– how to prepare
For many, an ultra is the obvious choice, but what does this mean? Hours of training? Goodbye social life and Friday night drinks and hello countless hours pounding the trails? It doesn’t have to be this way at all, but it does pay to be prepared.
This is the exact process I went through; having just barely completed my first marathon I dived straight in the deep end and signed up for one of the most famous ultras out there – the Marathon des Sables; 250km over five days across Morocco’s unforgiving landscape, the Sahara Desert. I’m no expert when it comes to multi-day ultras having completed only one with number two through Peru’s Amazon Jungle just a few months away. I’ve tried to train with a programme, but life always seems to get in the way and I end stressing over missed miles. I quickly discovered that this doesn’t work for me, but as long as I am still doing something, I’m more than happy.
Here are a few key solutions to my training I have discovered that help me reach my goals and keep the training passion alive.
Make it an adventure
– For me this is the most crucial element when it comes to my training. The thought of running 30km or more not only takes up so much of my time, but I find it quickly turns into a chore. If I switch my thinking and set myself a challenge, like climbing a new mountain or going for a weekend mission with friends, I barely even notice I am exercising. A weekend tramp is ideal training for many reasons; you practise walking without it being a conscious decision (yes, walking!), a key part of an ultra that many normally overlook. More often than not, the pack on your back is just as heavy, if not heavier than what you’ll be using come race day. Go with some friends or family too, being able to laugh and share the experience along the way makes it far more enjoyable, and a great way to keep the social life alive!
Back it up
– This is key. I found day three (out of five) of the Marathon des Sables as the toughest, both mentally and physically. My body was tired and my gear was starting to niggle me in places I wasn’t expecting. This is where back-to-back training really helps, especially for your feet! I am aware that we are all time-poor these days, many of us with full-time jobs and families and sometimes it’s hard to find the balance. Over time I discovered what worked for me best in the last big training section before the race was two big days in the weekend, maybe five plus hours each, followed by a smaller run after work on a Monday. Even though Monday was probably 15km at the most, it was still training my body to keep moving on tired legs. It was also a huge boost mentally knowing I had done a solid block of exercise over multiple days.
– I love all types of adventure and believe mixing it up is key for recovery and injury prevention. I regularly attend Les Mills gym, mostly doing BODYATTACK and RPM classes, making it easy to plan ahead and fit it into my weekly schedule. Plus, more importantly, they are so much fun! A strong core is a really important aspect of running, stabilising your body position especially when you start to tire and these classes are my way of adding strength work into my training. With any endurance-based event, your body will get tired, resulting in your
form being affected. I also mountain bike, kayak and swim when I can, utilising different muscles in my body that I wouldn’t normally call on when I am running.
Be well prepared
– Ticking off the kilometres during training is one thing, but heading into a race in the right headspace is a huge advantage. If you’ve done everything in your power to minimise risk and help you reach your goal, then that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about. Of course, you can’t be sure everything will go exactly to plan, but if you have confidence that you have covered your bases, the chances of finishing are much higher. This can mean many things, from testing out your food so you know it works with your body while exercising, to going on mini-missions with all your gear so you can figure out exactly what’s needed. Because, let’s be honest, one of the biggest challenges of running an ultra is finding the perfect balance between the weight of your pack and making sure you have everything! It’s a fine line between taking enough to be comfortable and increasing the weight and cutting some corners and not taking things that could have really helped you during the race. This mostly comes down to what your goal is – are you there to win, or, like me, to do the best you can, push your boundaries and finish the race?
Taking on your first ultra is huge and at the time it feels like you couldn’t possibly do anything bigger. But if you head into it in the right frame of mind and as prepared as you can be, it can’t be anything but the most amazing experience. And just like me, after returning home to normal life and the adrenalin has worn off, you’ll find yourself on google searching for the next one.
Walking through the Sahara desert on day four, the ‘long’ day – 93km, at Marathon des Sables.
Legs-and-arms everywhere on the Marathon des Sables.
Another day in the Marathon des Sables.