From one newbie to another: my top tips for your first ultra marathon

Ok, so you’re about to do your first ultra marathon? Or you simply want to know more? I’m a still an ultra rookie, having done one ultra cycle this year (London Revolution 300km cycle) and one ultra marathon (Race to the King 53miles in June), so I know what it feels like to be a newbie. Before Race to the King I had so many questions and was really lucky to be surrounded by supportive friends who offered me lots of tips and advice and listened to my endless list of queries. With Race to the Stones approaching this weekend, I wanted to pass on some of the best advice I’ve received, along with some of the things I’ve learned from my experience. Whether you’re a newbie, expert or somewhere in between I hope there’s a little something in here for you, and if you have tips of you own, why not add them in the comments below.

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The best piece of advice I was given ahead of RTTK was to break the distance down into aid stations. Don’t think about how far you still have to go just focus on how long until the next pitstop. Doing this made the distance feel much more doable and less intimidating. This is a strategy I also adopted during ride London in 2018 and London Revolution and I promise it works. Celebrate each pitstop as a milestone.

Don’t put pressure on yourself. Especially if it’s your first ultra. I was very relaxed before RTTK, I treated it as a mini running holiday. I got to spend a day on the trails, with excellent company, surrounded by people who loved running as much as I do, all heading in the same direction, whilst kind strangers kept us fed and watered at the pitstops and someone else had planned the route for me. If there’s hills, then so be it- everyone’s going up the same hill. If it’s raining then don’t stress, you can’t change the weather. Stay positive and just focus on the fact that you’re very lucky to experience the beautiful scenery and spend an entire day or weekend doing what you love.

Say hi to others and encourage them. Tell others how awesome they’re doing, let’s face it you’re all badass to attempt this and regardless of how quick you are you’ll all cover the same distance at the end. Giving out positive vibes to other runners will keep you feeling positive. Similarly if you’re running solo, don’t be worried as there are loads of friendly people along the route and lots of people run alone.

It’s up to you how long you spend at the pitstops. Some people are in and out, others prefer to actually take a break. The decision comes down to how you’re feeling and what your goals are. For me I know that my legs start to stiffen if I sit down so we tended to walk in and out, but others were using it as a chance to sit down, some people were even stretching and foam rolling. After a few pitstops we had a good rhythm of toilet break, snack grabbing, water, walk out and we repeated this in this exact order at every pitstop so that it became natural and we weren’t rushing round flustered. Having a routine was great as when we started to tire we could just do everything on autopilot. Quite often volunteers offer to take your water and fill it for you, this is such a great help when you’re getting tired.

Don’t cram everything into your running bag, pack what you value to be the essentials. For me this was a lightweight contactable jacket (perfect for rain, warmth or something to sit on), some gels, my phone, some plasters and some emergency cash/card. I completely forgot my collapsible cup but if you’ve got one take it because the watered down coke is divine. I also used a 2.5L bladder. Make sure you have somewhere to store your empty wrappers/ gel sachets. I knew I wouldn’t be running in the dark, but don’t forget your head torch if you need it and for the longer days a power bank for your phone. Everyone’s essentials will be different so assess what you need.

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Make packing lists, lie it all out and check. As the scouts say, be prepared.

Stick to your own fuelling strategy: I got so hung up on taking everyone’s advice regarding fuelling. People kept telling me what to eat and how I needed real food- gels won’t be enough I was constantly told. But in the end fuelling is personal and you have to do what works for you. I found the heat during RTTK zapped my appetite, but not my energy. I was desperately trying to eat at the aid stations but forcing food down and then stressing about not feeling hungry was making me anxious. In the end I picked up food at the aid stations in case I needed it and stuck to my gels and Science in Sport electrolyte/ carb drink. I also drank a lot of watered down coke which is so good. I think that adapting to the conditions and taking on what you can is important, don’t worry about what others are eating and if the whole running and eating thing doesn’t come naturally then that’s ok. My top tip would be, if you use gels during your long road run training then take some out on the trails even if you don’t intend to use them, you never know they might just come in handy.

041E7C21-E164-4A35-BC30-C525AB86D362Take good care of your feet. I was really lucky to only come away with one, very easy to deal with and painless blister. But many weren’t so lucky and the medical tent was overflowing with people with multiple blisters. I take really good care of my feet, keep my nails short, remove any dead skin, use footcreams and wear lightweight breathable socks and due to this I’ve managed to keep all my toenails and don’t struggle with blisters. I also find that a pedicure a week after a big endurance race really helps refresh those tired feet. Boys- this means you as well!

Plan your car parking, travel, family meeting point in advance. Especially for the journey home. You’ll be exhausted when you finish so the last thing you want to be doing is trying to navigate your way home from a new place. Research where the nearest train station is from the finish, check the train times and write all this info in a note on your phone. You’ll thank yourself later.

If you feel pain, speak to one of the medics. As your body tires you’ll feel the odd ache and pain. Even if you think it’s nothing, prevention is best so speak to a medic as soon as you start to feel out of sorts. They have an abundance of cold spray, tape and ibuprofen gel (do not take iBuprofen tablets!) Most the medics I spoke to were runners and could sympathise with how we were feeling. They’re also great at giving advice regarding any pain you’re feeling- tired muscles are normal but it’s important to be mindful of how your body is feeling. An ultra is a long way and you if you think you have an injury it’s important you have this checked out by a professional.

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Walk the uphills, run the flats but don’t feel pressured to run all the downhills. The top tip I had from other ultra runners was walk the uphills run the downhills, but I found this wasn’t always working for me. Yes walk the uphills, but if the downhills are steep walk them too to save your legs. Also if the downhills are on road and you’re in trail shoes consider walking these too as it will save your knees and shins from smashing into the concrete. Basically do not be afraid to walk. I kept having this anxiety that I should be running but sometimes a break was just what I needed.

Be aware of others on single track routes. Have an awareness of what’s going on around you and bear in mind there may be mountain bikers, dog walkers and other runners using the routes. Also be courteous to other runners who might be quicker than you and let them pass.

If you’re staying overnight pack a decent sleeping bag, some comfy post run clothes, a towel, a pillow and some ear plugs. Your body will be tired so making yourself as comfy as possible is essential. Also get in the showers early and book your massage as soon as you can as these both get very busy.

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And finally!!! Enjoy it, smile, take photos, stop and admire the view, thank the volunteers and make friends. An ultra is an incredible experience and a huge achievement. If things don’t go to plan, that’s ok. Try your best and be kind to yourself. Good luck!


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