Marathon Vs. Ultramarathon Training

Last week was definitely one for the books.  I knew that running 100 miles in one week was going to take a lot out of me, but I was pretty surprised how long the fatigue seemed to last.  My body didn’t feel worn out, but I just felt really freaking tired.  Which is not something that I’m not used to.  Training for marathons and ultramarathons both involve a whole lot of overall fatigue.  One of the questions I’ve gotten a few times since I started sharing my ultramarathon journey has been the difference between ultramarathon training vs. marathon training, which is something I definitely want to cover in more in detail.

I started off the week with a fun interview with a local news station, talking about my 100 mile week, the money that I raised for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center ($1,040!), and how creating running challenges during the pandemic has kept running interesting for me. We chatted about some of my previous challenges, like running a virtual marathon, the 24 run hour challenge, and the 50 mile race I’m training for now.

This week was a whole lot of resting, easy runs, and strength workouts that weren’t overly exhausting or heavy. I spent more time on the couch and in bed than I have in a couple of months, and I’m not at all sorry about it. I know my body needed some additional rest. It’s rare that I wake up in the morning and have zero desire to do anything. Usually my generalized anxiety has a nice way of getting me going pretty quickly. But on both Monday and Thursday, I woke up and just refused to get out of bed for several hours.

The benefits of working from home is that I didn’t have to get up! I wouldn’t say that my eating habits were very different from a typical week, but honestly I eat a whole lot normally. I took Monday as a full rest day, and did just a strength workout on Thursday. I did try to stay moving throughout the week, since I know that being overly sedentary usually just makes me feel more stiff and sore, which is not exactly what anyone really wants during a recovery week.

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We survived another week of home schooling without a single causality!  If you know anything about me and my (lack of) patience, you’d know that homeschooling a first grader while working full-time is basically a miracle happening in real time.  We’re also moving forward with the house buying process, which hasn’t been overly frustrating.  Probably because my husband has been doing like 99% of the work, but I’m happy to give my uneducated opinion about anything and everything anytime he needs it.

If you’ve followed my blog for the last several months, you probably haven’t spotted a HUGE change in my training habits.  I tend to function well on high-volume and high mileage training, which is certainly helpful in ultramarathon distances.  There have been some adjustments I’ve made, and a bit of a learning curve, though.  Here’s the things I’ve changed since transitioning from marathon training to ultramarathon training.

Ultramarathon Training Vs. Marathon Training

Training any endurance distance race is demanding.  Building up to running 26.2 miles is definitely not something that could be put into the “easy” box.  So many people think that their ability to run long distances ends firmly at that 26.2 mile mark, but in all honestly, training for an ultramarathon is not all that dissimilar to training for a marathon.  There are increasing long runs, building in mileage that sometimes make you want to cry.  There are cut back weeks that save your sanity, weekly runs that have to be planned, and strength training that should happen to prevent sidelining overuse injuries.

Related Post: Hansons Marathon Method Review

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If you can survive training for and running a full marathon, you certainly have the ability to keep pushing the distance envelope. If that’s something that you’re interested in. It’s not the most rational of decision to make, but most would argue that running a marathon isn’t all that logical anyways. So if you’ve trained for a full marathon in the past and contemplated if ultra running is something that is feasible, I’m here to tell you it is. But there are a few marked differences in training for an ultramarathon and training for a full marathon, and it isn’t just the length of the long run. Here’s what I have found to be the most substantial ways that ultra training deviates from marathon training.

