How to Run an Ultra Marathon If You’ve Never Attempted One Before

Normal people run ultra marathons, a distance defined as anything over a marathon (26.2 miles). The degree of ultrarunning madness, however, can span 100-mile races through the desert where your shoes literally melt off your feet to multi-day trail races through Europe, and 24-hour obstacle courses. There are dozens of fun, bizarre ultra-races to satisfy any looney brave enough to try them.

kris mendoza runner portrait
Courtesy Kris Mendoza

Increasingly, that’s people like you and me. The rise of ultrarunning has proven more people are game to test the limits of the human body and mind.

Our question: How do you run an ultra marathon without killing yourself?

For answers, we asked Kris Mendoza, an ultra runner and Merrell Ambassador (whos a dentist anesthesiologist by day).

Mendoza says the biggest dangers are:

  • Dehydration, which can lead to serious problems like heat stroke.
  • Improper hydration (hypo/hypernatremia) which is an electrolyte imbalance that is basically caused by too much or too little salt/electrolytes consumed during the race.
  • Rhabdomyolysis due to excessive muscle breakdown which leaks into the bloodstream, which can lead to other serious problems like kidney failure.
  • Taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen, which can decrease kidney function and exacerbate problems like rhabdomyolysis or possibly decrease your kidney’s ability to filter and concentrate waste.

How to Run an Ultra, According to Kris Mendoza

Start Your Training

Give yourself at least six months to train for your first ultra. It is important to give yourself enough time to ramp up miles slowly. A lot of people try to rush into too many miles too fast and don’t make it to the starting line healthy, or don’t make it at all! No matter what, you will be tired at the end of a race.

Get Friendly with Your Hydration Pack

Get comfortable carrying gear and hydration packs while you run. It will feel weird at first. There are many quality brands out there, but I typically use Ultimate Direction hydration packs. I really like there Jurek FKT Vest or the new Halo Vest!

Learn to Eat and Drink While Running

Consistency is key. Running a little bit every day is better than doing two long runs a week. Slowly increase the number of miles per week to avoid injuries from overtraining. Practice running on tired legs by doing back-to-back long runs. This will help simulate what it is like to run later in a race. Learn to eat and drink while running. Most people do not like to eat and drink during a race, but during an ultramarathon, you need to train your stomach to consume calories while running.

kris mendoza runner
Courtesy Kris Mendoza

Don’t Eat Healthy During a Race

Practice your nutrition before race day. Race day is not the time to experiment with new foods or fueling. I prefer gels like GU Energy and liquid calories in the early part of the race. As the race goes on, I start to eat more solid foods like baked goods and candy bars. It’s important to have something to look forward to eating later on in the race for a mental boost. Remember the race is not the time to eat “healthy.” Try to consume easy-to-digest calories.

Get in a Happy Headspace

Focus on the process of training and try to enjoy every opportunity to train.  If you do not enjoy the training, then why run at all? The race itself should be viewed as a celebration of all of the hard work. Pro tip: Read the book Happy Runner by Megan and David Roche for some good insight into running mentality!

Know When to Stop

Ask yourself if continuing on will cause permanent damage. Sometimes it is hard to tell during the middle of the race since every racer has low points where everything hurts. If you have an acute injury (like a broken bone), then it may be best to stop. It is important to know why you are running the race. This will help pull you out of the low points during the race

Feel High Crossing the Finishing Line

The first emotion is often a huge sense of accomplishment. We often don’t think we can finish an ultramarathon until we cross the finish line. Breaking free from our preconceived notions is an awesome feeling. The next thought is, typically, “I’m never doing that again!” But once the soreness subsides, it is easy to find your way back for another race.

Within 24 hours of finishing an ultra, you need to:

  • Eat a lot of food with a good mix of protein, carbs, and fat.
  • Do not just sit down. Try to move around, stretch, and gently roll out. Staying still for long periods of time will lead to a lot of stiffness and soreness.
  • Celebrate. Enjoy your accomplishment.

Best Ultras for Beginners

Start with a 50km race without too much elevation gain and loss. Sometimes, people who are used to running on the road see a 50km race and don’t think it is much different than a marathon, however, elevation gain will make a huge difference in race difficulty. Choose a race in a location that inspires you. It is so much easier to finish a race when you are in a beautiful place to look around in when the race is beating you up!

Outdoors

How to Fend Off Hiker Hunger When You’re on the Trail

Because you deserve more than just beef jerky and a half-melted Snickers bar on the trail.
Outdoors

How to Build an Apocalypse-Worthy Bug-Out Bag

Outrunning the zombies is only part of the equation. You still need the right gear to survive.
Travel

A List of Road Trip Essentials You Should Never Journey Without

In travel as in life, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.
Travel

The View of an American Road Trip from the Back of a Motorcycle

One day while heading to my favorite peak, an idea formed: "What if I could tour the Rocky Mountains of the West on the motorcycle of my dreams?"
Culture

How to Netflix and Chill: Mastering the Invite, Finding the Best Shows, and More

Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “I always feel that a man and a woman who do not like the same films, will eventually divorce.” Applying his principle, Netflix and Chill becomes a logical means of getting to know someone.
Living

Calling All Game of Thrones Fans: This Print is the Ultimate GoT Artwork for Your Walls

No matter where you hang this piece of art, it's sure to be a conversation starter. 
Grooming

What is Biohacking? An Interview with Biohacker and Podcaster Luke Storey

If you’re into technology toys, biohacking offers a plethora of gadgets to geek out about.
Culture

Ghosting, Orbiting, Breadcrumbing, and Other Modern Relationship Terms Explained

This glossary of modern relationship terms may will help define certain behaviors, such as why a romantic interest leaves you on "read" or an ex keeps liking your photos.
Grooming

6 Natural Topical Pain Relief Products to Treat Your Aching Muscles

What’s the point in getting rid of the pain if you’re damaging your vital organs in the process?
Culture

The Grown-Up’s Guide to Everyday Carry Essentials for Cannabis

Unless you’re trying to make a lifestyle shift (and we’re guessing you’re not), you shouldn’t spend more on your smoking accessories than you do on the stuff you smoke.
Food & Drink

Pre-Workout Meals that Make the Most of Your Hard Work

While specific meals aren't critical for moderate exercise, if you're going for a long run, hitting the weights hard, doing intense interval training, or you're about to play a competitive sport, then pre-exercise foods matter a lot.
Culture

15 Coffee Table Books Every Man Should Consider for His Home

Don't have any coffee table books on your current coffee table? Let us help fix that lack of literature.
Culture

7 Fantastic Beach Reads for Your Next Vacation

From a harrowing tale of survival at sea to a classic by Steinbeck, we've got all the best beach reads in one place.
Culture

Build and Tone Your Muscles with the 10 Best Arm Workouts for Men

Start handing out your own tickets to the gun show with the best arm exercises for men