Push past marathon distance in ultra training

Pushing past marathon distance in training
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Are you thinking about taking on your first ultra-distance race? One of the hardest parts of the training can be tackling the big distances, often on your own and outside race conditions. Helena Stroud gives her insight into how to push past marathon distance when training for an ultra.

Prepare your mind

For many people, 26.2 miles can be a real mental block in a training schedule. It’s a totally arbitrary distance, but we have spent so long being told that the marathon is the absolute pinnacle of running achievement. It can be difficult sometimes to plan a long run that doesn’t end up being marathon distance or less.

While 26.2 miles is a great distance to run, what it should never be is a mental block. What you don’t want is to reach 24 or 25 miles in your first ultra race and start to flag. Or, even worse, to hit marathon distance and just give up and DNF because a marathon feels like the most you can do.

As with all mental prep for ultra running, your training should help to build confidence by letting you practice scenarios you’ve identified as problematic. So how can you train to not have a problem pushing past marathon distance?

So, here’s the obvious bit: you have to run further than marathon distance in your training! Wow, what a revelation, eh?!

Replicate race conditions

Here is the other bit: combining running more than marathon distance with other elements that are likely to crop up even better. Replicate your likely race conditions as closely as you can, with all the stuff that could quite easily go wrong. You’ll bump up the value of your long run as a training tool enormously.

When I set out to run my first more-than-marathon-distance training run, I deliberately made it as hard as I possibly could.

  • I set out in the very early morning, at about 5am when it was still pitch black.
  • It was very, very, very cold. The race I was training for took place in February, and this training run was in early January, in the snow, with a biting wind. Not comfortable in the slightest.
  • I went down to the North Downs Way, and parked my car next to a café. I then ran exactly a half marathon out, and then a half marathon back to the car.

I identified these elements as being the things that would make it very hard to go further than a marathon during my first ultra. By the time I hit marathon point in my run I had, by design, run for hours in the dark and snow; got extremely cold; and was now at my car with the promise of shelter, a place where I could get warm, and have hot drinks from the café.

Pushing past marathon distance in training 2

I had set up every temptation for myself to not continue past marathon distance.

I was the only person who would have been disappointed if I had stopped after running a marathon as a training run. But I continued and pushed on for another 9 miles, doing a 4.5 mile out-and-back to take that training run up to 35 miles, the longest distance I had, at that time, ever run.

Pushing past marathon distance was hard, but I had made it deliberately hard. By the time I reached my car, I was running  12-minute miles and my gloves were soaked through. However, I changed my gloves, got a quick cup of tea from the café, and by the time I went out again to finish the run I felt amazing. I was back to 10-minute miles, my legs felt fresh and strong, and those last 9 miles were a real pleasure.

Push past mental blocks

An exercise like this doesn’t just stop the marathon, or another arbitrary distance, from becoming a mental block. It teaches you that you can overcome mental blocks and that doing so feels physically refreshing too. It’s a great lesson to learn in advance of a race because when you’re struggling, you can bring your mind back to your training and remember that your mental and physical condition can drastically improve, even when you’ve been feeling terrible, and that all you have to do is run a few more miles.

So, my steps for pushing past the marathon are:

  • Plan a training run where you’ll be running further than marathon distance.
  • Build into the run other elements that you can identify as being problematic during your race (ie cold, heat, isolation, navigation, fatigue etc).
  • Plan to hit marathon distance at a place where you could easily stop and call it a day.
  • Run past this point to break through the mental block you have created.

This will all help to build your confidence in training for an ultra. Enjoy!