What is ultra running? And is it for you?

There are people like me who enjoy a gentle jog now and again, and there are a growing number of people like Alecsa…

Alecsa Stewart is an ultra marathon runner. Originally from Romania and having lived in the US, France, the Netherlands and the UK, it was her passion for ultra running that decided her most recent country move.

When she realised she was spending a good part of her life driving to running trails, she took a drastic course. She quit her corporate job in England, sold her house, and moved to the French Pyrenees. Here she shares her love of ultra running and how to get into the ultramarathon mindset.

Whether you’re an advanced runner and want to take it to the next level, or you’re just feeling a bit sluggish and need some inspo to get going, read on…

guide to ultra running

How did you get into ultra running?

I first took a shot at running in university when I did a 5k race and never really pursued it afterwards, preferring gym workouts instead.

However, in 2012, the opportunity came up to do a charity 10k run at work. It was in aid of a charity which mattered to me personally, Macmillan Cancer Support. So, I laced up my trainers and prepared as best I could.

I quickly realised I was not in love with running for speed, but enjoyed the structure of a training plan and the opportunity to explore new places for my longer runs (which at this point, were 3k laps of the local park!).

After I did the 10k, I wondered if I could finish a half-marathon, then a marathon… and so on. I discovered trail running thanks to the wonderful Trail Running Magazine and the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series. So, combine longer distances with off-road training, and that was my interest in running ultras.

How has ultra running changed you?

Ultra running presents lots of challenges. Firstly there is persevering with a gruelling training plan, then there’s dealing with the physical and non-physical hardship in races and long events. The mental fatigue, de-motivation and sleep deprivation can be just as tough as the physical burn.

Being able to overcome these gradually has had a tremendous impact on my confidence, which in turn has made it possible for me to make bolder decisions about everyday life. I’ve found a greater sense of control in life decisions such as switching jobs, homes, countries, and to a freelance role.

I also find that I’m terrible at meditating and slowing down to reflect on life. However, when I’m out on a long run all on my own with my thoughts and nothing but nature’s sounds around me, I take time to breathe and empty my mind, then reflect on everything going on outside of running. It’s a great element that I didn’t know I was missing in my life.

Ultra running has had a tremendous impact on my confidence, which in turn has made it possible for me to make bolder decisions about everyday life.

ultra marathons

What is ultra running? What is considered an ultra runner? How many miles is an ultra marathon?

Basically, any distance above a marathon is an ultra distance. There are lots of events, from 100 km road races, to 24-hour challenges on a running track, to 100-mile mountain runs. The latter are the ones I prefer, where you have to tackle not just the distance, but also nature in all its glory and with all its challenges.

If you run a mile, you’re a runner. So, if you train for ultra running events, even if it’s regular 30-mile races, you’re an ultra runner. People think that, to be an ultra runner, you must be running 100-milers every weekend. That’s not only not the case, it’s actually a bad idea as it can lead to injury and fatigue, and make you fall out of love with running. Instead, ultra runners will progressively increase their weekly running mileage.

What’s great about this sport is that you can do this creatively: cross-training with cycling to add hours to your endurance training, running back-to-back such as two half-marathons in a weekend, or going all out and doing a 10-hour training run one day to test your kit, your nutrition, and your endurance.

Is ultra running bad for you?

Everything in moderation is the answer here!

If you train hard, without taking appropriate time to rest, and you don’t help your body recover with good nutrition, hydration, and complementary activities such as strength training and stretching… then, yes, ultra running can be bad for you.

I find that the human body is capable of so much more than we give it credit for, and you just have to trust the process by following a gradual training plan and giving your body the care it needs to keep moving you along those trails.

running alone woman

But it sounds so tough. Are ultra runners crazy?!  

Haha yes! In a way, we are crazy. I used to get this question all the time back when I worked in a “proper office” and would have those funny Monday-morning chats about our weekend. No one could believe I willingly put myself through five hours of tough running in the Welsh or Scottish mountains. However, it’s all about the end goal of reaching a milestone or finishing a race you have on your wish list.

To be honest, I think about ultra running more in terms of where I want to go and what it will take to get there. For example, I might plan to tick off a number of mountain peaks in one loop, or see if I can make it home from a point on the map before sunset.

Setting challenges like that makes ultra running seem more like a by-product of the activity, a means to an end. The end being to enjoy the outdoors, discover great spots in nature, and challenge myself to see what I can accomplish.

Yes, you do need commitment. But then again, so does any sport, from netball to tennis. You need to practice in order to improve, and as long as you enjoy it, those hours fly by.

