Beginner's Guide to Ultra-Running

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Beginner's Guide to Ultra-Running

If you’re keen to break into the world of ultra-running then this guide will take you through what you need to know. Obviously the advice that you need depends on where you have come from and where you aim to go on your running journey. The assumption here is that you are already a runner who has competed in events of up to 26.2miles and that you want to step up to ultra events of up to 100 miles. If this is the case for you then you'll come across a few major differences.

Terrain

Ultra events are almost always run off-road on trails and this, at least partly, stems from logistics of organising long running events on the road. Of course running in the wilderness comes with logistical and safety challenges of its own but when you run off-road you can at least expect it to be mostly traffic free. Ultra-running is increasing in popularity but the number of people with the appetite to run very long distances is still much smaller than the number keen to do a race of up to 26.2 miles so ultra marathons fields would not usually warrant the expense and disruption of road closures. Anyway the fact that you get to explore many diverse and extreme environments is one of the many brilliant things about ultra-running.

Kit

If you are running further and in a more extreme environment then this affects your kit selection considerably. The choices you make for your clothing and shoes should be different for reasons of safety as well as performance and additional pieces of kit are necessary. A good place to start is with a compulsory kit list, these are given to competitors in advance of events and lay down the items which they must carry around the whole course. Failure to do so can usually result in disqualification. The items on them are necessary for the safety of competitors and prevent people trying to get away with carrying nothing in order to give them an unfair advantage. It is as important, if not more important, to take these items on training runs in similar environments where it might be more difficult to get help if needed. Of course if you have to carry certain items of kit it is best to minimise their weight as long as they still serve their purpose effectively. The list of items below is based on the compulsory kit list for the Likey's Beacons Ultra which is a 47 mile event in the Brecon beacons in November and so it represents the equipment needed for typical British conditions.

Bag

This is quite simply a means of carrying all of the kit necessary for the event including clothing, food, drink and safety kit. A running specific rucksack is necessary as it will not move around as you run in the way that a non-specific rucksack would do. It should also, if packed correctly, prevent the contents from moving around inside. Manufacturers have come up with a variety of methods of solving the problem. In the past few years vest-style packs from brands such as Ultimate Direction  have become more popular which fit snuggly around the body with plenty of storage on the front including pockets for 1 or 2 drinks bottles. These have a few advantages over more traditional designs, they minimise movement, allow easy access to some of the items you are carrying (without having to remove the bag) and they are well balanced as the weight is carried on both the front and back. The limitation of these is their capacity and so above a certain load a more traditional rucksack would be recommended.

Hydration System

Drinks are usually provided at checkpoints and where they are competitors are usually required to have the capacity to carry enough fluids to get them between checkpoints where they can fill up. In the case of the Beacons Ultra 500ml capacity is compulsory. In other events where there are fewer or no drinks at checkpoints then more fluids will have to be carried. The original method would have been to carry a bottle or bottles in your rucksack but this means taking off your rucksack and rummaging around amongst your other kit to find your bottle when you want a drink. The invention of hydration bladder systems largely solved these problems and made having a drink on the route much less of a time consuming hassle. Examples of brands that make these are Camelbak and Salomon. Lots of runners have gone back to drinks bottles as these can be carried on the front of a vest-style pack, this allows easy access to fluids and allows the weight of the fluid to be balanced by the weight of the kit in the storage at the back of the pack.

Waterproof Jacket and Trousers

Staying dry in wet weather helps to prevent too much heat loss but while you run your body will produce heat and if you get too hot and sweaty then this sweat needs to be able to escape. This is why breathability is an important factor to consider. The most well-known waterproof and breathable material is Gore-Tex but there are others such as Event and those produced by the clothing brands themselves.

Hat

As most people know a large proportion of the heat produced by the body is lost through the head and this is often one of the few parts of the body which is exposed to the elements. Putting a hat on can vastly improve your ability to stay warm when running.

Gloves

The extremities can get extremely cold if they're not protected from the elements partly because the body will tend to constrict the blood vessels in them to maintain the temperature of the core. A pair of gloves can keep you warmer and make you much more comfortable  in normal british weather but in extreme environments such as the arctic they become absolutely necessary to prevents frost nip or frost bite.

Fleece (or similar warm upper body layer)

This is also known as a mid-layer and it is the layer which provides the most insulation. This is one layer which might be taken on and off during an event depending on changes in the environment and weather as well as the pace you're moving at or effort you're needing to put in.

Survival/Space Blanket

These lightweight foil/plastic blankets are very useful if you have to stop unexpectedly in cold conditions. There are used in emergencies or when a competitor has to stop due to an injury and help to slow heat loss.

