HOW TO PREPARE FOR AN ULTRA TRAIL
Running an ultra is the holy grail for many runners, a dream that often seems unattainable. Like all ultra-endurance events, an ultra-trail is demanding and requires specific preparation physically, mentally, and materially. On the web and in magazines you’ll find loads of detailed training plans that can inspire you to prepare, but keep in mind that they should generally be designed for your personal needs and physical abilities. In this article, we’ll provide the main ideas behind quality preparation for your goal of running an ultra and to have fun while doing it!
WHAT IS AN ULTRA TRAIL
Above all, an ultra-trail is a trail run, or in other words, a running event in the heart of nature on a course with vertical ascent and/or descent. (Read our article: What is Trail Running)
The ITRA (International Trail Running Association) states that an ultra-trail starts at 115 Effort Points (one point for every kilometer + one point for every 100 meters positive elevation gain) and a winning time of eight to twelve hours.
Some runners consider an ultra-trail to be longer than 42km (more than a marathon). Others believe ultra-trail events are longer than 80km
At Salomon, we prefer to define an ultra-trail in terms of duration of effort rather than distance. Based on this, an ultra-trail would be beyond 10 hours of racing. Indeed, the concept of endurance – of the management of physical and mental effort specific to ultra-endurance – seems more relevant when measured against time, regardless of the distance covered or performance level.
The most famous ultra-trails are the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (France), the Western States 100 (USA), and the Hard Rock 100 (USA).
All this being said, any race where you are entering personal unexplored territories in terms of distance and duration can, and should be approached like an ultra.
At UTCT this could be the 21km, 35km, 65km or the 100km.
PHYSICAL PREPARATIONS: FUNDAMENTALS OF RUNNING AN ULTRA
Preparing for an ultra-trail requires hard work and many long hours of training. Because of this, ultra-runners require a job and family that can adapt. Finding the right balance will bring you the equanimity needed to successfully prepare.
- 1. Progression:Gradually increase the duration of each workout and your workout volume for the week to give your body time to adapt, which will reduce the risk of injury or fatigue caused by overtraining. And don’t forget to schedule enough recovery time!
- 2. Training volume:Focus your workout on a considerable number of hours of running or walking each week. If your goal is a 12-hour ultra-trail, a good benchmark is to shoot for that number of training hours per week.
- 3. Training time:In addition to your workouts during the week, take advantage of weekends to extend your outings and accumulate trail running hours. Pack a picnic and escape to the mountains to vary elevation gain! You'll be surprised at how many kilometers you'll be able to cover without putting in excessive effort. You’ll also learn to regulate your effort over time and gain experience from the various situations you’ll encounter.
Do other sports: to round out your preparation, practice other endurance sports like biking, swimming, or ski touring. By doing this you’ll use other muscles and strengthen your joints. Doing other sports will also allow you to shake up your training so that you’ll keep from getting bored and training stays fun
TEST YOUR GEAR
At the start of your ultra-trail, you should know everything about all the gear at your fingertips. The many hours you spend running with your gear will provide the experience to know exactly what you need and how to use it properly. The trail running shoes you decide to run with will be based on all your testing and the knowledge you gain from it.
Train as much as possible carrying all the mandatory equipment you’ll be required to run with on your ultra. This will help you dial in your trail running pack and get used to its weight.
……in all types of weather so you can test your clothes and learn how to manage cold as well as the heat.
…with running poles. On suitable courses they are indispensable in ultra-trail. To find out more, check out our article “How to run with poles”.
…at night. Get used to using your headlamp and work specifically on battery management and lighting power management. Try to limit the weight you carry on your head as much as possible by using, for example, a remote battery in your trail running pack.
CONTROL YOUR MIND
Serene at the start
All the preparation you’ve done will help you be as relaxed as possible on the starting line. Because you’ve prepared so well, you’ll line up confident, calm, and focused. There's no need to burn calories and fry your nerves by being too stressed before you even cross the starting line!
Get ready for the emotional rollercoaster
The start of an ultra-trail is full of emotions: the euphoria of the start, marveling at the beautiful scenery, sharing the experience with the other runners, the volunteers, and the public… There are so many experiences that will give you the energy and enjoyment to keep going.
You’ll also go through more difficult moments when your body tells you to throw in the towel. Accept these low periods for what they are and take the time to deal with them properly: stay longer at the aid stations, talk with your family and friends, rest longer than you should. By doing this you’ll increase your chances by getting back on the trail in a better mental state.
Finding a group that’s running at your level can provide the mutual support and extra security that will help you better manage these difficult periods, especially if you have to run at night.
Break down the distance
It’s difficult to tackle such a long event all at once. So, break down the distance into a series of reasonable goals and focus only on those goals. For example, progressing from feed station to feed station is an excellent way to reach the finish line.
BE SMART ABOUT YOUR FUEL
Don’t impose a drastic diet on yourself, especially if it’s an added hassle. Simply go with a healthy and balanced daily diet that you can adapt in the days before the race. Hydration is essential and you will also find some good advice in our article “How to drink on the trail".
During your ultra-trail, what you drink will form the base of your energy intake. So, drink regularly. Solid food will complement your liquids. In any case, you’ll need so much energy that anything you eat will be assimilated by your body. Eating foods that you are used to in reasonable quantities will limit the risk of gastric problems which you never want to have to deal with during a race.
In summary, to prepare for your ultra-trail:
- Gradually increase the duration and volume of your weekly training, and don’t forget recovery
- Take advantage of the weekends for long training sessions, in the mountains if possible
- Do other endurance sports
- Test all your equipment and clothing when you’re training, in all kinds of conditions
- Implement a healthy and balanced daily diet
Do all this and you’ll be well-prepared and rested as the date for your ultra approaches. Remember to stay relaxed at the start and enjoy it to the fullest!