When it comes to races and long events where you may be out for 20+ hours, the commitment is different, and an entire mental strategy needs to be employed. This is something I like about ultras: the problem solving aspect. I prepare a list of “what if’s” before a race. I write down all the ways in which things could go wrong and how I’ll cope if that happens. That has come in handy so many times!

Finally, it helps to have a “why” – why are you doing this event? Is it for a charity fundraiser, for a lifelong ambition, for anything else? Everyone has a “why” that drives us; ultra running is no different.

Tell me about your ultra running training. Do you have any tips on how to train for an ultramarathon? 

Training for a race takes anywhere up to 24 weeks during which time you progressively increase your mileage, test out your food and drink options for the day, and do a few dress rehearsals with all the kit you have to have with you on race day.

You need to be 100% comfortable with all the gear you bring with you on the trail, especially as long races require runners to be semi-autonomous, carrying a lot of emergency items and spare food and hydration in between checkpoints, which can be several hours apart.

There will be training blocks, so a few weeks in a row of harder training, followed by an easier week of recovery, and so on. During every week, I plan in one long run which gets longer the closer I get to the race, but never over 8 hours usually. This isn’t only for mental preparation, but also to get my body used to the effort: you’ll be surprised at how sore feet can get after 2-3 hours at the start of a training plan, the same for my lower back or knees. By easing them into longer and more demanding runs, they get used to the extended effort.

Another key part of training involves studying the race profile, i.e. the route characteristics. Will it be very hilly, and if so, how long are the longest climbs and how high do they go? For some mountain races, especially when I lived in a flat area, I would do hill climbing simulations on the treadmill, trying to run the equivalent distance of a race climb at a percentage incline that corresponded to the average ascent for that specific climb. This meant that when I was out suffering on the hills I could think back to envisage myself finishing it on a treadmill.

The other key element is strength and conditioning. The older I get, the more my body aches from running and not looking after it well! So, an important part of ultra training is doing some form of strength exercises at home once a week, and I also make sure I do a yoga for runners class on YouTube or just some stretches once a week as well.

To make sure I am in the best shape and mentally as well as physically prepared for a race, I plan at least one week of “tapering” – i.e. reducing the volume of training and resting up so my body is in shape for the long hours ahead.

marathon training

What is your advice to anyone getting into running, whether it’s ultra running or a gentle jog?

I never found running easy, and I always thought that it would somehow magically become easy once I got to a certain level of fitness. I’d get impatient and annoyed with myself for not being faster, or having more endurance, things like that. One thing I’ve learnt over the years is to enjoy it. Be in the moment, enjoy a run for what it is: some time to yourself, alone, outside, in fresh air.

The other advice I’d give is to have a plan or a structure around your running, even if you’re not training for an ultra. Having a goal, whether it’s finishing a 5k or a trail race, focuses and motivates me. I think that being able to count back from that date and consider how every run is a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal also gives a great feeling of achievement after every session.

Whatever you do, listen to your body and make any changes gradually. Don’t rush and overfill your weeks with lots of miles, only to succumb to injury as a result. Trust the process and take it easy.

Enjoy it. Be in the moment, enjoy a run for what it is: some time to yourself, alone, outside, in fresh air.

What about finding the motivation to run? 

Since lockdown started last year, my commitment to running has been tested over and over! Running has kept me grounded and in better mental health. This is because it gave me something to measure and progress against, and a set of goals.

That would actually be my tip for staying committed: set goals, then sub-goals that help you reach them, and tick them off as you go along. The satisfaction will be amazing!

Finding the time is also a good question. It’s all a matter of perspective: it takes so little to go out for a run, just putting on a pair of trainers and you can be on your way. Yet, we come up with lots of excuses a lot of the time.

I think if you just look at your schedule and can find 30 minutes that you book out for your run, you are more likely to go than if you put it off all day long and eventually decide it’s too late, too dark or too cold to go in the evening.

But don’t be too hard on yourself, either. If life gets in the way of those 30 minutes you had scheduled in, so be it. Reschedule. Don’t make it a pressure source or you’ll end up miserable.

Do you have any advice for staying safe?

Running as a woman, I must admit I’ve been relatively lucky to not come up against safety concerns. Even in more remote places I’ve run, like the lesser walked footpaths in the French Pyrenees where you cross no one, I’ve felt quite secure.

Always have your phone with you. However, don’t rely too much on technology alone, as it can fail when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. If you go out for a very long session, make sure someone knows where you are and your planned route, so they can look for you if you’ve been gone for too long. I also advise carrying a battery pack to charge your phone if you’re out for the whole day. The colder weather can also drain the battery and it’s not worth taking chances.