Running Shoes

These need to be suitable for the range of surfaces you will encounter on the route you are running this can include wet mud, hard and dry tracks, wet and dry rock, tarmac, stones, grass etc. Ultra running shoes tend to a decent amount of cushioning but not as much as a road shoe. The cushioning is needed more due to the prolonged period you will be on your feet rather than the surface you are running on. They tend to have moderately aggressive cleats to give you grip on mud and grass when you need it but also allowing comfortable running on harder surfaces. They are often made to drain well as you will often find that you are plunging your feet into puddles, streams or even rivers on the trail. Some of the best brands for this type of shoe are Inov-8 and Salomon.

Basic first aid kit

A few first aid essentials are usually on the compulsory kit list so that you can help yourself or someone else on the trail if they are having minor health issues or have an injury. This can help to prevent a minor problem becoming a major one later on that day or on a subsequent day if you are doing a multi-day event. An example would be putting a bit of antiseptic on a cut or broken blister to prevent infection.

Head torch

Ultra events often continue into the night or sometimes even start at night and away from street lighting it is usually necessary to use a head torch (except when there is strong moonlight). Even where events take place only during the day it is often a good idea to take a head torch in case you get lost and don't make it back to civilisation before sunset. Head torches are usually LED these days which can be ultra bright but with long battery lives and low weights. Petzl and Silva probably make the best LED head torches available for runners.

Spare batteries

Rechargeable battery packs are good as they give the best burn time but some torches are  also compatible with AA or AAA batteries allowing you to take spare batteries in case the battery pack runs flat during the event.

Map & Compass

Most ultra events are well signed allowing competitors to continue to make progress without the need to stop to navigate the route. However some are not and in these events a map and compass are essential even if you have a GPS device as these can fail or run out of power. Even on a well-marked route a map and compass should be in your bag in case you need it to navigate back to the course.

Whistle

A safety item, used to attract attention if you or someone with you has a problem which needs attention.

Watch

It is important to keep an eye on the time so that you are aware of where you are in relation to cut off times and to avoid being caught out by nightfall. Running specific watches can also provide the benefit of GPS tracking so that you know how far you have gone and how fast, your altitude, your heart rate etc. Some also will help you to navigate back to the start or back to the route if you get lost. These running specific watches are made by brands such as Garmin, Suunto and Tomtom.

Food

Stepping up from marathons to ultras can vastly increase the number of calories you need to consume as you run. In shorter events a quick energy boost from something like a gel is about as much as you will take on but in an ultra-marathon more substantial and lower glycaemic index foods can be taken on board. Events go on for much longer so the body has time to digest more substantial foods and give you the benefit of the energy from them. The slower pace also makes it more comfortable to take on more substantial foods. Ultra runners will sometimes use energy gels and bars but will tend to eat more 'normal' foods on the trail and their choice of trail food is a very individual thing. Some of the important things to think about are how easy the food is to eat, its glycaemic index (essentially how quickly the food releases its energy), how well the food sits it your stomach whilst running, the salt content and the protein content. It is usually a good idea to take a good range of different trail foods because you will find that your body will crave, or be able to tolerate, different foods at different stages of the race. Also a range of foods will help to cover more nutritional bases. The list of foods an ultra-runner might take with them is endless but some examples are sweets, crisps, chocolate, sandwiches, dried fruit, nuts and pretzels.

Checkpoints

Checkpoints are set up at regular intervals along the route of ultras and serve quite a few purposes. They allow competitors to restock, refuel, rest and rehydrate and allow the progress of competitors to be recorded so that their whereabouts is known for safety and timing purposes. They provide a point where competitors can make contact with race marshals if there are any problems or they need to retire and leave the course or to make contact with medics in case there are health issues or injuries. Checkpoints are also useful mentally as they break up what can seem like an enormous undertaking into more manageable bitesize chunks.

Navigation

Although, as mentioned above, the route is marked at most ultra events it is a very good idea to be familiar with using a map and compass to navigate because it can be very easy to lose the route if you miss a marker or if one has gone missing or if there is bad weather. At some events the route is unmarked or minimally marked and in these cases navigation skills are absolutely necessary. Navigation training courses are available from various providers including the National Navigation Award Scheme.

Types of Event

This guide has been slightly biased towards short to medium distance ultras taking place on a single day in typical British conditions; however there are now a huge range of events available to the ultra-runner both in the UK and abroad. Be aware as you progress along your ultra-running journey that some of the longer and more extreme events such as the 6633 Arctic Ultra require much more specialist kit.

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  • Evan Davies