Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Your race strategy for successfully running an Ultra Marathon

For any running race you can’t just turn up and expect to run a personal best. It is important to have a plan or strategy. It is likely that you will record a DNF (Did Not Finish) in an ultramarathon if you do not plan for what lays ahead.

The trouble with an ultramarathon is that you will be out there for a long time and it is almost impossible to predict what will happen during the course of the race. It is also highly likely that you will have to deal with the unexpected, as a lot can go wrong when you’re out running for 12 hours or more.

So how should you plan your race?
It's all in the planning

First of all you need to have a clearly defined goal (or goal) for your race. For an ultra the primary goal for all runners should be to finish. Anton Krupicka, an elite ultrarunner has said that “To finish a 100 mile race on a good day is bloody difficult, on a bad day it’s next to impossible”, which goes to show that even the best in the game don’t take finishing lightly.

If you have more specific goals they need to have flexibility given the number of factors out of your control that can affect your progress.

With your goal clearly defined you will then need to establish how you are going to achieve that, and what variables you are going to have to consider during the race. Primarily these will be associated the weather and the terrain. Secondary effects are going to include such things as dehydration, nutritional stress, cold/heat issues, gear malfunction, navigational problems, and the like.

You can then prepare options to deal with these variables to keep you on target to achieve your goals. However to be able to do this you will also need to have the presence of mind to know what the cause of the problem is, to remain calm, and to adopt the best adjustment to your strategy. Often the cause of the dreaded DNF is the runner not noticing the early signs of a potential problem and not changing their plans before they become fatal to the goal.

Keeping this mental presence of mind is one of the hardest things to maintain throughout an ultramarathon, as it requires long periods of concentration. To help with this you can prime your support crew with questions to ask or reminders to help re-establish your focus at checkpoints.  If you are without a support crew, you can put notes inside drop bags, or write notes on your hands. It is important to have some means of refocusing on the task when you will most likely be feeling tired and distracted by the trials associated with running for 12 hours or more.

This is one of the benefits of staying with other runners during the race as you can act as a reminder for each other. This also helps with concentration as you are more likely to keep things in mind if you have a responsibility to someone else.

So when it comes to having a strategy for your race, it is all about being physically prepared for the expected, and mentally prepared for the unexpected.

Happy Running,

“A lack of planning is the most common reason we fall short of our dreams and goals”
“Failing to plan is planning to fail”


  1. Hey Andy. Love your story (injured, learned about physiology, biomechanics and psychology, now running ultras). I am where you were... injured and learning about proper posture and running form, etc. Currently studying the ChiRunning method. If you have any tips, please let me know!

  2. Great post and great advice! Thanks!

  3. Thanks Guys,
    Good running form is a tricky one, and as everything else to do with this sport, there is a lot of trial and error.

    My main focus is on strength in core, glutes and hips, and then on running with an upright posture and mid/forefoot strike. That works for me and isn't too much to concentrate on. When that becomes second nature I'll look at fine tuning it. I think the trick is in keeping form in the forefront of your mind whilst training, especially when you are tired.

    Let me know how you get on with your efforts, and I'll keep posting anything that I benefit from.


  4. I'm a natural mid/forefoot striker so that helps a lot. I do need shoes with good forefoot support for the long distances though. I do core and upper body exercises 3 times a week. It helps a lot for ultras.

    Next year I aim for 3500km (2175 miles).

    Have a great week!

  5. That's right Johann, there's more to Ultras than just running lots of KMs. For me it's the hardest part of the training as I'd rather be out on the trails, but it pays off when you 80kms into a race.

    Looking forward to your progress in 2011.

    Happy running!

  6. On post-UTMB conferences, some people spoke about running above 70% of max. hearth rate and then, finished on the first 1/3 of finishers...

    although foods, mental and physical and climate conditions are importants facts to take into account, the runner have not to presumptuous on his level.

    Do you agree ?

  7. Hi Doune
    I think that it shows that your body can sustain more physical stress than you think, and that those people who pushed themselves out of their comfort zone achieved a better result. This then suggests that it is your mental preparation rather than your physical ability that dictates your result, which I have written about before here.

    That said, I've not been up there with those guys who are actually out to win races, for me it's always been about finishing, and hopefully finishing strong.