6 Tips to Successfully Train for an Ultra-Race

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When asked to write a blog post about how to be a successful at running ultra-races… not just finishing or just surviving an ultra-race…but actually being successful, I have to admit that I immediately had some self-doubt. I mean, who am I to share expertise on ultra-racing?

I’ve only won one big race (two years ago!), placed in a handful of other races, and DNFed (did not finish) three times! I pondered that self-doubt while doing some race support for Jeff Browning, a friend and fellow ultra-racer, at the Grindstone 100 in Virginia. I drove from trail head to trail head and had plenty of time to think. I decided that while I still have so much to learn, I have also dedicated 5 years to training, I have 30 races under my belt, and thus, enough experience to offer advice on how to successfully race ultra runs and how to train to be competitive.

I started to rethink, that self-doubt, gain confidence in my experiences, review all of my ups and downs, and started to make a list of realizations and lessons to pass on to aspiring (or seasoned) ultra-racers. So There, Take That, SELF-DOUBT!

Here’s my take on the best advice for successfully running an ultra:

1. START SLOW – No really… START SLOW! Don’t go out of the gate too fast, just don’t do it! Remind yourself that you’re running an ultra, not a 5k. You’ve been tapering for a while and you are probably excited to be running, but if you start too fast, you WILL pay for it later. Fight off the excitement. Start your race at least a minute to two minutes slower than your normal pace, warming up gradually. By the time you hit mile 5 you will have your groove and will be able to sustain your pace and stay comfortable. Once you make it to your half-way point then start to push harder, go for it! Remember, that even though a strong start looks impressive, it fizzles quickly into a slow suffer-fest… A strong finish is always more awesome than a strong start.

2. Keep It Simple – You don’t need a bunch of stuff to race an ultra, especially because there is (usually) a crew there to provide race support. Pick a great hydration system that is comfortable and functional. My favorite hydration pack is the Salomon Skin Hydro 12. Pack a light jacket, a hat, gloves, and a headlamp. I use Petzl Tikka RXP on my head and Petzl Tikkina around my waist pointed at my feet for night running. Don’t forget to pack plenty of nutritional energy gels too… GU, blocks, et cetera. My favorites are GU Peach Tea Chomps, GU Salted Watermelon Gels, and Lemonade GU Roctane. Resist the urge to carry too much; I’m guilty of that mistake, especially when I first began running ultras. If you provide your race crew with plenty of replenishment, you are good to go.

3. Set Goals – Set small, manageable, and obtainable goals, but also set a BIG dream goal. Keeping small goals in your day to day training and a BIG dream goal in your foresight is the best way to celebrate small successes, stay motivated, and see progress and improvement. YOU HAVE TO HAVE GOALS – I once heard the expression “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” How true that is for goal setting! If you don’t have a goal set, you have no starting point on how to make it happen. So whether your goal is to break 6 hours on your 50k time or to shave off only 5 or 10 minutes from your previous race – put that goal in your crosshairs and set your training program around reaching that goal. Each time you are able to achieve one small goal the BIG dream goal seems so much more within your reach.

4. Choose the Right Race – By choosing the race that suits your strengths best and matches your terrain/style preferences, you will set yourself up for success. If you love hill climbs and technical trails, find mountain races. My favorite mountain races are Mountain Masochist 50 miler and Terrapin Mountain 50k. If you love more “run-able” terrain, like ultras that feature loop courses or 24 hour formats instead, sign up for one of those. My favorites include New River 50k and Umstead 100. Not only is race choice important but also the time of year of race that you choose. Choose a race by style and by expected weather conditions – hate the heat? Don’t schedule your race in the middle of July…and vice versa.

5. Learn to be Resilient – Your body can handle more than your mind thinks that it can. Train yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically to DIG DEEP! During your training runs approach adversity and issues with solutions and mentally train yourself to deal with those issues. Mark my words, PROBLEMS WILL ARISE during your race; tummy issues, blisters, bad weather, bonking… et cetera. DON’T let anything defeat you, address whatever is going on, dig deep, and then just keep moving forward.

6. SMILE – I know that this sounds a little cliché, but smile, even when it hurts. Remind yourself that you run ultras because it’s FUN, because you LOVE what you are doing… and you are willing to take all the pain and hard work to feel the reward. During a particularly difficult training run or section in your race, make a point to smile. I guarantee that smile will help you relax, stop taking yourself so seriously, and remind you that you do actually ENJOY running 25, 50, 100 miles at a time.

Whenever I revisit my self-doubt I remind myself why I started running ultras. I started ultra-running because I love running and I love the outdoors. I’ve been lucky enough to parlay my love of running and the outdoors into a career in the outdoor industry that, in turn, allows me to sustain ultra-running. The fact is that most ultra-runners (like me) have careers, families, and lives outside of ultra-running. We’re working and practicing balance between all of the facets in our lives. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to do this and to experience the triumphs and miseries that ultra-running brings, it teaches me so much. In fact, I believe that running long distances forces you to visit some dark places in your mind, all the egotistical reasons that you believe you’re running that far for, fall away and in the end, just your pure love of running remains. At the end of the race, it’s the same journey to reach the finish line – and that’s just so beautiful.

Stonewear women, if you take nothing else from my list of tips, please remember this; if you want to try out trail running or ultra-running, DO IT! It’s an amazing journey, a calling even. It’s made me a stronger, more confident, independent, and happier woman (self-doubt…. NO MORE!).

Follow your heart (and my tips for success!) – And start your journey too!

Ultra-running is truly the great equalizer, we are all just trying our best to cover the same route, and reach the finish line.

Happy Trails Ladies!
By Jenny Nichols, Ambassador for Stonewear Designs


Learn more about Jenny Nichols’ Ultra-Running Adventures on her blog, Freedom To Be or check her out on Instagram @jennynichols and Twitter @jendenichols.

You can also check out some of her awesome handmade jewelry imprinted with inspiration for your adventures on her Etsy Page: Mountain Prima Donna – Yep! That’s right, she’s a hard-core ultra-runner, a race director, a mom, and an artist!

Mountain Masochist 50 miler
Terrapin Mountain 50k
New River 50k
Umstead 100

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