Doug Hay is a 5-time ultramarathon finisher and the creator of the trail running blog, Rock Creek Runner. Just recently he finished the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run.

Doug Hay Ultramarathoner

He is also the co-host of the No Meat Athlete Radio podcast, author of Discover Your Ultramarathon, and his work has been featured in Competitor, Outside Magazine, and Washingtonian among many others.

When it comes to ultras, Doug is my go-to guy (I’ve previously interviewed him about ultra running too). So today I’m excited to share his advice on how us “normal” runners can become ultra runners.

Take it away Doug!

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I remember the first time I heard about an ultramarathon.

I was suffering through my first marathon training, when someone I knew mentioned that he was training for the JFK 50 miler outside Washington, D.C.. I listened to him tell me about the training and how excited he was for race day, and I humored him with a few questions.

A few minutes later, I left the conversation thinking, “Yeah…okay. Like that’s possible…

I was a huge skeptic. Is running 50 miles at one time even possible? Isn’t the marathon the ultimate test of a runner’s endurance? Even if they can, why would anyone want to put themselves through something like that?

I quickly forgot about the whole thing and moved on with marathon training, thinking I was the toughest dude to have ever lived.

That was, of course, until I heard about another ultramarathon and started noticing them pop up in more articles and best selling books like Born to Run. All of a sudden, ultras were everywhere, and I couldn’t shake the thought of running one myself.

An opportunity to push my limits even further. A race that would break me down completely. Embracing the complete unknown of if my body could handle that distance and if I could stay injury free.

I wasn’t sure if it was possible, but I was determined to find out.

The problem was, I had no idea where to start:

  • By how much do I need to increase my weekly mileage and long run? I wasn’t sure.
  • How do I keep up with nutrition and hydration during these extra long outings? I had no idea.
  • Can I run an ultra and still have a life? My guess was no.

But the more I looked into ultramarathon training, the more I realized that it isn’t much different than marathon training. If I did it right, training for a 50k or 50 mile ultra wasn’t going to take over my life or ruin all my friendships (any more than marathon training already had…).

That being said, there are a few key differences that all marathoners need to know before taking the leap to an ultra. Differences I learned the hard way. Fortunately, you don’t have to.

5 Key Steps For Transitioning from Marathoner to Ultramarathoner

Like I said earlier, running an ultramarathon isn’t as big of a shift as you might think.

Is it going to hurt? Yes. Will you want to quit? Probably.

But isn’t that true for any distance race?

1) Leave Your Fears Behind

The first step to transitioning from marathoner to ultramarathoner is checking your fears at the door and convincing yourself that you have the mental toughness to do it.

When I set out to run my first 50 miler, I had no idea what was going to happen, but I wasn’t going to let my fears keep me from finding out. Same with my first 100 miler earlier this year, where it wasn’t until the aid station at mile 89 that I could finally relax and confidently run towards the finish line.

The mental challenges, throughout both the training and the race, will be just as challenging as the physical, which is why it’s important to strip away the doubt and fear from the very start.

2) Start Running Long…And Slow

Some of my speedier marathoning friends like to joke that ultras make you slower.

That simply isn’t true.

But what is true is that most ultramarathon training consists of a significant increase in long, slow running, and very little speed work.

As you transition from the marathon mindset to that of the ultramarathon, you’ll focus heavily on the long run, building a higher mileage base, and easy mid-week mini-long runs, as I like to call them.

Success in an ultra is more about maintaining a consistent effort than it is about speed. That means slowing down to an effort that is comfortable and maintainable for 5, 7, and even 24+ hours.

It means hiking (yes, hiking! gasp!) steep hills, backing off when you feel like revving up on a flat, and slowing down a decline with ease.

The more you practice running at an easy, consistent effort, and the stronger your base, the more success you’ll have on race day.

3) Practice Course Specific Training

Ultramarathon Running

I have this theory that ultramarathon race directors are actually evil torturers, who get joy out of watching others suffer.

You’ve probably heard of the famously tough races like the Badwater 135 (run in Death Valley) or the Hardrock 100, with nearly 34,000 ft of elevation gain. While these might be the most extreme of the extreme, there’s one thing you can count on with most ultramarathon courses: they’re not going to be easy.

Which makes it more important than ever to train for the course, just as much as the distance.

