Author: Sam Healey

With 100km races becoming more and more popular, we thought it would be great to ask Marshall Ulrich, one of the world's most accomplished endurance athletes and veteran of the Sahara Race and Gobi March, what kind of training he would suggest competitors undertake for a 100km, single-stage ultramarathon. (To find out more about Marshall, click here.)

With endurance racing, (especially the off-trail wilderness events that RacingThePlanet specializes in), becoming increasingly popular with the road-running community, we asked him to focus his suggestions primarily on a competitor who already has a regular fitness regime and has some history of running up to marathon distances, but is taking on their first ultra.

First off, Marshall breaks down the key training areas for tackling an endurance race, saying that you need to focus on:

  • Incorporating longer distances in training
  • Build up speed in your shorter distance training
  • Include cross and core training in your programme
  • Acclimitize - if you will run in heat, you need to train in heat, if you are racing at altitude try and get some training in at altitude.
  • Mental attitude - running for hours at a time can be mentally exhausting, and at times boring.

If you've never incorporated long distance running into your training before, Marshall suggests:

  • Do a long distance run once a week - you need to allow your body to recover between this kind of exertion.
  • Distance should be 30-50km (20-30 miles) or around 5-6 hours

Whilst including this long distance training may seem like the most obvious part of an ultramarathon preparation programme, it's worth understanding why:

  • Running long distances will train your body to burn fat
  • It will train your slow twitch muscles by developing them and improving their ability to adapt to the stress of prolonged exercise. (To understand what slow and fast twitch muscles are, click here)
  • You will learn about how hydration and electrolyte balance affect you during prolonged physical exertion - essential for optimizing your performance and staying safe during an ultramarathon.

Marshall is a big advocate of cross training, especially for strengthening you core. He says that, "You'll run farther, faster and more comfortably."

For core body work, the goals are to:

  • Work the core to stay strong
  • Focus on the muscle groups that work the core
  • Don't just do running training, you need to mix it up, so go biking, snow shoeing for example, or hit the gym.
  • And once again, use this kind of training as an opportunity to learn how your body reacts to hydration and electrolyte balance.

If you're going to be racing in a much hotter climate than you are used to then you should try and include some heat training that incorporates this.

If you can train in the actual environment, then fantastic, but many people won't be able to do this. So, tips for training in heat include:

  • Spend time in the sauna or train in heavy clothing
  • Try and do this twice a week, 1 to 1.5hour sessions (don't exert yourself initially, build up your tolerance)
  • Remember that your hydration and electrolyte balance need to be managed, and in this kind of training environment you will need to take on a lot more fluids and replace your electrolytes. (Click here for more details on the role of hydration and electrolyte balance in endurance racing)

Your body relies on sweating to cool down, so make sure you understand the climate you are going to be racing in. Humidity reduces evaporation for example, so it's much more difficult to cool off.

There are some ultimate goals that you want your body to achieve to perform at its optimum during a race. If you want to commit to those goals, you can investigate more, but you want your body to:

  • Sweat earlier
  • Sweat more
  • Sweat glands to reabsorb more electrolytes
  • Kidneys to excrete less sodium
  • Kidneys to reabsorb more water
  • Body to reduce the rate at which your muscles use glycogen

If your race is going to be at altitude and you are able to train at the elevation then Marshall suggests:

  • Train at altitude once a week
  • Remember to descend to recover, don't do your rest and recovery at the high elevation
  • See how your hydration and electrolyte balance change whilst training at altitude. You get dehydrated more quickly at higher elevations so rehydrate properly

Marshall's book Running On Empty has just been published and follows his record breaking run across America. Read more about it here.

Marshall along with good friend and fellow endurance athlete Ray Zahab will be conducting Dreams in Action Stage Racing and Running Camp in Death Valley, California in October this year. Whether you're new to endurance racing or want to improve your performance, a week with Marshall and Ray will not only be a fantastic learning opportunity, but a lot of fun. 

If you've got any questions about how to train for an ultramarathon, then visit Marshall's website here, and our own ambassadors here at RacingThePlanet will be happy to help. Leave you questions in the comments below.

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