8 Training Tips for Running Your First Ultramarathon

Photo: Courtesy Alex Pashley/Smartwool

Professional ultrarunner Darcy Piceu dishes advice on going long with your training and racing.

Ultrarunning—considered running any distance farther than a 26.2-mile marathon—is a daunting task. Knowing what it takes to complete an ultra-length race can help put such a lofty-seeming goal within reasonable reach. Darcy Piceu certainly knows. The three-time winner of the storied Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run (with another three victories to her name at the prestigious Wasatch Front 100-mile Endurance Run), is an overall master of going long, with the sponsorships to prove it (Hoka, SmartWool, Honey Stinger). Benefit from her best advice on training and racing: Follow the key steps that she’s outlined below for ultrarunning success, whether that’s entering an ultra race, or simply getting a step over 26.2.

1. Target quality over quantity.

This might come as a surprise—and a relief—to anyone dreading the amount of time you might think you have to spend training: “You don’t necessarily have to log huge miles in order to run an ultra,” says Piceu. “You can get away with more quality runs as opposed to a lot of quantity—more moderate efforts as opposed to going out for long, slogging miles. It’s still important to have a few of those in your training block—long training runs on weekends—but you don’t have to log really long runs during the week.” Piceu is also a fan of varying workouts between running and other sports, like cycling, strength training, or skiing.  

2. Sleep is your best recovery tool.

“Sleep is super underrated and should be at the top of your list for recovery,” says Piceu. There’s no magic number of hours to prescribe for everyone, but make sure you feel rested, especially as you up your training.

3. Eat early and often.

During races and long training runs, it’s important to eat early and often, says Piceu. She adds that an increasing number of ultrarunners are using liquid nutrition (mixing powders with water to ingest liquids for calories), but suggests starting off a long run or race by eating real foods. “I like to build up a storage of good fuel from real food,” she explains. “That said, nutrition is so personal—everyone is so different, so try different things to see what works for you."

Photo: Courtesy Darcy Piceu

4. Train all things.

Just as you’re training your lungs and muscles to be prepared, you should also train with whatever nutrition you intend to eat on course, wear whatever apparel you intend to race in, and train with whatever gear (like sunglasses or headlamps) you intend to use on course. Don’t save experimentation for race day.

5. Be an optimist.

“You can hit rock bottom and still pull out of it in an ultra,” says Piceu, who’s bounced back from low points during races to finish well…even win. Don’t let those low points—of which there might be several—overtake you. “Running an ultra can be a roller coaster of feelings,” she says. “Know that you will have lows, but don’t allow them to cause you to drop. Instead, try to problem-solve and take care of whatever needs attention in that moment.” She explains how sometimes, that simply means slowing down your pace, and focusing on eating and drinking. “Eventually, hopefully, you pull out of that low point.” Stay the course and you’ll get to the highs.

6. Partner up.

Having training partners helps immensely with motivation, says Piceu. “Training, especially with work and family, often means waking up early to run,” she notes. “Having someone to meet up with can be very motivating and does wonders in keeping you accountable.”

7. Take care of yourself.

Ultrarunning takes a toll on the body. Don't overlook the most vital part of training: being able to show up to a race healthy. To ensure a safe starting-line arrival, Piceu imparts the importance of having a self-care routine. “Have a regular massage planned, or have a physical therapist you trust at the ready,” she says. It’s really important to check in on your body regularly and address any weaknesses or imbalances of any sort.”

8. Build up your distance.

This may be obvious, but avoid entering a 100-mile race without gradually building up to the distance. Start with a 50K (which is 31 miles). Then try a 50-miler, then a 100K, then 100-mile race, she explains, noting how gradually increasing distances throughout a calendar year can work well. “I like to race myself into shape,” says Piceu, who races the shorter distances when she’s training for a 100-miler. “Racing for long-run training is great because of the built-in aid stations.

“Plus,” she adds, “races are fun!”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.