Running far means being on your feet for a long time and eating right.
The two keys are: Nutrition (what you eat) and Conditioning (how you get and stay fit).
Not all food is the same. Not all conditioning will prepare you the way you need.
Most people overemphasize their training and underemphasize their nutrition. It’s almost better to do the opposite so let’s start with food.
1. no more than 300 calories per hour; avoid sucrose aka Gatorade, Powerade, junk food, and so on
2. no more than 16-20oz water per hour
3. you need electrolyte supplements if you are prone to cramping or are exercising past 2 hours
4. you need to take in protein supplements if you are exercising past 2 hours or your body will cannibalize itself
Specifically, I use Hammer Nutrition supplements. I use them exclusively because they use long-chain carbohydrates that do not upset my stomach in flavors that are easy to digest, and they explain each of their products so you can tweak your intake to specifically what you need. Everyone has their preference and I’m not compensated by them in any way.
The products I use from Hammer are: HEED carb drink with electrolytes, Perpetuem protein fuel, Endurolytes electrolyte pills, Hammer Gel energy gel (with electrolytes) and Recoverite recovery drink.
This is how I fuel (based on time, not distance):
1. runs up to 1 hour: 1-2 Endurolytes prior, generally nothing while I’m running unless I just feel crappy that day in which case I’ll take 8-10oz water with 1/2-1 scoop HEED mixed in
2. Runs up to 2 hours: 1-2 Endurolyte pills beforehand then a 16-20oz water bottle with 2 scoops HEED; if it’s a tough 2-hour run I’ll take 2 water bottles (each with HEED) and carry 6-9 Endurolyte pills – 3-4 per hour (1 every 15-20 minutes); if it’s hot, I’ll take 12-15 Endurolyte pills (4-7 per hour with a couple extra in case I drop them)
3. Long runs of 2+ hours: 1-2 Endurolytes ahead of the run; 16-20oz/hour in a camelbak or I’ll plan a run past a water source where I can fill up. Along with this I’ll take a multi-hour bottle of Perpetuem: mix 1-2scoops perpetuem + I mix in 1scoop HEED per hour of exercise (3 hours would be 6 scoops Perpetuem + 3 scoops HEED mixed together for me) and add water. This will be my fuel source for long runs – a single thick gooey bottle of running food, then 16-20oz of pure water (48-60 oz for 3 hours) from a Camelbak. On top of this I’ll plan 4-6 Endurolytes per hour or 12-18 Endurolytes for a 3-hour run + a few extra in case I drop some along the way (inevitable when you’re juggling them as you run down a steep trail).
1 hour – 1-2 Endurolytes + 1/2 bottle of water mixed with 1-scoop HEED
2 hours – 1-2 Endurolytes prior + 1 bottle per hour containing 16-20oz water + 2 scoops HEED; 4-6 Endurolytes per hour (1 every 15 minutes, more if it’s hot)
2+ hours – 1-2 Endurolytes prior + 16-20oz water per hour in a Camelbak + a bottle filled with 2 scoops perpetuem + 1 scoop HEED for every hour planned (3 hours = 6 Perpetuem + 3 HEED scoops in the bottle mixed with water to form paste + 48-60oz water in the Camelbak I use to wash the paste down and sip frequently)
This food model is scalable, so just adjust it to the length of your run and your personal needs. Some people can run for two hours without drinking anything. I am not one of those people and you shouldn’t try to be. It’s dangerous, especially when you’re considering ultra-marathons. You might feel good one hour and completely blow up the next.
Also important: as soon as you finish a 2 hour run or longer, you need to take vitamins right away. I used to get sick when I was training hard because my immune system was compromised. Taking vitamins post-run will help recharge your body and protect your immune system. A single big general supplement is good or you can buy vitamins from Hammer.
And I always drink Recoverite after any run. Replaces protein and muscle glycogen that will prep you for the next run. This is critical and shouldn’t ever be skipped. If you skip a recovery meal it’s likely your next run will be harder and more painful.
As for the actual running part…
When was the last time you were on your feet for 10 hours nonstop? It’s probably been awhile. So we have to start small when we’re training for an ultra and this is how we start. Start standing up for 3 or 4 hours. You can start by going for a long walk (time, not distance). Anything to get you on your feet.
Once you can stand for hours at a time start jogging. Walk, jog, walk, jog, walk, jog.
Set the bar low, then build it up once you have a base.
Actually, this is the key to finishing ultramarathons that few people talk about. Until you’re ultra-conditioned to run for 50 straight miles, the way to do an ultra (and any other longest distance run as you’re starting out) is to avoid redlining.
You avoid redlining by jogging flats and downhills and walking uphill or walking any time you feel like you’re starting to overexert. The key to going far is going slow.
As my pro athlete friend Chuck once told me “go slow to go fast.” And I say “go slow to go far.”
