How to go from a half marathon to an ultramarathon in 9 simple steps
© Bradley Wentzel
An ultramarathon might seem impossible, but with a bit of planning you might just surprise yourself, writes endurance athlete Tofe Evans.
OK, you’ll need more than nine steps. But what may at first seem impossible can quickly become possible by just breaking it down into an actionable plan.
I got into ultramarathons out of curiosity. I was fascinated that humans could run for distances beyond the conventional marathon length, and I soon learned that, in fact, humans can be limitless. We’re these creatures that can push past limits and constantly keep breaking them.
If you’re reading this, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you’re human too. Which means you – no matter your current level of fitness or experience – can run an ultramarathon if you put your mind to it. But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume some basic level of running experience; we’re going to assume you’ve already run a full marathon, or even a half marathon.
First things first: how far is an ultramarathon? Well, it’s anything further than 42.2 kilometres. If you’re planning on running your first one, 50-kilometre races are the most common.
So, what are the steps to achieving your first ultramarathon? Here’s a simple guide:
1. Build the crescendo
Starting anything new for the first time can be terrifying. But if you can run a half marathon or marathon, the first thing to focus on is getting the mileage in your legs. Keep upping the amount you’re running, gradually, and you’ll begin to adapt.
If an ultramarathon is your goal, ideally you want to be running around 4-5 times a week and rotating between higher-speed tempo runs and longer runs. Here are a few tips:
■ Start small the first week and stick to around the 6-10 kilometre mark before gradually increasing to 18-25 kilometres closer toward taper week.
■ Practice back-to-back long runs when you’re feeling up to it. This is great for endurance.
■ The long runs are where you start to train yourself mentally – be prepared to have to push through more than a few walls as you go and remember: it’s all part of it.
■ Feel free to change up the training and replace a tempo or easy run with a high-interval training session – trust what your body is telling you.
2. Train on the terrain you’ll be racing
As a general rule of thumb, depending on if your ultramarathon is on the road or in the trails, make sure to train to the appropriate terrain. The last thing you want is to be unprepared on race day because your body hasn’t had a chance to get used to the terrain.
3. Don’t underestimate the importance of nutrition
I know from past experiences that if I’m eating the wrong foods, my performance is affected. With many diets and health books out there, do I pick plant-based, invest in keto, or keep it high-protein? All the options can feel overwhelming, which is why it’s important to find what works for you.
This applies to the eating regimen through the week as well as on-field foods (i.e. gels, bars, sandwiches, etc). For me, I make sure to eat hearty meals full of carbohydrates, proteins, and good fats, which typically means anything home cooked. I try to avoid any refined sugars and processed foods. Nutrition is important for recovery when the body has been slogging hours of running and needs its replenishment.
4. Strengthen your body to avoid injury
In 2016, I undertook on 40 endurance events and almost every finisher photo had my knee wrapped in strapping tape. Since I implemented strength training into my schedule, I haven’t had an injury in well over a year. Your body is going to need strength and muscle tissue during long durations on the road or trails, which is why basic strength conditioning is imperative in building a strong frame.
You’ll be less injury-prone and it becomes easier to maintain speed up hills. You’ll want to take up strength training twice a week and it’s nothing fancy. Just a 40-minute gym session focusing on squats, deadlifts, chin ups, calf raises, and even the bench press will work wonders.
5. Join a running group
The importance of having good people around you cannot be underestimated. Running has undergone a surge in popularity in recent years, and there are plenty running groups out there. When you’re not motivated to get out of bed to train, it helps when you can suffer together as a collective.
6. Train in the gear you need for race day
This one may seem like common sense, but I know what it’s like if you train with new gear for the first time on race day. If it’s an event that requires a pack and bladder or even poles, ensure you use them in training beforehand.
Same thing with the shoes, socks, and even nutrition. When you build a routine into the body, it becomes second nature when you’re on the field. A good trick is to buy multiple pairs of the gear you’re using then be sure to break them in leading up to the event.
7. Remember to run your own race
At the end of the day, it’s YOU vs. YOU. You can’t control anyone or anything else but yourself. Focus on this, and it’ll help you get in the right frame of mind. If you start to focus too much on time or what place you're coming, it can mess with your head. Worrying about beating other runners is just a waste of time and energy. Now, I make sure to focus on one foot in front of the other, and on being the best version of myself.
8. Do what works for you
Ultimately, no single one of us is the same. We’re all mentally and physiologically different, and every ultrarunner has their own preparation, meaning there’s no one answer. Like anything else in life, it’s a matter of testing and trialing everything and seeing what works best for you. All the ultrarunners I’ve met have a different methods for everything leading up to race day. Things that work for someone else might not work for you, and that’s totally OK.
9. Sign up, get the goal
Signing up for an ultramarathon can seem very scary, but the sooner you do it, the sooner you have something to aim for. And that can be a huge motivating factor in terms of getting your training on track.
When I began running ultras, I got kind of obsessed with how far I could push myself. I recently ran the UTA 100 kilometre trail ultramarathon in the Blue Mountains and followed it up with a 345 kilometre ultramarathon across Scotland. It still baffles me that I get to represent my country in one of the weirdest ways possible.
But you don’t need to sign up for something as gargantuan as a 345 kilometre ultramarathon – tackle a 50 kilometre run first, and I guarantee you'll be feeling on top of the world when you cross that finish line.
About Tofe Evans
Tofe Evans is an endurance athlete, author, and a guy purely to help others become mentally stronger using his concept known as Practical Resilience. He has become a powerful advocate for everyone’s ability to rise above personal turmoil by conquering their own mind.
Grab a copy of Tofe's new book
The core reason Tofe wrote his book, 'Everyone Has a Plan Until Sh!t Hits the Fan' is because he genuinely knows it could get someone out of a crisis. More importantly, it could save someone's life. At the end of the day, Everyone Has a Plan Until Sh!t Hits the Fan, so treat this as if it’s your ‘Practical Resilience Bible,’ so your planning is in place in advance of any crisis.