  • Higher Weekly Mileage – Unsurprisingly, if you want to run further than a marathon distance, your training will likely require a bit more volume.  That doesn’t mean you need to figure out how to work in double digit runs 6x a week, but it does mean that your overall weekly mileage will likely be a bit higher than marathon training.  The majority of marathon training programs build runners up to somewhere around 45 miles per week, though there are few high mileage training programs that go into the 60 mile range.  For an ultramarathon, most plans will increase that somewhat to building up to between a 70-90 mile per week program, depending on your fitness level, race distances (races range from 31 miles up to 200, so there’s a good variance there), and personal preference. Now, I’ve certainly seen seasoned ultra runners keep training for a 50k distance on 40 miles per week, but for any distance beyond a 50k, I’d really encourage runners to get closer to that 60-70 range.  That doesn’t mean you need to start out with that kind of weekly mileage, but that your training should gradually build up to it.
  • Increased Fueling & Rest – With that additional mileage, comes the increased need for rest, recovery, and fueling.  It makes a lot of sense that if you typically run 6 miles a day during the week and you bump up to 8-10, you’re going to have slightly higher caloric needs.  This doesn’t mean you need to start competing with Michael Phelps on caloric intake, but it does mean that you should be mindful about refueling and eating enough to promote muscle recovery.  It also means that your body is going to need more rest than it did when you were training for a marathon.  Making sure to respect rest days, recovery weeks, and working in the occasional lunch time nap are all things I recommend for any ultra runner.
  • Workouts – Running workouts in marathon programs generally focus on improving pacing and speed, and usually involve some track workouts or 1-3 mile repeats.  Since you won’t be redlining at any point during an ultra marathon (if you’re smart), there isn’t quite as much need for training involving those highest of gears.  You’ll still want to work in faster paces to help your legs remember how to turn over and help promote good form, but the quality workouts in ultramarathon training generally involve more emphasis on building strength and endurance than speed.  There’s a lot more need for things like hill workouts, running stairs, and body weight strength movements that help prepare your muscles to run further.  Not so much faster.
  • Trails – Most, but not all, marathons happen on the road.  Most, but not all, ultra marathons happen on trails.  So it makes sense that if you’re training for a race that is going to take place on a trail, it would be ideal for more of your training to include trail runs.  This isn’t a make or break thing.  There are plenty of ultra runners that don’t have regular access to trails, and they find creative ways to make training work.  In fact, I trained exclusively on roads for my 50k.   But I will say that while I was prepared for long running, there were a lot variables related to running for a long time on trails that I wasn’t as familiar with.  Things like the amount of effort it would take to step over a tree root at mile 30, how much dirt collects in your shoes (and everywhere else), and running in trail shoes.  If you have the opportunity to get more trail runs in, and you’re training for a trail ultra, definitely take advantage!

Related Post: Transitioning to Trail Running

  • Longer Long Runs – This is probably the difference that most runners expect to encounter in ultra marathon training plans.  Marathon training programs tend to max out around 20-22 miles, which is a long way to go on two feet.  Ultramarathon training can go a bit longer, into the 25-40 mile range for long runs depending on the distance of the race.  Which means you’re going to need to carry more water, fuel, and gear in general than you would need for a marathon long run.  Some training programs focus more on time for the long run, which is also a fairly big variation from the typical marathon program. 
    • The other marked difference when it comes to the long run is how much further you will have to run on race day than during training.  If you train for a marathon and get up to 20 miles, you only have a 10k of “uncovered territory” between training and race day distances.  If you train for a 50 mile race with a 30 mile longest long run (fairly standard), you have a whopping 20 miles of “uncovered territory” between training and race day distances.  This makes the mental aspect of ultramarathon training even more important.  Because you won’t know how miles 35, 42, and 48 are going to feel, and you’re going to need to be able to push past your doubts and reasons for quitting for a lot longer than you might in a marathon.
  • Back to back long runs – The fact that most people don’t have the ability to complete 40+ mile long runs is the whole reason for the corner stone of ultramarathon training; the back to back long runs.  Marathon training programs tend to prescribe rest or a very easy run the day after a tough long run.  Ultramarathon training programs will ask you to run a ridiculously long long run, and then follow that sucker up with another long run the next day!  So much for recovery, right?  But this is the best way to teach your body how to move though fatigue, soreness, and tired legs without making your run 40 miles in one day.  Which is unappealing for most people.  The back to back long runs are tough, but they will make you a tougher runner.  Which is definitely needed if you want to keep running beyond the 26.2 mile marker.
  • Power Hiking – While lots of people can run a marathon distance without really needing to stop and walk, most runners can’t get through 30-70 miles on trails without taking a few walking “breaks.”  Also, the terrain of many ultramarathons involve steeps climbs or technical portions that require some amount of power hiking to survive.  Now, you might think “awesome, I get to stop and walk and take a little break” if you’re coming from a road running background.  But I’m here to tell you, walking up trail stairs or a 45 degree incline, is not at all what I would consider a break.  It also means you’re on your feet for a lot longer. And you have to go back to running at some point, which can be really hard mentally and physically after walking for a little while.  In fact, most of my worst cramps have happened right in that transition from walking to running.  And let’s not even talk about the fact that a lot of ultramarathons have chairs at some of the aid stations.  It takes the mental strength of a gladiator to leave those chairs, and you better believe that your legs will protest louder than Karen at a Wal-Mart.

Now that you know some of the bigger differences between marathon and ultramarathon training, I hope you might be a little more tempted to dip your toe into some of these distances.  The training is tough, but is so much fun.  And honestly, running an ultramarathon will teach you things you just won’t learn anywhere else.  If you can train for a marathon, the 50k distance isn’t much further and training is much more similar than it is different.  Beyond 50k, there are some differences, but they may not be as dramatic as you’d think.  Ultra running is challenging, but is much more about mental determination and grit than physical fitness.

