How to prepare for an ultra-marathon

Riding a bike for 12 hours through the dead of night may sound like the act of a madman, but it can help ready your body and mind for the toughness of ultra-marathon running, writes James Cracknell in his weekly Q&A

Hi James. I’m running the Saffron Trail ultra-marathon in July (70 miles overnight, 20-hour cut off). My training is going OK, but I’ve never done anything like this before. Any last-minute pro tips for training / race day? Thanks. Robin

Hey Robin,

Nice one for taking this on. Technically, a 35 mile run is classified as an ultra-marathon, so by starting at 70 miles you’re doing the equivalent of diving in off the 10m board before trying the 5m. Ballsy stuff!

A double ultra is achievable if you settle on a strategy based on how your training has gone, then stick to it. Heart rate, pace, nutrition, hydration and rest are the all important factors here. You need to know your numbers before you get to the start line.

As for race day, the first objective has to be to complete the distance; if you don’t finish, every other goal is irrelevant. Be confident in the pace you’ve learned works in training. No matter what others do in the first hour or two, ignore them and keep to your strategy. 75 miles is a long way. If ever there were a time to call upon Aesop’s fable The Hare and the Tortoise, it’s now: stick to your own pace and you’ll outlast anyone who hares off at the start. And remember: you can always up the pace later in the race, but if you empty the tanks in the first 30 miles there’s no coming back.

I wouldn’t stop for a lengthy rest as it will be so difficult to get going again. If you need a breather or you’ve got a muscular pain, try slowing down or walking rather than coming to a complete standstill. Stopping for any significant length of time is going to make those legs seize up, and you’ll only feel worse when you set off again. You’ll almost hear your legs screaming: “are you kidding me, I’ve already run 30 miles!”

Work on your food/nutrition strategy in training, develop a plan and stick to it from the start. Even if it feels like you’re eating and drinking more than you need, it’s a long way and you want to keep those tanks full. Little and often is the name of the game. Here’s a little tip: a cube of jelly left to dissolve slowly in your mouth will help keep your blood sugar levels constant.

For confidence, I’d do a long run (at least 40 miles) before the race, just to get used to being on your feet for that long. If you’re worried about injury then you could do a long cycle ride. In fact, I’d probably do 12 hours on a turbo trainer through the night. It’d be boring, hard, and you’ll have the strong sensation of wanting to stop, which (not to put you off) will be exactly what you’ll feel like when you’re running through the night. The training ride will prepare you for that mental challenge. By making the worst part of training more horrible than the event, race day won’t seem so bad or unachievable.

So, in summary, get the below sorted:

1. Pacing plan

2. Nutrition plan

3. Hydration plan

4. Long run or cycle through the night as preparation

5. Be confident in your preparation, ignore everyone else and stick to your plan

Oh, and put plasters on those nipples!