also saves you digging around in your bag for a face mask at the aid stations.
Final ultra marathon gear list:
Taking all of the above into consideration, here’s my final kit list recommendation for your first ultra marathon…
- GPS Watch – I use Garmin Fenix
- Mobile Phone
- Head torch (for longer runs)
- Whistle (this is integrated into my backpack)
- Waterproof jacket (I carry this regardless of weather… you just never know!)
- Base Layer, Warm Hat & Gloves (Weather, time of year and race length dependent)
- Cup (collapsible soft cup with hoop to attach to pack)
- Survival Blanket (this goes in regardless – it’s lightweight and could save a life)
- 2 x soft bottles with 1 litre capacity of liquid (500ml water & 500ml sports drink)
- Race belt with bib number & minimum of 2x gels
- 2 x energy bars, bagel & Soreen slices
- Compede blister kit
- 4 x electrolyte tablets in resealable plastic bag
- Small pot of factor 50 Sunscreen
- Running Visor Cap & Sunglasses
- Snood – neck warmer, hat, mask, cooler
- In Winter, I also chuck on a pair of Running Tights
Have I missed something? Let me know in the comments below…