How to up your game and go Ultra!

  1. Trail Tips
  2. How to up your game...

Want run up your trail mileage? Dream of running an ultramarathon? Ultra-runner extraordinaire, inov-8 ambassador, coach and author Damian Hall shares his thoughts on scaling up to an ultra running event (anything over 26.2 marathon distance).


Okay, maybe not easy exactly. But don't be put off by the big mileage numbers. They're definitely easier than they sound. Firstly, no one's really interested in your time, they'll just be impressed you covered the distance. So there's far less pressure and rush than in a road race, which makes it much more relaxing and enjoyable. And you usually have loads of time to complete a course. The Lakeland Trails 55k for example, allows you up to 12 hours to cover the spectacular route. That's 4.6kmph. Most people can walk 4kmph, so it's perfectly achievable for relatively active people.


Okay, you might not agree after your first 100 miler. But a 30-mile ultramarathon on undulating, often soft terrain at a gentle pace won't batter your body – especially your ankle, knee and hip joints – in the same relentlessly repetitive way as 26.2 miles on brutal, flat asphalt will – the surface that's harshest on your body. Varied terrain gives your body micro-rests, recruiting different muscles at different times, so others get a break. Hills are your friends, not your enemies.


Many studies show how undeniably good for us nature is and exercising in natural surroundings feeds our biophilia effect – our innate desire to be connected to nature and its ability to lift our mood. Talking of the mental side of things, completing an ultramarathon is much more about your levels of determination than the size of your muscles or even how much training you've done.


There's a myth that ultra runners are all banging out 100 miles a week in training. As a UKA coach, I've seen many runners do incredible things on 50-70 miles a week, but on much much less mileage too. I've known people complete 100 milers on an average of 15 miles per week. Most ultra runners train much as they would for a marathon, but make the long run a little longer, and perhaps run some back-to-back long runs (a longer run, followed by another the next day), but only sometimes. Training is important and the better you train, the less you have to rely on mental fortitude. But perhaps you'd be surprised by some of the body shapes you might see on the average ultramarathon start line...


Talking of which, ultras are “eating and drinking contests with a little exercise and scenery thrown in", according to Christopher McDougall in Born To Run. Your body will need plenty of fuel, so you can stuff your cakehole all day long. Expect cake, flapjacks, crisps, sweets, soup, pasta, pizza, pies, fruit, sandwiches (hungry yet?), teas, coffees, sometimes even beer. Many of us secretly do ultras mainly for the magnificent aid stations.


Talking of secrets, most ultra 'runners' walk. A load. Most uphills are hiked to preserve leg muscles. Plus it can all get a bit tiring, so after six hours of running, a walking break is not only understandable but advisable. As you'll be up in the hills somewhere, there's no crowd to mock you and it can be a smart strategy anyway. If you're keen, efficient power-hiking is an under-rated skill. But you could just take it easy instead; you need to let that pizza go down, right?


In ultramarathons the tortoise beats the hare. One of the keys to covering the distance without collapsing in a heap is taking your time. Though people race hard at the front, most relax, enjoy the views, eat a lot of cake and socialise. Making new BFFs is inevitable and you'll be swapping life stories before you know it. Just try to befriend runners with bigger packs as they've probably brought too many Tunnock's bars and will need to share them with you.

*Damian Hall is an international trail runner who is the 185-mile Wainwright's Coast to Coast record-holder. He took 1st place at Ultra Tour Monte Rosa in 2019 and his best finish at UTMB was 5th in 2018.