Ultra-running for beginners: Where to start

I recently got chatting to some first-time ultra-marathoners at XNRG’s legendary Pilgrim’s Challenge. They were saying how difficult it is to know where to start when it comes to running ultra distances (defined as anything over a marathon, but usually 50km (31 miles), 100km or 100 miles+).

Moving up from a marathon

Marathons are big events, with a big dose of pressure. The distance is iconic, and they really capture peoples’ imaginations.

By contrast, a single-day ultra-marathon – particularly those without cut-off times, and including walkers as well as runners – can often feel much less stressful, despite the added distance. Even better: most ultras are run on trails, so you’re less likely to be pounding the pavements and more likely to be breathing in nature. Checkpoints are there at regular intervals with proper food, and crews are usually wonderfully encouraging. What ultras might lack in film crews and helicopters, they can more than make up for in atmosphere. (Note: trail running comes with unique challenges. This year’s Pilgrim’s saw mud, ice and snow – all in one weekend).

Start here

Build your knowledge before you put your running shoes on. Ask family, friends and the wonderful online ultra community for useful titbits of information. You need to be mentally prepared and able to visualise your own success.

Define your goal

Marathon running probably gave you a strong training schedule to reach your goal of crossing the finishing line. Keep that going for ultras – a lot of it is mind over matter. Set yourself a challenging but achievable target – a health goal like weight, BMI or blood pressure, or a distance, time or specific event goal – anything that captures your imagination and inspires you to get going.

Friends’ encouragement can be valuable, but you need to have your own goals clear in your mind. When the going gets tough, you’ll need to have deep reserves of desire and resilience – something only you can have.

Do some mine-sweeping

Work out what ‘mines’ might get in the way – any obstacles to your training regime. Training obviously takes time and commitment, and needs to fit around family, friends and work. Spend some time pinpointing what your priorities are and when and how your other commitments might impact on your training goals. If you know that in a particular week you will only have time for two short runs, try and run more the week before or the week after – or both! That means your training goals won’t fall behind, but you’re making allowances to focus on what you need to achieve elsewhere in your life.

Make it normal

Running shouldn’t just be a habit, it should be a normal part of your weekly routine, like anything else. Strive for consistency. Ideally you should be running three or four times a week, with one ‘long’ run.

The ‘long’ run is simply that. If you are running a couple of miles each time in the week, then aim for five at the weekend. As your mid-week runs grow in distance and quality, so should your long run.

I can remember the first time I ran 10 miles. It was a cold morning on new year’s day 2009. I was absolutely elated with my achievement!

Build in back-to-backs

Once you’ve nailed the regularity and built up distance, plan a back-to-back run. For instance, do your long run on a Saturday, then do another six or 10 miles the following day. Your body might complain for the first few miles, but once your muscles have loosened, you’ll only be building strength and endurance. As you become stronger, your back-to-backs can become stronger and more testing.

Don’t forget other exercise

It’s tempting to consider this building schedule of training runs enough exercise. But, for true endurance, strength and stamina, you’ll want to include weight training / cross-training.

If you’re just starting your ultra journey, I’d love to know how you’re getting on. I’m also an ultra-running coach with XNRG. Leave a comment below or email me on andy@lifeisasinecurve.com for training tips, coaching or training schedules.

2 thoughts on “Ultra-running for beginners: Where to start

  1. Thanks for the advice, I looking forward to my first ultra in the summer, I will be doing the Race to the stones in a day. I currently run road marathons, but looking to step up to the challenge, not sure how my marathon pace will translate over to an ultra. Any advice always welcome. Thanks


    1. Hi Simon, thanks for getting in touch. Race to the Stones is a fantastic event. The route is hilly and the terrain can be rocky in places, so manage your expectations on pace and do wear trail shoes. All the best with your prep, cheers


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