Marathon to ultra – is it all about distance training?

With spring and summer marathons cancelled, it’s given us all more time to reflect on training for distance races – so here’s what I’ve learnt from running marathons (and beyond into ultras).

My first marathon was the Marathon du Mont St Michel some 20 years ago. At the time, I would have described myself as a casual runner, clocking 2 or 3 miles twice or three times a week. In life, I worked hard but played hard. Running felt more like a box-ticking exercise than a way of being. I’d entered the marathon as part of a niggling dream of eventually running the Marathon des Sables, having seen it on Canal+ in France. It lit a fire in me, which eventually became a love of running. Along the way, I’ve learnt a lot about distance running – now as an ultrarunner.

Running a first marathon

Training for a marathon felt like an enormous challenge – which of course it is! For anyone contemplating the training, be aware that it’s also a huge test of personal commitment. Mont St Michel was in June and I started training that January with short runs during the week and increasing distance runs every Sunday. At the time, we lived in Rennes, Brittany, where I found a good route out along a canal. Each week, I’d add in a bridge or two, crossover and head back the way I came.

Before lining up at the start, the furthest I’d gone in training was roughly 18 miles (this was pre-GPS watches and Strava!) I wasn’t organised enough to record my training on a spreadsheet, hence some vagueness about what I did and when. If plotting the minute details helps you focus, crack on. To be honest, I just lack the patience. I tend to think ‘what’s done is done’ and ‘onwards and upwards’. Now I’m an older, more experienced runner, I finally appreciate the value of data.

Data, fact and evidence

While living and working in France, I took some business coaching from John Sprouster, an inspirational Australian leader. He sadly passed away in 2018, but left an indelible impression on me. His mantra was ‘data, fact and evidence’, which is something that can obviously be applied to running and one of the reasons I subscribe to Strava Summit. We all have good days and bad days, but it’s important to be able to evaluate your training journey, particularly for something like a first marathon. It’s about hard work and solid commitment; if you don’t clock the right miles in training, you’ll find race day so much harder than it needs to be.

A first marathon race report

The MMSM was awesome but really tough. Starting in the beautiful fishing village of Cancale, it had atmosphere in spades. The weather was dull and overcast, which suits me fine. I remember being full of nerves, knowing that my training wasn’t what it should have been. I found a spot towards the back of the field and settled into the race. Things went OK for the first half, then the clouds parted and the June sun was scorching. I’d made the classic error of not applying any sunscreen (something I now do at every race) and I started to struggle, hitting ‘the wall’ around mile 18. Those last miles were tough. The only saving grace was that the run finishes across the causeway to Mont St Michel, which is stunning.

I finished in a respectable 4:21 and the first post-race cold bottle of Heineken went down very well. But I was disappointed not to have broken the four-hour barrier and had learnt a lot about my own preparations.

Running a first ultra

I suspect my first ultra was Ultrarace London, some ten years ago. In 2008, I signed up for the Marathon des Sables – that big goal event that had captured my imagination nearly 10 years previously. I’d just turned 40 and realised that I wasn’t getting any younger. My wife simply said ‘either sign up or stop thinking about it!’. So, I signed up. At the time, there was a three-year wait to secure an entry, meaning I didn’t actually get a spot until 2011’s Sultan Marathon des Sables.

The MdS is an expensive race to do, and I wanted to make sure I’d really nailed the preparations (unlike my first marathon). I registered for coaching with MdS ‘guru’ and all-round inspiring ultrarunner Rory Coleman. He had a huge impact on me and I took away:

  1. Strength training (or cross-training) is worth its weight in gold
  2. Back-to-back long runs are the best way to increase endurance

Back-to-backs have had a huge impact on my ability to clock distance. The wall I faced at mile 18 of the marathon got pushed back to roughly 32 miles (run/walking the last six miles) before 2011’s MdS.

My first ultra was a new level of ‘hard’ and my quads hurt like hell, but I finished within the six-hour cut-off. I didn’t do it in a fantastic time, but it was an achievement to have finished, and I was happy with that.

The value of core strength

So, is marathon to ultra all about distance training? Not really. I was poorly prepared for my first marathon. But, with what I learned from Rory – building core strength and endurance through back-to-backs – my long distance running improved immeasurably.

I’ve got a WaterRower and use it regularly to build core and upper body strength. Starting rowing was game-changing for my ultra training; it’s all too easy to overlook the weight of race packs and what they can do to our form on race day as we get tired. Improved core strength has worked wonders for my last ten years of ultrarunning.

When I headed out to the desert in April 2011, I was a far stronger runner, having finished a number of ultras. I completed the 26th MdS in 258th place – possibly the only time I’ve ever outperformed my own expectations.

I’m training hard to try and replicate that level of ‘out-performance’, but the fact is I’m now 53 and age inevitably has an effect. I feel 30ish in my head, but my body has other ideas!

I hope this has given anyone who was training for a first marathon, or preparing for a first ultra, some food for thought. Remember, building up the mileage is important – but it’s also crucial to look at how you do that: back-to-backs are worth more than one long run, and cross-training is your secret weapon, not an optional extra. Let me know how you’re using this time in lockdown in the comments below…

4 thoughts on “Marathon to ultra – is it all about distance training?

  1. Thanks a good read. Very relevant to me as just started running 6 months ago. Just about to run my first marathon then intend to build up towards ultras.

    Currently running between 5-10k most days during the week then doing a long run at weekends building by a mile per week (last week 21 miles).

    Planning to start back to back runs once I have completed my marathon. In your opinion should you split mileage evenly on your back to back or do longer on the first day?

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    1. Thanks so much Bruce. Your training is excellent, really good foundation and awesome progress in 6 months!

      I would start your back to backs with the longest day first and build the distance and intensity of the second day over time. Eventually, one of your second days will outperform the first…. bullseye.

      Good luck with the marathon, I’d love to know how you get on.

      Enjoy your running and stay safe, cheers

      Andy

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  2. Hi Andy
    Thanks so much for your insight.
    My dream is to be an ultra runner. I’ve started running 4 1/2 years ago, did couch to 5k aiming to get fitter. I’ve always hated exercise. I feel in love and progressed my training alone, just reading, watching videos and getting input from other runners.
    My times and pace are not the best, not even a good average tbh, but I ran over 20 half marathons over those years and 5 marathons. Last year I signed up for day 1 of Ring of Fire, but unfortunately got lost so many times on the trail I missed the cut off time at the last checkpoint. I was devastated. I signed up to run 100 km in June at the Lake District over 2 days, but unfortunately it was cancelled. I’m starting to build up miles at long runs again during lockdown.
    I cross train with yoga, Pilates and weights at home.
    I’ll start my back to backs again following your advice.
    I am still disappointed as I don’t seem to improve my pace, so any advice would be appreciated. Thank you!

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    1. Hi Ana
      Really great to hear what you’ve achieved so far, both in terms of running itself and your love of running.
      Try and stick with the ROF, I failed twice before completing it and both failures were down to getting lost on day 1. Happy to help with a few nav tips if you have another go.
      As for pace, try mixing up your training. Week one try your normal week including a back to back at the weekend. Then for week two, try shorter faster more intense runs and include some fast intervals within the runs. Then at the weekends, back to your longer back to backs.
      Great that your cross training, try some yoga before your shorter faster runs to avoid the risk of injury.
      Stay safe and take care
      Andy

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