An Ultramarathon Is Beyond Grueling, But Science and Tech Can Help Train

Ultramarathoners compete at Sahara race 2011. (Image via wikipedia)

What is an ultramarathon?

An ultramarathon is a sporting event that is longer than the traditional marathon distance of 26.219 miles. This is a grueling event, as are most endurance sports. I ran a lot while in the Army and I’ve trained and competed in triathlons, but even they fail in comparison to an ultramarathon.

There are two types of ultramarathon events: one that covers a specified distance and one that takes place during a specified time. The distance varies and could go up to 100 miles. There are a number of other marathon events, including events that can last a whole day or multiple days, and that can cover distances up to 1000 miles.

Running long distances is something humans have evolved to do, according to a study in 2007 by Harvard Biologist, Daniel E. Lieberman, and Biologist, Dennis M. Bramble, at the University of Utah. They suggest endurance running played a part in our evolution. One part of the study explains that most mammals can run faster than humans, due to their four legs. However, when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal. They suggest on a hot day, humans could even outrun a horse in a 26.2 miles marathon. This is based on humans staying cool at distances and speeds that would overheat other animals.

Nov 2, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Meb Keflezighi  (5) reacts as he crosses the finish line of the 2014 TCS New York City Marathon. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 2, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Meb Keflezighi (5) reacts as he crosses the finish line of the 2014 TCS New York City Marathon. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of the extreme distances in these types of races, significant and specific training is required. Let’s discuss.

You, obviously, have to start slow and work your way up to an ultramarathon. If you’ve never ran before, this is not an event you can just roll out of bed and do. This will take weeks and even months of training to be able to participate in any of these events. Hines Ward, a former NFL star, spent a year training to do his first triathlon, an ultramarathon is even harder.

To begin, you want to start off with short runs or walks. You also want to begin to get a good stretching routine going. The first item you need to buy is a comfortable running shoe. You can get a running shoe from any sneaker store, however, Fit2Run, is a sneaker store that custom fits a shoe for you. The cost is very affordable; and the shoes are very comfortable, making a big difference when running.

Once you’ve done a week or two of walk or runs, it’s time to up the distance and pace a bit. You’ll want to start off at a mile or doing what you are comfortable with. Eventually, you want to work your way to 5K’s. Many runners are reliant on their smartphones to help get them in their best running zone. Not only can you listen to music, but you can also use the wide variety of running apps, such as Runkeeper, Runtastic, Nike + Running, and Run with Map my run, among many others. You’ll want to try out a variety of these apps to see which one best suits you.

They all track your distance and heart rate; and some have a social aspect to it, where you can compete with friends. You’ll want to average around a seven or eight minute mile, that takes time. A DARPA-funded project at Arizona State University is testing a jetpack that will allow soldiers to run a four minute mile. That same technology could eventually come to regular runners.

As you begin to run farther, your technology needs will change.

Carrying your smartphone or a similar device will begin to get in the way, and perhaps slow you down. You’ll want to look at wearables, such as Fitbit and Jawbone Up. They can track the amount of steps you take, your distance, your heart rate, and even sleeping patterns. The cost and design options vary, but they usually range between $50-$200.

At this time, if not sooner, you’ll also want to invest in some proper running gear. Basketball shorts and loose shirts won’t work. You want your clothes to be properly fitted and not in the way. As your distance picks up, you’ll want to work on your breathing and running style. Some runners have long strides, some have short. You have to find what works best for you; and using a service, like profileMyRun, to map your strides and receive feedback on your form could work wonders.

For those who do not want to wear anything on their wrist or carry any additional accessories, Hexoskin may be the answer.

Hexoskin, based out of San Francisco, creates wearable body metrics. They have a variety of gear that you can choose from based on weather and cost start at $399. What you get is a shirt with several sensors woven in to measure heart rate, breathing, steps, pace, and calories. It can also track your sleeping; and you are able to view this data from their mobile app on Android and iOS.

After you’ve done your first 5k, and if you feel you are ready for your next challenge, the next event you can do is a 10k or a triathlon. This will require more than running, as you’ll have to swim and ride a bike as well, but this will be a good test for you. From there, you can go to a half marathon, to a full marathon, and, eventually, up to the ultramarathon. There are also Tough Mudders, color run’s and Warrior Dash events that are extremely popular among endurance athletes. As you start to do longer distances and train harder, you’ll want to train with a club if possible.

There are a number of local running clubs or triathlon clubs in most cities. You can get coaching from experts and compete with other runners. You’ll also want to move up to a more advanced wearable, such as a Garmin watch. These can range from $250-$500. What you get for the price is more advanced features than what you’ll find in a Fitbit or similar wearables. With the Garmin watch, it’s like having a coach on your wrist. They come with built-in GPS, they are waterproof, it will track your distance and pace, and you can also set up alerts to be notified at a predetermined time or distance.

To make it through an ultramarathon, you’ll have to be mentally tough as as well physically tough. It requires a lot of time training, which means either very early mornings, like 4 A.M. or 5 A.M., or running after work. There is a lot of wear and tear on your knees. You’ll have to stretch often. You also need to learn how to hydrate yourself properly while running. Some runners carry just one water bottle, others have strap around their waste that carries two bottles. Since you will be running for hours, and in some cases days, you’ll have to provide your body with proper nutrition.

Most runners eat energy gels. They start eating them about 45 minutes into a run. Energy gels, by Powerade and others, will wake you up and energize you. They also replenish the glycogen and calories you’re burning when running hard.

After being in a triathlon, I have all the respect in the world for runners. It is not a sport that is for everybody. It takes dedication and determination to make it. This is a sport you can train anywhere and compete anywhere in the world. If you are disciplined and committed, this could be the sport for you.