Ultrarunning: Training for Ultras through Marathons

July 25, 2011

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Training for Ultras through Marathons”, please leave it below in the comments section…

There are those who would argue that training for ultras through marathons may offer little advantage since marathons are shorter and are usually run at a hard pace. But just because you’re going to run a significantly longer distance, that doesn’t mean you can’t work on your speed as well. Ultras such as 50 milers and 100k races can be run competitively and there are those who actually aim for a better personal record in such events.

There are many ways to build speed and work out a pacing plan for an ultra. Training through marathons is one of them. This can be a viable approach just as long as it is balanced with endurance building. That means marathons as a training tool are not a replacement for long runs. It is in fact recommended by most experienced ultrarunners that this approach be used only after an adequate mileage base has been achieved after months of personal distance training.

Pace work

In an ultra, the runner naturally has to learn how to take it slow initially. The point is to conserve strength and have enough reserves to cross the finish line. The slower pace is usually one of the aspects that beginners to ultra races find a little difficult to adapt to.

You can use marathons therefore as a way to set the proper pacing. It will be slower than your average marathon pace but it can still be fast enough to let you finish the ultra in good time. Of course how much adjustment you need to do depends on your physical condition, goals, and the distance of the ultra you’re gunning for. One suggestion is to find the mid-point between your marathon pace and the expected rate you need to maintain to accomplish the ultra within your time goal. Sometimes this may mean just shaving off around 30 to 40 seconds per mile from your marathon pace.

Other benefits

One of the key factors to finishing an ultra is having the right equipment and planning out the right food and fluids to take along. This factor increases in significance as the distance gets longer. In a 100-miler for example, having the right fuel system can sometimes spell out the crucial difference between success and DNF.

Needless to say if the targeted ultra is on a trail, then you should do some personal training on similar terrain. But you can still squeeze out some simulation benefits from the marathons you’re going to run prior to the ultra. You can use them as a platform to test your equipment, fuel system, and pre-race routine.

Proper spacing

Every marathon you’re going to join, even though you’re only using them as a training tool, is going to require a taper before the event and a recovery period after. Thus you need to properly schedule the marathons you’re going to run before the main ultra event.

Assuming you’re in good physical condition, spacing out these training marathons at three weeks apart would be sufficient. You can also leave a three-week allowance between the last one and the main ultra event. Ultrarunners who have regularly been using this training approach would usually reduce their mileage a week before and after the marathons by around half. They also typically schedule their last training long run two weeks before the marathons.


Do you have questions about training for ultras through marathons, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.