Generally speaking, most marathon runners have more than enough ‘speed’ to carry them through an ultra (in my opinion). With that, here are some of the key things that a typical road racer might need to develop to really have a great trail ultra:
- Nutrition: although the distance may not necessarily be too much longer than a marathon (in the case of a 50k), the time you’ll be out there is much more—you’ll need to be prepared to fuel for 5-6+ hours at a lower intensity, which means you may be able to handle more solid, real foods
- Eccentric Loading: the amount of downhill running in ultra trail racing is much higher than road racing and is where most of the muscle damage occurs. To prepare well for an ultra you’ll want to ensure you do a healthy amount of descending to prepare the legs for this on race day
- Technical Running: unlike the roads, trails are much more variable in foot placement and stride length. If you are venturing into the ultra trail world for the first time you’ll definitely want to invest time in getting familiar with running on rocky, root-filled, technical trails as this is where a lot of time can be lost
- Pacing: given the length of the race (time-wise), it is very easy to push too hard in the early stages of the race. Further, you aren’t going to have consistent splits to compare as each kilometre of the race is going to be so different. The most reliable objective measure of effort is going to be heart rate combined with perceived exertion. If you are ever in doubt in the first 75% of the race you should probably slow down!
- Gear: as road racers we’re all used to choosing the lightest shoes and minimal clothing, but this doesn’t work for ultras. You can lose huge amounts of time (or become unable to finish the race) based on the gear choices you make before the race even starts! Test out footwear, clothing for all conditions (as conditions vary a LOT in trail ultras), and running packs during training as you’ll find you will need to be prepared for a lot on race day.
Josh Seifarth is a distance running coach from Windsor, now living in beautiful Vancouver, BC. With a background in Exercise Physiology, he began coaching distance runners 10 years ago starting with his (now) wife Dayna Pidhoresky. After a decade of work, Dayna was able to win the Canadian Olympic Trials Marathon, securing her position on the Canadian Olympic Team for the Tokyo games. In the fall of 2019, Josh joined the Mile2Marathon coaching staff and has been expanding the athletes he works with while also helping to build the M2M Burnaby branch.