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Want to Run Your First Ultramarathon? 5 Expert Tips from Eric Orton

11/6/17 by Matt Wastradowski

Ultramarathons and long-distance races have never been more popular throughout the United States. According to UltraRunning magazine, the longtime authority on the sport, runners took part in 613 50K races in 2016, up from just 167 a decade ago.

With such unprecedented popularity, there’s never been a better time to consider taking the leap and challenging yourself to an ultramarathon—which, by definition, is any race longer than a marathon’s 42 kilometers. But before you tackle such a daunting—but doable—challenge, what are some of the things you should do?

We turned to best-selling author, esteemed running coach, and entrepreneur Eric Orton for his advice on prepping for your first ultramarathon. Based in Jackson Hole, Orton coaches athletes from around the world as part of the Eric Orton Mountain Running Academy (with several running camps in late July and August 2017) and is the author of The Cool Impossible, which helps runners of all skill levels find joy in the sport and improve as athletes. Orton is also the featured coach from the bestselling book Born to Run.

Here, Orton discusses the importance of nutrition, a steady training regimen, and staying aware of your body—even when it feels close to giving out. Follow his five pro tips, and you’ll be on your way to claiming your next hard-earned medal in no time.

1. Run a Marathon First.

Be sure you have at least one marathon under your belt before attempting an ultra.
Be sure you have at least one marathon under your belt before attempting an ultra. Rock/Creek, Mark McKnight

It sounds obvious—why wouldn’t someone run a marathon before taking the next step to a longer distance?—but Orton says that many runners get blinded by ambition and lose sight of the incremental steps necessary for building up to an ultra-distance race.

It’s especially important because, as Orton says, the difference between training for a marathon and working up to an ultramarathon is relatively small—only a few miles per week. "When it’s a 50K distance, your weekend long run doesn’t have to change that much," he says.

In addition, marathon training builds effective running habits, so it won’t feel quite so daunting to add miles and work longer, Orton says. Add a few miles to those weekly long runs, and you should be in good shape on race day.

2. Learn to Run With Food in Your Stomach.

A pre-run meal might be the furthest thing from many athletes’ minds, but Orton recommends fueling up before training. "It’s totally trainable to run with fuel in your stomach," Orton says.

His rationale: You’ll fuel up in the middle of the race, so it’s much easier to get used to that "full" feeling beforehand instead of on race day. That way, your stomach won’t slow you down on the 30th mile. “People aren’t used to running with food and fuel in their stomach; therefore they don’t do it in training,” Orton says. “Training for nutrition is just as important as training for the miles.”

In addition, this step will also help you figure out which types of foods—energy bars, bananas, gels, etc.—work best for you during training.

3. Tackle Hills Whenever Possible.

Be sure to run the hills—both up and down—to get ready for longer distances.
Be sure to run the hills—both up and down—to get ready for longer distances. Rock/Creek, Mark McKnight

For many runners, hills are unpleasant at best—and grueling, painful tests of one’s endurance at worst. Yet that’s no excuse *not *to tackle hills as part of a balanced training regimen while working your way up to an ultra marathon, since many of the routes for these distances take place on trails and hilly terrain.

Orton advises making hills the primary focus of one short run each week as part of a broader strength-training program. Even if you live on relatively flat terrain, Orton advises riding a bike for one to two hours before running, if only to tire your legs out and simulate the exhaustion you’ll feel running uphill.

Be sure to incorporate the downhill stretches, too, since running downhill uses different muscles than running uphill—and can be especially hard on your feet and toes as they push forward into your shoes. And, Orton adds, "sometimes, the downhill runs lead to more fatigue than uphills, so it’s super important to do downhill intervals and practice running well downhill."

4. Try to Mimic Race Day Conditions.

The best way to prepare for race-day conditions is to replicate them whenever possible. As Orton says, "You want a ton of surprises in training, so there’s no surprise on race day."

If you’re an after-work runner, but the race starts at 6 am, get up early once or twice each week to help your body adjust to early-morning runs. If you’re wearing a hydration vest on race day, wear it for training runs to see how it fits and whether it chafes. If you live in a flat city or town but your ultra takes place on a hilly course, replicate the inclines at a gym (see No. 3 above). And, as a rule of thumb for any long-distance event, never try out anything new on race day, whether that’s a new brand of energy bar or that pair of trail running shoes, since you don’t know how your body will react to it.

"The more specific you can be in your training, based on the distance, course, temperatures, and everything involved in that race, the better," Orton says. “When race day comes around, you’ve already experienced everything, and it’s a piece of cake.”

5. Practice Mindfulness on Your Runs.

Race day can be chaotic, but practicing mindfulness can help tame the nerves.
Race day can be chaotic, but practicing mindfulness can help tame the nerves. Rock/Creek, Mark McKnight

Mindfulness has been a buzzword for years among athletes, and for good reason: It allows you to reflect on how you’re feeling, be more present, and more fully appreciate your experiences.

As Orton puts it, that heightened awareness can inform your approach to race day and help you prepare for a grueling course, as well as the nerves of a new experience. "We hear all the time: ‘Stay in the moment’ or ‘Be in the zone,’" Orton says. “That’s all trainable if we’re completely aware of what’s going on.”

Take out the earbuds and ask yourself questions like these: Is your stride consistent? How do your feet strike the ground? How do your body and mind react to the long miles? And focus as much as you can on your senses: the feel of the trail under your feet, the sound of the birds and wind through the trees, the taste of the cold water at the end of your run.

That attention to detail and presence in the moment converts mysterious, seemingly insurmountable challenges into manageable obstacles to reckon with, evaluate, and solve. It also helps create a new feeling of appreciation for all the amazing things that your body can do.

"There’s the awareness that goes into your training of form, technique, heart rate, speed, and strategy, and then there’s the inner part of learning to be with yourself and not needing to be impatient while you’re climbing that hill," Orton says. “Just enjoy it, and be with yourself. That’s what ultramarathoning is all about.”

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.