How do you know if you’re ready to run an ultramarathon?
—Michael R., Millington, Maryland
You don’t know! Like they say about parenting your first child: there is no perfect time, and no way to know if you’re ready. An ultra is a leap into the unknown, also with spittle and mushy food.
There are two things to think about when deciding whether or not to run an ultra: physical preparedness and psychological motivation.
Physically, ultras are extreme stresses for your aerobic and musculo-skeletal systems. Aerobically, easy miles spur angiogenesis, increasing capillary density to supply fuel to working muscles. Blood volume and cardiac stroke output increase from a mix of miles and intensity. The body gets more efficient at turning fat to fuel at higher intensities by recruiting slow-twitch muscle fibers and doing long runs that cause glycogen depletion. All of those adaptations don’t require a crazy commitment to training, just consistency. Can you picture yourself physically able to commit to consistent training to complete a road marathon? Then you’re ready to run almost any trail distance from the aerobic and metabolic perspective.
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A bigger concern is musculo-skeletal strain. Over the course of an ultra, the body undergoes substantial impact forces, a lot of it happening when the body is fatigued. Injury susceptibility varies, so consider your history. If you’ve been constantly injured recently, it’s probably best to wait until you’re ready for four to six months of consistency. If you’re resilient and consistent, you can jump to the next step.
That step is the big one, though. Is an ultra best for you, mentally?
There is no right answer to that question. Make sure you think about why you are doing this at all. Happiness research indicates that a lot of what brings us fulfillment is an “atmosphere of growth,” thinking we are moving forward purposefully. That is countered by the “arrival fallacy,” a psychological principle where people don’t experience more happiness from reaching a destination. Sometimes, it’s the opposite.
Ultras are great to foster that atmosphere of growth, but the key is to continue dreaming, independent of results. There are two questions to mull. First, does the process of training sound fulfilling, independent of outcomes? Imagine you were guaranteed to DNF, or have the race cancelled the week before. If you’d still do the ultra training, then the process is fulfilling in its own right.
Second, how does the ultra fit into your broader running plans? The answer doesn’t matter, it’s just important to have a timeline that views the race as a check point on the running journey, rather than a finish line.
That’s all a long way of saying that almost everyone reading this could finish an ultra a year from now. But not everyone should.