first ultramarathon

When to Start Training For Your First or Next Ultramarathon


By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Pro Coach

We get two versions of this question. Middle-distance and marathon runners looking to tackle their first ultra ask, “How long will it take to be well prepared for my first ultramarathon?” Then there are the athletes who have attempted one or more ultras and struggled. Soon after a recent DNF or dissapointing result, the tend to ask, “When should I start training so I can do better next time?” As the familiar refrain goes, ‘it depends’. If you have been training for a long time, for instance, stepping up to your first ultra isn’t as big of a jump. And no matter how experienced you are, one of the biggest factors, is the amount of weekly training time you’ll need to commit to. The short answer, in all cases, is to start as soon as possible.

“Start now” may seem like a no-duh, simplistic answer, but it’s not flippant. After coaching thousands of ultramarathon runners, from beginners to champions and course record holders, our coaches have learned that TIME is an endurance athlete’s biggest advantage. If you’re looking at an event next summer – either your first ultra or a chance at improvement (or redemption) – late summer or early fall is a great time to start training. Here’s why.

More time for a slow, steady ramp up

Ultramarathon training requires a wide range of physiological adaptations and we all want to arrive at the start line healthy and injury-free. The more time you give yourself to ramp up to race day, the gentler your training load increases can be. Allowing the body to adjust gradually almost always nets a more positive outcome than trying to ask too much too quickly. Additionally, if you’re a runner transitioning to trails from road running, you’ll realize the uneven surface utilizes more lower leg strength, as well as more balance and agility.

Trail running typically involves more elevation gain and loss compared to road running too. If your goal event will have you traipsing up and down steep and/or long grades, you’ll need to add elevation to your runs. Adding climbing to your regiment a little at a time is a wise approach in order to avoid injuries. For example, Achilles tendonitis often develops due to increasing the volume of elevation gain too quickly. Give yourself the opportunity to adjust to trail running more gradually, your body will thank you.

Another benefit of a slow, steady ramp up is time to figure out your fueling. A 50k, the shortest of ultrarunning events, takes most  runners 6-8 hours to complete. Knowing when, what and how much to consume will immensely enhance your chances of finishing and feeling good. There are several articles on our blog specifically about training the gut, sorting through which foods taste good and are digestible during exercise, and which food and fluid choices fuel you optimally. Figuring all of that out takes time.

More races to choose from

Ultramarathons continue to become more popular. The number of first time ultramarathon runners has been increasing year over year, and athletes are sticking with the sport and running multiple years. As a result, there’s been a proliferation of events. To capture athlete signups, many events scheduled for spring and summer are opening their registration processes early. Events with the highest demand have lottery systems of varying degrees of complexity.

Do your research now to know which race(s) most appeal to you. By starting early, you can schedule a longer series of tune-up races for skill acquisition. It is a good idea to research more races than you plan on signing up for and create a list of events in priority order. That way, if you don’t get in to one or more events you have a list of known alternatives to choose from. Commit to events as soon as registration or the lottery opens, otherwise you may find yourself at the bottom of a long waitlist.

Cool temps/great trail conditions

After enduring a ridiculously hot summer, what’s more motivating than the opportunity to run in the crisp, cool temperatures of Autumn? As the weather gets cooler through the late summer and into fall, you won’t need to carry too many extra layers, and overheating will likely be less of a major concern. Even in the mountains, there’s still time to run on trails before the snow falls. With summer vacations mostly over, you’re likely to have more open space to yourself. Mix in the cornucopia of vibrant fall foliage in the coming weeks and months, and this time of year offers plenty of optimal conditions and aesthetic bounty. It would be a shame to miss out.

Time to test gear, orienteering skills

While ultra-running may not be the most gear-intensive sport (as opposed to say, rock climbing), many runners new to trails may be surprised by the number of tools we utilize. The most common are hydration vests/belts, trekking poles, multiple clothing layers, and shoes (lots of shoes). For ultrarunners looking to improve year over year, the time to test new gear or acquire new skills is during the period when training workload is lowest and most general (which means furthest out from the event).

Beyond the gear, learning to navigate off-road, often in areas where there may not be cell service is a critical skill for safety. Where will you get water, or do you need to carry a water filter? Might you need extra layers in the case of inclement weather? Do you need to carry a small medical kit for blisters, insect bites/stings or abrasions (and do you know how to use it)? What is your plan if you sprain an ankle?

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The more frequently you face uncomfortable situations in remote areas, the better you learn to navigate them successfully. Problem solving is one of the most appealing (in my opinion) parts of trail running, but it can be one of the intimidating, too. Having more time available for preparation gives you more time to gradually progress (on purpose) through increasingly challenging situations.

Greater opportunity for incorporating additional events

There’s tremendous variety within ultrarunning events. Some races are point-to-point (i.e., Western States Endurance Run). Others are out-and-back (i.e., Leadville 100). And some are event one big loop (i.e., Hardrock 100) or a series of smaller loops (i.e., Javelina Jundred).  Do you want a ton of climbing and descending, or a flatter course? Are pacers important for you? Do you perform well in the heat, or prefer a more temperate race climate? By getting started right now, you have more time to figure out your ultrarunning strengths (train your weaknesses, but race your strengths) and preferences.

When you’re new to the sport, take time to experience and figure out the attributes and features of a race – beyond the distance – that most appeal to you. If you are looking to improve, consider whether trying a different race format or course type might help you overcome the obstacle that’s been standing in your way. Sometimes experiencing new or different races helps you gain skills that can unlock the performance you’re looking for in a particular event you’ve struggling to finish.

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Start training now

You’ll likely be more fit for next season’s races if you start training now vs. wait for November or January. And racing is more fun when you’re fit, so naturally you’ll fall in love with the sport after that first race (who wouldn’t, right?). Well, if that first race is in the spring, you may also have time to pick up the challenge of another big event in the summer. As with most things, the more time you spend actively engaged in building your fitness and skillset, the more improvements you’re likely to create. You’ll learn your preferences, abilities and areas that need development, and you’ll have more room for recovering from mistakes made in training and racing.

From prime outdoor conditions to gear management, and fueling considerations to navigation and fitness advantages, it’s not too soon to begin a focused training plan to prepare for your first foray into the world of trail and ultrarunning. Take advantage of the opportunities that exist right now; you won’t regret it.


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