Training For Road Races vs. Ultramarathons – 5 Key Differences

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As we’re in the home stretch of completing work on the UESCA Ultrarunning Certification in partnership with Jason Koop, I’ve learned quite a bit during the creation of the certification.

While I wasn’t quite naive enough to think that an ultra was just a really long marathon, I must say that the development of the certification has proved to be quite eye opening.

While there are obviously a lot of differences between training for, and racing ultras as compared to road races, below are some of the larger ones.

1 – Mistakes Are Amplified

Due to the sheer distance of ultramarathons, mistakes related to pacing and fueling/hydration are magnified as compared to shorter road races – including marathons. As an example, if an athlete forgets to eat a gel at mile 12 of a marathon, they will likely still be able to finish the race whereas forgetting to fuel on a consistent basis during an ultramarathon leads to a cascading effect of negative consequences that may lead to a DNF.

This amplification doesn’t just apply to fueling/hydration. It can apply to clothing selection, injury, etc… Take blisters or hotspots (pre-blisters) as an example. During a short race such as a 5K or 10K, if an athlete feels a hotspot developing, there is a better than average chance that they can still finish the race with minimal negative effects. However, let’s say that an ultrarunner feels a hotspot developing at mile 20 of 100, if they don’t fix the issue right there and then, this small issue will balloon into a big issue!

2 – Most Research Doesn’t Apply

While there is some research out there in respect to ultras, most running research is the domain of road races and laboratory tests. A couple of reasons for this. First, in terms of number of races, there are a lot more road races than there are ultramarathons. Second, picture this… you just completed a 100 miler and as soon as you cross the finish line line, a tech pulls you aside to jab your finger for a blood sample followed up with 50 questions about how your race went… any takers? So you can see the obvious limitations of ultra-specific research.

As a result, a lot of road running research and training methodologies get erroneously extrapolated to ultrarunning. For example, it is a fact that the body is comprised of various spring systems that when stiffened, it increases the efficiency of a runner due to an enhanced elastic response. However, this is most applicable to shorter distances and becomes less applicable the longer the distance is (ex: 100M sprint = most applicable, 100 mile ultramarathon = not very applicable).

However, as ultrarunning becomes more and more popular, there will hopefully be an associated increase in quality ultra-specific research.

3 – Food / Flavor Fatigue

Let’s be honest, even for marathons, most runners are good with a few packets of their favorite flavored gels or chews. Why? First, the time spent racing typically isn’t long enough to experience food/flavor fatigue. Second, due to the relatively short time racing as compared to ultramarathons, runners know that they are just a few hours away from scarfing down a calzone (or two) at the local pizzeria. Armed with this knowledge, most road racers are more than happy to nosh on their favorite flavored chews for 26.2 miles. Not so much with an ultramarathon.

Food and flavor fatigue is most definitely ‘a thing’ amongst ultrarunners, which also explains why the aid station menus often resemble a mash up of halloween leftovers and an all-you-can-eat buffet! Having a well thought out strategy that is the result of many trials in training is of critical importance to ultrarunners!

4 – So Many Variables!

Don’t get stuck behind others at the start line. Run the tangents. Don’t go out too fast in the first mile. Keep a steady pace. As you can see, most road racing strategies are related to pace. To keep this post under 100 pages, we’ll only list a few of the many variables that ultrarunners may have to contend with on race day:

  • Food/flavor fatigue
  • Changing environmental factors including rain, heat, cold, humidity, altitude, etc…
  • Running surfaces
  • Equipment (ex: poles, hydration pack)
  • Running throughout the night
  • Work with crew

These variables equate to increased time and diligence throughout the training process to minimize the risk of having a negative consequences come race day.

5 – Get Tough

OK, so Mr. T’ isn’t an ultrarunner but he’s the first person that come to mind when I thought of ‘tough’ … but I digress.

Whether it be running through the night during a rainstorm, pushing on with a sour stomach, rolling an ankle and trying to make it to the next aid station, or solely the long time spent on ones’ feet – ultramarathons are tough!

This of course is not to say that one doesn’t have to be mentally tough for road races, it’s just a different type of ‘tough.’ For example, you’d be hard pressed to find a more painful event than the 800 meters. It represents the vomit-inducing purgatory between an all out sprint and a 1 mile effort – on a scale of 1-10, it’s like a 50! However, for most runners, it’s over in several minutes. Not so much with ultramarathons.

Picture this – it’s 2am, raining, 45 degrees, rocky off-camber trail conditions… and you still have 32 miles left to run! While not the pain per se of an 800 meter race, the mental toughness required to keep one’s head in race and keep pushing on is in my opinion, unrivaled.

Summary

This list could likely go on forever, however, these five areas highlight some of the biggest differences between road races and ultramarathons.

If there is one primary take-away from this post, it should be that an ultramarathon is not just a long marathon. This type of thinking is overly simplistic and also outright incorrect. Should this type of thinking be applied to ultramarathon programming, the result would be disastrous come race day.

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Rick Prince is the founder/director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science-based endurance sports education company. UESCA educates and certifies running and triathlon coaches (cycling and ultrarunning coming soon!) worldwide on a 100% online platform.

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Rick Prince

Rick Prince

Founder/Director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

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