What is ultra running, you ask?
Running over hot coals? Evading a swarm of angry hornets? Dodging a charging moose?
“Ultra running” is a blanket term for covering extreme distances without the assistance of a bike or skis. Although there are usually few additional rules. Ultra runners don’t have to sustain a running pace for the entire duration of events. They often walk or even sleep.
A wide range of events fall under the umbrella of ultra running, from a 50k run (just over 31 miles) to a trans-continental trek that takes months to complete. Given all involve impressive feats of endurance, there’s generally no such thing as a ‘beginner’ – at least not in the same way someone might be a beginner-level guitarist or yoga enthusiast.
Ultra distance runners tend to be more concerned with finishing, anyway.
Whether you’re curious about how anybody would be crazy enough to attempt a hundred-plus-mile race or ready to take on an extreme new challenge yourself, one thing is certain: you’re already hooked on running.
Learn more about the following:
Feel free to skip ahead to your preferred section, or continue on.
What is an Ultra Marathon?
Run a marathon. Now run some more. Congratulations, you’re now an ultra distance runner.
Technically, completing any distance longer than the standard marathon is considered “ultra” long distance running, and any event longer than 26.2 miles is considered an ultra marathon. Officially sanctioned ultra marathon races can cover roads, trails, or open country at distances of 50k, 50 miles, 100k, 150k, 100 miles, 200k, 200 miles, 1,000k or 1,000 miles.
There are also ultra running events where participants compete to cover the longest distance possible in 6, 8, 24, or 48 hours, and even up to six days.
And since ultra running can often feel more like an extended dare than a sport, there are also plenty of ‘unofficial’ events that cover nonstandard distances, extreme terrain or involve additional endurance challenges.
What are the Best Ultra Marathons to Run?
It depends on how you define “best.”
There are many ultra marathon events famous for being so difficult they are considered a lifetime achievement even among world-renowned ultra distance competitors.
There’s no rule that says you have to complete a marathon, or even a half-marathon, before you try an ultra running event. For the beginner, it’s probably best to start with a local event with a solid turnout plus a solid base of volunteer support. It can also be helpful to find events with a long course lap, so you can prepare a larger-than-strictly-necessary supply cache for added peace of mind.
Start off “small” with something in the 50-100k (31-62 mile) range. The Tarawera Ultra, Northburn 100, Crater Rim Ultra and the Taupo Ultra are all popular New Zealand ultra events with a variety of distances available.
To find an ultra distance race event in New Zealand you can check out Running Calendar NZ, or for international events search the very well maintained Ultra Running Magazine Events Calendar, and adjust the filter settings. Make sure you check for elevation changes and terrain just as much as distances, as many races cover shorter courses picked for their extreme difficulty.
Follow up on your initial research by reaching out to race veterans on social media through offline networks to get a more nuanced opinion on whether or not a given event is right for you.
Once you’ve tried ultra running, it’ll be up to you to decide if you’d like to work toward one of the world’s more infamous events, such as the following:
None of the above are recommended for the beginner, or even most people.
But if nothing else, reading about extreme races will boost your confidence in the ability to finish that first 50k.
Ultra Marathon Training & Diet
Before you show up for an ultra running event, know that the training you’ll do to prepare will require nearly as much of a physical, mental and emotional commitment as completing your race. Look for local training groups so you don’t have to go through it alone.
Try the following:
50k Ultra Marathon Training Plan Sample
WEEKLY SCHEDULE: Six days training, one rest day per week
Repeat the above for 12-24 weeks leading up to your event. Increase distances on Day 2, 3, 5 and 6 each week by no more than 10% over the previous week, until your final long run and second leg combined are the same length as the race. Taper training in your final week so that your main workout in the final week is a longer back-to-back followed by at least two days of rest before your race start.
Want additional guidance for your first 50k? Look into a local training group, and investigate more detailed resources such as Hal Higdon’s Interactive Training Guides or Kristy Moehl’s “Running Your First Ultra: Customizable Training Plans for Your First 50K to 100-mile Race” book.
As for your nutritional intake, the above training regimen will burn a ton of calories, so you can expect to feel hungry often, and don’t be surprised if your body also demands larger portions.
Ultra runners tend to focus their diets on carbs, lean proteins and healthy fats, with an emphasis on whole and natural foods. Every runner and body is different, but the generalized guidance is to eat intuitively, experiment with different options during training and plan ahead so you’ll be ready to grab a bite whenever and wherever you’re hungry.
Fuel your training with the following:
Ultra Marathon Training Diet
DAILY PREP TIP: Get your trail food ready as you do breakfast
Most important meal of the day. Parfait bowls are a favorite, with Greek yogurt, nuts, granola, honey, berries, bananas, dried fruit, chia seeds and/or bee pollen. Supplement with an Omega 3 or other fatty acid tablet, plus strong coffee or tea if you’re so inclined.
Least important meal of the day (many choose to nibble throughout the day rather than stop for a consolidated meal). A superfood bowl of beans, rice, avocado, quinoa, sweet potato, kale, fruit and veggies is good for those who want a larger lunch. Nut butter, hummus and/or avocado on a few slices of dense whole grain bread is good for more snack-heavy eaters.
Snacks and calories are a must for the trail or course. Ultra runners tend to plow through a lot of protein and energy bars, plus bananas and gels. Typical ‘trail’ foods, such as nut mix, fruit leather or jerky, can also do the trick. For runs that extend beyond 4 hours or so, solid food (any of the above-mentioned breakfast or lunch options will do) is also a must. Over the course of extended runs, add some calories and electrolytes at a regular, even clip. And don’t forget to refuel with a big meal when you’re done.
As with any meal, eat until you’re no longer hungry. For ultra runners, that can involve large portions. Chow down on a pile of roasted veggies, salads with tofu or other protein (white meat or fish are great), and those superfoods (kale, quinoa, sweet potato, avocado, mango, etc.) that deliver calories packed with nutrients. Rice, pasta, or other carbs make a good base too.
When you’re running 20-30 miles a day, a big dinner might not be enough to keep your stomach from growling before your head hits the pillow. If you find yourself craving a midnight snack, listen. Some simple soup, leftovers, or a quick PB & J should do the trick.
Ultra Running Gear & Supplies
For all the commitment and dedication ultra running involves, it doesn’t require much in the way of gear. However, everything you bring with you on a 50k+ run takes on an added significance.
Make sure you’re well outfitted with the following:
Above all, if you’re curious about ultra running, find a friend with experience in the sport and pick their brain. Specific knowledge of local races and trails can be your best guide, and training in a group can pay off later.