Here are a few things to consider when practicing course specific training:

  • Trails: Unlike marathons, most ultramarathons are run on trails instead of roads. Trails vary significantly, so find out how technical – or rocky, rooty, tough – the trails at your race are before race day. Get comfortable on that type of terrain so that you aren’t concerned with tripping or twisting an ankle during the race. For many ultrarunners, trails are part of the appeal, but for those transitioning from the road, learning to run trails confidently takes extra work.
  • Hills: In part because they are often run on trails, ultras tend to have a lot more elevation change than a typical road marathon. The extent of those hills varies significantly between races, even sometimes between races run in the same region. Check out the elevation chart or read course descriptions, and train for the hills accordingly.
  • Elevation: Many of the famous ultramarathons are run out west at elevation. But with the recent growth in popularity, ultramarathons can now be found all over. Consider the elevation of your chosen race and how that will affect you before registering.
  • Heat/Cold: Nearly every marathon and shorter distance race is run first thing in the morning, when the day’s heat hasn’t yet arrived. While the gun typically goes off before dawn, they usually last well through the afternoon and beyond. Consider the time of year and location of your race, and prepare for the temperature changes that will take place throughout the hours (and hours) of running.

Now, it’s important to note that ultramarathon courses follow no set formula.

While many require trail running on hilly or mountainous terrain, that’s not true for all ultras. I’ve seen ultras run entirely on the road, the beach, and even an indoor track. Timed events, where runners run a set loop (usually 1-3 miles in length) as many times as they can for a set time, are also growing in popularity.

4) Learn How to Properly Handle Race Day Nutrition

Aside from leg strength, how you handle nutrition and hydration during the race is the next most important indicator to your ultramarathon success.

Unlike marathon nutrition consisting of limited gels and sports drinks, ultramarathon fueling is very different. Runners should plan to be out on the course several hours longer than their marathon PR, so that energy gel and sports drink alone aren’t going to be enough.

I’ve seen runners scarf down pizza, bacon and eggs, Popsicles, whole sandwiches, Coke, and any number of snacks to keep up their calorie intake and satisfy their stomachs.

A big part of your training should be learning what your body needs after hours on the trail, and how your stomach handles different foods.

I recommend that ultrarunners consume anywhere from 200-400 calories per hour throughout the race. Those calories can come from solid foods, energy gels, or high calorie energy drinks, but they need to come from somewhere, and you need to start consuming them right from the starting line.

5) Don’t Go At It Alone

When I trained for my first ultramarathon, I went at it all by myself. Aside from a few articles I found online, I didn’t think I needed the help of others.

About 4 hours into that first 50k, I realized what a massive mistake that was.

In fact, I wrote a whole ultramarathon training system to help people avoid those silly rookie mistakes I made.

Don’t go at it alone. Take advantage of what’s out there to help you make the transition:

Welcome to the Community

Ask any ultrarunner what their favorite part about ultrarunning is, and I bet that 9 out of 10 say it’s the community.

The trail and ultrarunning community is as welcoming as it gets, and we’re always eager to help out and encourage a beginner.

If you can run a marathon, you can run an ultramarathon.

So what are you waiting for? Let me be the first to welcome you to this life-changing community!

Doug Hay enjoys running through his home mountains in Western North Carolina, a strong cup of coffee, and trying to convince Jason he should sign up for a 50k.  Pick up a free copy of his eBook Why Every Runner Should Be Trail Runners: And How to Become One.

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The marathon: for many, it’s a mythical unicorn. Capturing a great performance can be elusive and may take years.

Jason and Matt's fastest marathon

Jason and Matt on the days they ran their fastest marathons

When I ran my first marathon, New York City in 2008, I thought that I’d breeze through it. After all, I was a fairly competitive runner. What could go wrong?

Everything.

I bonked hard at 20 miles (how cliche) and every step until the finish line was excruciating. Instead of finishing strong, I slowed down by more than a minute per mile and it felt like a hammer was slamming into each quad with every step. The next six months were spent with debilitating IT Band Syndrome.

Is that really how a marathon is supposed to go?

Absolutely not. In fact, I made a lot of mistakes that I had to learn the hard way. And after transforming and upgrading the way I approached running, I ran a 5+ minute PR to finish the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon in 2:39:32.

Strength Running is the embodiment of that training upgrade. But today, I want to talk specifically about the marathon and the strategies you can use to run faster, stay healthy while prepping for 26.2 miles, and maybe even qualify for Boston.

The Uncanny “7 Strategies” Podcast

As some of you know, I coach a group of runners with Matt Frazier who are specifically training to run their fastest marathon. Members of Run Your BQ enjoy a private website that includes 45+ articles specific to the marathon, 25+ video lessons and demonstrations, a private forum to talk with other members, and a library of marathon training plans (and post-marathon recovery plans).

But what’s most special about this group is that Matt and I get on video every month to do a live webinar that we call a Coach’s Chat, taking member’s questions for an hour or more. Our members get exclusive access to us to ask their personal running questions about their marathon goals, pacing advice, injury treatment techniques, and the mindset it requires to run a fast marathon.

After a particularly fun Coach’s Chat spent teasing Matt and making jokes about CrossFit, we sat down to outline our most important training and racing strategies for an in-depth presentation about running your fastest marathon. And something surprising happened.