Once you can do that, you switch it so you are running while taking walking breaks whenever you need to: jog, walk, jog, walk, jog, and so on.
Once you’ve got that, you start running, slowly, for short then longer runs.
Once you can do this, you start running short and fast, then mixing in really slow long runs. This builds muscle and endurance. The skyscraper on the foundation.
Running short-fast sets followed by running long-slow sets is the training method we’ll use to build your foundation.
After doing this for a few months, you’ll be ready for anything.
So here’s the specific program I follow when I’m training for a long race:
During the week I hate going on pre-planned long training runs. It’s hard to find the time and it’s boring. I’d rather have fun with running, so here is the in-week plan:
Go outside or to a trailhead and just run at a moderate pace (for you) for 15 minutes to wherever you end up. Note exactly where you end up and remember it. You should be working a little bit but not stressing the distance or overexerting. This 15-minute distance point is your new benchmark, and around which your running plan will be built.
Turn around and run back to the start. This should be about 30 minutes of running total.
On weekends, we’re going to do subsequent longer, slower runs consecutively both Saturday and Sunday.
So your plan will look something like:
Tuesday – 30 minute(ish) run
Thursday – 30 minute(ish) run
Saturday – long run
Sunday – long run
That’s it. This is where you start.
Your weekly runs (Tuesday/Thursday) don’t change in length, but they do change.
Once you have your 15-minute benchmark, you are now going to stress yourself on these short runs.
You will run these short runs for speed.
Every Tuesday and Thursday you’re going to do the same run. But you’re going to do it as fast as you can on the way out. On the way back you can run at a slow recovery pace, but try to go a little faster than that.
You will find that your 15-minute mark actually drops to 14 minutes, then 13 and even 12 minutes one-way and your total 30-minute run drops to 25-27 minutes total as you get faster.
Why? This builds strength, power and your VO2 max (lung capacity). And as your weekend distance runs increase you will be going out tired from the weekend run and stressing your body on these short, but hard runs.
Also, this becomes a palatable running program that doesn’t force you to run for 3 hours after a long day at work or when it’s dark. You can run in the morning before work, at lunch or whenever is convenient.
Just be sure you’re running as fast as you can to your original marker along the same route, then back to the start. It will feel very hard.
If you travel a lot, you can still do this program during the week while you travel. Just use the 15/30 minute run as a guide – run as hard as you can for 15 minutes sustained, then turn around and run back at a slower recovery pace.
You can also use a treadmill with the same program.
As your base builds, you build your weekend distance:
Saturday – 1.5 hour run
Sunday – 1.5 hour run
1 month in:
Saturday – 2 hour run
Sunday – 1.5 hour run
2 months in:
Saturday – 2 hour run
Sunday – 2 hour run
3 months in:
Saturday – 3 hour – 3.5 hour run
Sunday – 2 hour run
4 months in:
Saturday – 5 hour run
Sunday – 2 hour run
By the time you reach a 6 hour run on Saturday you’ll be at about the 60% distance (30-31 miles or so) that is long enough for you to be ready for the Ultra.
It’s important to rest. If a weekend comes and you feel totally destroyed, drop down to consecutive 1-hour runs, do a really slow long run or even take a day off. Recovery is crucial and risking injury can sideline you from your goal.
You’re also allowed to use the run-walk strategy during training. It’s likely the first month that 1.5 hour runs on consecutive days will be very hard for you, especially through the mountains or hills. In that case you jog (slowly) flats and walk anything uphill. OR, you jog until you feel tired, then walk until you feel better. Just keep repeating the jog-walk-run strategy as you progress.
And don’t beat yourself up. The goal is to finish, not to break a record. There are no additional points for suffering.
Put it all together and you get short, fast runs during the week building your power and then long-slow runs on weekends building your endurance and teaching you what your body needs and when it needs it.
You will start “feeling” your muscles craving food and electrolytes and you will see what the effect is of various caloric intakes.
Most importantly, listen to your body. My guide is just a reference. If you’re cramping more than you should, bonking or feeling tight in your legs: increase electrolytes and carbs during your run. If you’re feeling bloated or salty, reduce electrolytes or food. Tweak slowly and look for the response.
Don’t run through injuries and remember why you’re running. It should be fun, not torture (sometimes torture is fun, but be smart).
This plan will get you ready for your first 50-mile ultra marathon and it works for other endurance events too.
Let me know how this works for you and if you have any “tweaks” I’d love to hear about them.
Oh 1 more thing: use sunscreen always, wear a hat with a bill to protect your face, get some arm warmer sleeves that peel away, invest in a good thin running shell and always have a great playlist – those runs can get boring after a couple hours. Email me or add a comment below if you want my gear suggestions.
That’s it. Have fun. Go run. Stay healthy.