Finally, opt for bright, reflective clothing. You want to be visible at all times, especially if you’re crossing roads. In my case, I actually cross hunters in the woods in France, so having a bright orange top on is essential!

Any tips for newbie ultra runners? 

As you will be running in the middle of nature you need to be aware of how to deal with changing conditions.

It’s good to be ready for sudden weather changes. You need to be able to read maps and find your way around in sudden bad weather.

Finally it’s important to be mindful of how we impact the environment we run in.

I’m a certified UK Mountain Leader and I have found this training invaluable for making me not only more confident with a map and compass, but also more aware of how my presence impacts the natural environment I travel through.

What is your favourite ultra running gear?  

The very most important item in your running kit bag will always be good shoes. And they’re difficult to find! Especially for long distances, you really need to test your trail running shoes in all conditions and for long runs in order to see how your feet react, so it takes a lot of trial and error. I absolutely love two shoe brands at the moment: Altra Running and Hoka One One.

They’re both traditionally “zero drop” brands i.e. they had completed flat shoes with no height difference between the heel and the toes, but they’ve now expanded into different styles, with a bit of a drop, but also fitting my feet very well and offering some cushioning for the longer distances.

My advice is to invest in shoes because they’ll be the single most important piece of kit that determines if you finish an ultra race. But, do it gradually: try a pair on, make sure you get the sizing right, and then eventually I’d advise buying two or three pairs of the same shoe so you can rotate them and get more wear out of them.

Another important piece of kit for ultra runners is a backpack / running pack. Most races have a long list of mandatory gear that needs to be carried efficiently throughout the race, and you also need to have enough food and water to last in between checkpoints.

I would say that, again, this is fiddly equipment: you need to try a few different packs on to see how they fit your body, how much they’ll bounce or cause you to chafe, how heavy they get when fully loaded etc. I have been a loyal customer of Salomon Running when it comes to running packs and I have to say I have yet to find a better option for long races. Their clever pockets and fastening systems also allow you to carry lots of things distributed throughout your body, so all the weight isn’t focused in one section only.

Running should be a cheap sport, but ultra running does require you to invest in lots of kit: waterproof trousers and jackets, extra layers, good running underwear, socks, trekking poles… the list goes on!

ultra running woman

Any tips on finding a good running shoe? 

Choosing ultra running shoes does follow the same principles as regular running shoes: try them on, do a running test if you can (a lot of shops have a treadmill you can try them on), don’t settle on the first ones you try etc.

I’d say the additional things to consider for ultra running are:

  • Cushioning. You will spend a lot of time in those shoes, and your feet take a beating!
  • Distance. How will they interact with your feet over the distance? Do they allow your foot to move too much in the shoe, which may cause friction and blisters? Do they fit too tightly if your feet swell in the heat?
  • Road or trail. For trail shoes, you’ll have to think of how responsive they are to the terrain. You may want to feel the rocks and roots in the ground for better stability, or perhaps not. How well do they grip in muddy conditions etc?

Finding the right shoes is not an easy task! I also think there’s never just one right shoe. I currently have about six in rotation, with varying levels of drop and cushioning, for the different types of training sessions I do.

ultra running tips

Ten tips for getting into ultrarunning:

  1. Progressively increase your weekly running mileage. Don’t overdo it when you’re starting out. It’s all about pacing towards a gradual progression.
  2. Prepare your gear. You need to be 100% comfortable with all the gear you bring with you on any long distance trail.
  3. Train creatively. Consider cross-training with cycling, running back-to-back such as two half-marathons in a weekend, or going all out and doing a 10-hour training run one day to test your kit, your nutrition, and your endurance.
  4. Take appropriate time to rest. Help your body recover with good nutrition, hydration, and stretching.
  5. Invest in shoes. They’ll be the single most important piece of kit that determines if you finish an ultra race.
  6. Be aware of how to deal with local changing weather conditions.
  7. Be mindful of the environment you run in. Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints!
  8. Always have your phone with you. Wear reflective, bright clothing.
  9. Schedule in training runs. Book out time for your run, this way you will be are more likely to go than if you put it off all day long and eventually decide it’s too late, too dark or too cold to go in the evening. But don’t be too hard on yourself, either. If life gets in the way, so be it. Reschedule.
  10. Stay committed. Set goals, then sub-goals that help you reach them, and tick them off as you go along. The satisfaction will be amazing!

For more on ultra running, follow Alecsa at alecsastewart.com

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