The Beginner’s Guide To Ultramarathons

There was a time where running a marathon sat at the peak of human physical endurance, and the vast majority of people will never get close to running the 26.2 miles a marathon requires. But endurance athletes tend to be slightly crazy people, and for some of them, 26.2 miles just wasn’t challenging enough anymore. Thus, the ultramarathon was born.


What is an ultramarathon?

There are two types of ultramarathon – one over a predetermined distance, and another over a predetermined time.

Distance runs tend to be either 50 or 100 km or 50-100 miles, although the distance is largely dependent on the event itself. The winner is whoever covers the distance in the shortest amount of time.

Timed runs vary wildly, from 6 hours through to several days, with the winner the person that has covered the most distance during that time. As it can be trickier to measure distance travelled, timed events tend to take place on a track or a shorter road course.


Where are ultramarathons held?

There are events held all over the world, all featuring different kinds of terrain, weather, altitude and obstacles. Europe is particularly popular with ultramarathon runners, and there are over 300 events all across Europe every year. You can find out what races are taking place in your area at the International Association of Ultrarunners website.


What are the toughest ultramarathons?

Most ultramarathons are extremely challenging, but a few stand out as being especially grueling. From difficult terrain to extreme weather, there are certain runs that are only beaten by the very elite athletes.

Marathon des Sables – a 164-mile race over 6 days through the Sahara… doesn’t sound like much fun does it? The run takes place in April, when temperatures can easily reach 100 degrees, and certain areas have such fine sand that it can make running next to impossible. Despite these conditions, it’s a pretty popular run, with around 1,000 people signing up each year.

The Jungle Ultra – taking place in Peru, The Jungle Ultra is a 142-mile course through the Amazon jungle. It’s a mostly downhill race, but that’s pretty much where the good stuff ends. The remote and unstable terrain, incredible humidity, 90-degree temperatures and wave after wave of bugs make it one of the most challenging events in the world.

The Badwater Ultramarathon – one of the older ultramarathons, Badwater is often described as the most difficult footrace in the world. Why? Could be the 135-mile course from the lowest point in the USA to the base of the highest (only 13,000 feet). Could be that it’s in Death Valley, the hottest place in the country, in July, the hottest month of the year (runners are advised to run on a marked line next to the road to prevent the tarmac from melting the soles of their shoes). Or it could be that that you need to complete the race in a single session. The combination of these factors makes Badwater an incredibly challenging event for even the most elite runners.

Most races have something impressive about them beyond just the distance – Outside magazine have a great list of the toughest ultramarathons, so go check it out for even more insane runs.

What do you need to run an ultramarathon?

Apart from a ton of training and questionable sanity, ultramarathon runners need to take quite a bit of equipment with them on their runs – particularly those that last more than a single day. Various fluid containers are vital, most events will provide access to water and sports drinks but you’ll need something to put it in.

In terms of nutrition, it’s important to bring water and ice, food that’s suitable to the environment (some things won’t keep too well in the desert…), energy gels and/or carbohydrate drinks, something salty (think pretzels) to help with electrolyte management and some form of protein.

You’ll need some basic medical supplies too, as your feet are probably going to be beaten up pretty badly as you get further in to the race. A basic first aid kit is useful, as are blister kits, cooling sprays, foot lubricants and alcohol wipes.

In terms of running equipment, there are plenty of options. Several pairs or worn-in running shoes are essential, as you don’t want to use new shoes and risk getting blisters. For some runs, it’s worth bringing pairs that are a size or two bigger as your feet are likely to swell up during the race. Performance running socks are another essential, and like with the shoes it’s worth bringing a few different sizes.

Your other clothing will be largely dependent on the conditions in which you’re running – you’ll dress differently for Badwater than you would for a run in Alaska, for example.

Most official sites have a checklist of recommended items, so take what advice you can find from the organisers of the event.


How do you train for an ultramarathon?

The first thing to do is get fit enough to run a marathon – if you can’t do that then you can forget about completing anything bigger for the moment. If you can finish a marathon then it’s possible to increase the distance enough that you’ll be ready for an ultramarathon in around 4 months – at least according to this guide from Runner’s World.

Training for an ultramarathon is all about building up the time you spend on your feet, rather than simply running 12 hours a day. Runner’s World recommends mixing up distance work with interval training, as well as the ever-popular run-walk-run system of increasing distance.

What’s the best ultramarathon for beginners?

It all depends on where you are and what your goals are, but it’s generally accepted that a 50-mile distance is the first real step up in distance worth shouting about. 50 km is only a few miles over a standard marathon, so aiming for 50 should provide a big enough jump to make it seem like a different event.

Find an event you want to train for and put in the miles – anyone doing an ultramarathon can hardly be called a beginner!


  • Updated May 26, 2020
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