By Neil L. Cook, BS, MS, Med
Just about anyone can finish a marathon. Finishing an ultra-marathon isn't as certain. Besides the planning, training and commitment, you must be physically and mentally strong enough to complete both the training and the race itself. You'll also need to adapt to the concept of taking in nutrition while training and during the race. Simple energy gels and electrolyte replacement drinks won't cut it when you're running for 5-24 or more hours.
Before you begin training for an ultra, you need to have at least 3 consistent years of running experience. You should also have completed at least 3 marathons. Your marathon finishing times aren't important.
Next, select a race and set a personal goal. Your goal may be just finishing the distance, completing the distance within a certain time, or racing to finish in the top ten. Unless you're a very experienced marathoner, your goal should be just to finish.
Give yourself about a year to prepare. If you've been running marathons regularly, you can prepare in less time - say 6 months. But it's always better to allow more time. You never know when an ankle will sprain, work will be calling, or your family needs a little extra attention. These are normal training disruptions that people usually don't factor into their training. Generally, training for an ultra-marathon is similar to marathon training; however, both your long run and total weekly mileage increase.
There are 5 physiological phases to training: Base Building, Strength Building, Speed Building, Taper/Race And Recovery. From your race date, work backwards to allow 2-3 weeks to taper prior to your race. Speed Building is 6-8 weeks. But, if you're attempting your first ultra, or you're doing an ultra just to finish and not for time or place, this phase can be eliminated - adding half the time to the Base Building and half to the Strength Building phases. The Strength Building phase is 8 weeks. Make the Base Building phase as long as possible.