If ultrarunning is something you’re considering, but you’re on the fence, I’d love to talk more with you about what training looks like.  As always, you can reach out via my Contact Me page.

Here’s what this weeks 50 mile training looked like for me.

This Weeks Workouts

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Total Miles: 49
Total Workouts: 4
50 Mile Training, Week 12
How the Runs Felt
My body felt pretty good overall.  My feet were a little swollen on Monday morning when I woke up, but I wasn’t feeling overly stiff or sore.  On Tuesday, I set out for a slow, short 7 mile run and felt a lot less like death than I was anticipating.  I still had a good amount of chaffing that was a little irritating on Tuesday, but nothing exceptionally painful (unlike last Saturday). 

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Wednesday I woke up and decided to run just a little further, and again felt really good during the run. I started to feel a little more fatigued on Wednesday afternoon, and I went to bed somewhere around 7pm. My grandma parties harder than I do at this point. My alarm went off on Thursday, and all I wanted to do was stay in bed. So I did! Again, I wasn’t feeling sore, just really freaking tired and sleepy. I went out on Friday morning, once again feeling pretty good during my run, especially with the extra sleep from Thursday.

Saturday, I decided to add a little bit of challenge to my shorter long run.  I went out to the powerlines to run a more hilly route for part of my run.  I ran a two mile warm up, 9 hilly miles, and a 2 mile cool down.  The last 3 miles of the hilly section were fairly challenging for me.  My legs felt tired and heavy, which was something I had avoided for the last week.  But once I finished, I was really happy to have gotten in one workout during the week.

How the WODs Felt
This week I continued to keep the weights in my workouts fairly light. I did do a few heavier sets in my strength portion for my back squat and squat clean, but nothing too close to my 1 rep max weights. Tuesday, I was still feeling pretty worn out, so I decided to workout from home instead of messing with getting to the gym. The workout was 90% body weight, and it was just enough to get my heart rate up and working. Honestly though, all those push ups made me pretty sore.

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Wednesdays workout was also primarily body weight, and even though my upper body was pretty sore, I felt good overall.  I really liked Thursdays workout; it felt like it had a little bit of everything and went by really quick.  I think it’s one I’ll be repeating.  Friday’s workout felt fairly solid, though my legs had a hard time with the squat clean strength portion.  Last week, I stuck to very light weights and didn’t do too much lower body stuff since I was running so much.  So it might take my legs a few weeks to feel like they aren’t made of lead during my workouts.

What I’ve Been Listening To
This week, I listened to a few episodes of the Ginger Runner Live that I hadn’t had time to watch previously.  Ethan and Kim recently interviewed Candice Burt and Emily Halnon after their recent FKT’s (fastest known time to finish a trail) and I just have to say any FKT story is super inspiring and motivating.  But I love them even more when it’s women completing the FKT.  We all know that men tend to dominate the headlines in this sport, so I love that the Ginger Runner is using his platform to bring more awareness to the amazing things that women are accomplishing in this space.  I also started listening to the Piketon Massacre, which is a true crime podcast covering a truly horrific crime.  It’s hard to listen to, but very well done.  The Sports Bra episode from the Run Hard, Mom Hard podcast was also one that I really loved this week.  It’s an episode that every single lady runner should be sure to catch. 

What Went Well
This was the first week in a long time where I decided to not run when I didn’t feel like running.  Typically, I stick pretty firmly to my training plans, and not really having a fully fleshed out plan this week worked well for me.  I got a whole lot of rest, the swelling in my feet completely disappeared, I spent more time with some friends, and I got some really great sleep.  Recovering from a 100 mile week doesn’t feel easy, but the results have been pretty enjoyable.  More time, more sleeps, and less stress.

What Went Shitty
I haven’t been great about stretching and doing my core workouts these last two weeks.  I honestly just haven’t any motivation to do any of the “extra” work that I’m usually pretty good about.  I’m going to chalk it up to a big week and its recovery, but I do think I need to get back on the accessory work train.

Plans to Improve Next Week
Next week we’ll be back up to high mileage, and I know I’m going to need to stretch and focus on my core.  I also know that I probably need to eat just a little more than I did this week.  And as much as it pains me to say, I probably need to cut back on the caffeine just slightly.  I increased my caffeine intake during my 100 mile week, and I can’t say that I’ve down shifted since I finished.  I just really love coffee so much.

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