We thought, as two very different runners, that we’d each bring a few different ideas to the table about how to run your best marathon, put them together, and have a comprehensive presentation to share.

But what happened was quite different. It didn’t matter that I’m a more competitive runner with a 2:39 marathon PR and that Matt started at 4:53 in his first marathon and ultimately broke 3:10 to qualify for Boston.

The strategies we found were responsible for our results were almost identical.

From how we chose our races, to how we ran our long runs, to how we put it all together on race day, it was almost eerie how much overlap there was in how we succeeded.

Which, when you think about it, shouldn’t be so surprising at all. It’s just that we’d hit upon a few just-about-universal truths for running your fastest marathon. And that’s what this podcast is about.

Today I want to give you a preview of this one hour, ten minute conversation between Matt and I. If you want to listen to the whole thing, just sign up here and we’ll send it to you.

You can listen to a preview of the podcast by clicking the button below. Or, click here to open it in a new window.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

You’ll hear some of our strategies for running the fastest marathon your body is capable of running, and how you can apply them in your own quest to capture your marathon unicorn.

My favorite topics from this podcast:

  • What season gives you the best chance of running a big PR
  • The #1 most important key for your long run if you want to get faster
  • Why “staying focused” during your race might actually lead to disaster
  • The race-day nutrition mistake 88% of runners make
  • How to dig deeper than ever before and own the last 10K of your marathon
  • Matt’s journey of improving from 4:53 to 3:09 in the marathon (read the full report here)

Get the Full Podcast, Plus Learn More About Run Your BQ

I’m always impressed with runners who plan their goal marathons well. Because when you get the race right, during the most helpful season and train smart with the right mindset, it’s often mind-boggling how much faster you’re able to run.

It’s funny that huge personal bests sometimes have nothing to do with your running but instead with your planning (especially marathons!).

Matt and I want to help you learn more about the planning, execution, and mindset that helped us run our best marathons ever. I hope you enjoyed the preview of our conversation.

If you’d like, the full podcast – at over 1-hour and 10 minutes – is available for free. Click here to get the full podcast.

We’ll let you know when RYBQ is opening to new members, too.

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Struggle with Foot Injuries? Get Healthy With These Foot Exercises

August 7, 2014

Tweet Why do we ignore strength exercises for our feet when each foot contains more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments? The human foot is an anatomical miracle, able to support hundreds of pounds with an arch that provides energy return when we walk and run. With hundreds of individual “pieces,” it’s no small feat to […]

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Frustrated, Slow and Injured: How DeAnne Got Healthy And Ran a 22 Minute PR

August 4, 2014

Tweet Transforming the lives of runners is why I love this job. Hearing the successes of my athletes gets me up in the morning and excited to get to work. Nearly every day my inbox is flooded with success stories – runners who have run unbelievable personal bests, stayed healthy for longer than ever before, […]

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Change is a Good Thing: Announcing the Next Chapter of My Life

July 29, 2014

Tweet In the immortal words of C.S. Lewis: It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. […]

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How to Sleep Better, Faster, Longer: The Ultimate Guide to Hacking Your Sleep

July 24, 2014

Tweet “I call them business meetings,” pro marathoner Ryan Hall once said about his daily nap. Ryan is the fastest American marathoner and half marathoner of all-time and is so adamant about his regular nap that he insists it’s part of his job: “Everyone else seems to call their afternoon shuteye ‘naps.’ I call them […]

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The Importance of a Running Annual Review (here’s one of mine too)

July 21, 2014

Tweet Rarely do we take a meaningful amount of time and step back from the bustle of our daily lives to reflect on our accomplishments and progresss. But it’s a valuable tool that can help you stay on track with all of your goals. Author Chris Guillebeau performs his own annual review to evaluate his personal and professional […]

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9 Reasons You’re Running Slow (and how to fix them to get faster)

July 14, 2014

Tweet Isn’t it funny that when something isn’t working, most of us just “buckle down” and try harder (even if you’re lost doing the wrong thing)? But often “what got you here, won’t get you there.” So if you’ve hit a plateau and are stagnating, running the same times and getting frustrated, doing more of the […]

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When Are You Ready to Run a Marathon?

July 9, 2014

Tweet A few weeks ago a runner emailed me and said: “I started running a few weeks ago and I’m up to 9 miles per week with a 4 mile long run. I’m also working on increasing the run portion (I’m walking every few minutes) of all my runs. I signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon […]

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The 13 Weirdest Things Runners Do

July 2, 2014

Tweet If you run, you’re probably a huge weirdo. But don’t worry, I am too – and there’s safety in numbers so I’m glad you’re here! After running for 16 years, my life has become progressively weirder. Not only do I do things that normal folks think are unbelievable / weird / crazy / stupid, […]

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