Are Ultra Marathons Safe: A Runners Opinion

two runners going uphill

When I first decided that I was interested in running an ultra I had heard conflicting opinions on whether they were safe to run, especially as I was approaching the age of 50.

Before signing up for my first race I wanted to do some research on how safe they actually were. Here is what I learnt from the research and actually running an ultra marathon.

Ultimately, the answer to the question is yes, Ultra Marathons are safe. However, there are many factors to what we class as being safe to run. What happens before, during, and after an ultra marathon is basically down to you the individual, so it’s important to ensure the right preparation is done upfront.

In this post, I will attempt to alleviate any fears you may have about the safety of an ultra marathon and break down the key points you should be looking for to make it the best experience it can possibly be.

This guide is completely taken from my own experience of running multiple Ultra Marathons from 50k to 100 miles. It is important to understand that every individual is different, so what works for me might need a slight adjustment by you.

I am not a doctor and am in no way offering a professional medical opinion. If you have any concerns prior to attempting a race, you should consult your doctor in the first instance.

Leading up to Race Day

Let’s be honest from the start. It isn’t just about race day, there are many things you can do in preparation for your big day. I have outlined a few things to consider once you have decided to do an ultra.

Training

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t good training plans on the internet today, but I would suggest using caution when looking for one. The reason I say this is because what works for one person may not work for another.

A lot of the plans also only focus on running when they should also be considering an element of strength training in the plan – believe me, strength training should not be overlooked when planning to run any distance over a marathon, especially when it is likely to be on the trails. This is what I would do:

Distance of RaceLongest Run Strength TrainingComments
50k22 Milesx2 Per Week (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press)Workout 1 – Squat & Deadlift
Workout 2 – Bench & Overhead
50 Miles30 Miles x2 Per Week (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press)Workout 1 – Squat & Deadlift
Workout 2 – Bench & Overhead
100k40 miles (25 Sat / 15 Sun)x2 Per Week (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press)Sat & Sunday back to back runs
100 miles50 Miles (30 Sat / 20 Sun)x2 Per Week (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press)Sat & Sunday back to back runs

You can find a plan for ideas, but ultimately you know your body. The items outlined above are the things I tried to make sure I did during training. Obviously you build up to the distances over time, but these are the max I would do.

Main Considerations Leading Up to Race Day

  • Whatever gear you plan to run in, make sure you train in it too. Don’t run in your best shoes during the training and then change them for new ones prior to the race. The same goes for hydration packs, shorts, etc. This could have a major impact on your body over a long distance through blisters, chafing, or worse.
  • Try to plan out your nutrition strategy – Again, try to eat similar foods on your long training runs as you intend to during the race. A major change during the race could have serious effects on your stomach (not nice).
  • Take the time to work out your hydration strategy. This is huge in my opinion because if you become dehydrated on an Ultra it is something you rarely recover from. Everyone is different, but I aim for around 500 ml of liquid per hour, with something like Tailwind added to give me all the salts, calories, and minerals my body needs.
  • If you can, try to run on similar terrains to that of the race so your body gets used to it. Running through cold mountains for a race in the dessert might not be the best choice. You get what I mean right?

During the Race

So the big day is here and all the preparation leading up to the race is done. You got here safely – now it’s time to keep it that way.

Whenever I’m at the start line of a long race my adrenaline has well and truly kicked in and I’m ready to go. Take a step back and think about this – my first piece of advice is to not go off like a bat out of hell. I remember a 50k when I went off at a pace way faster than I would normally go and I started to suffer by mile 20. Just remember it’s a long race and a long time on your feet so try to relax.

Hopefully, you listened to the advice about your gear and you aren’t wearing something new that may affect you along the way.

Another thing about gear is to check if there is anything compulsory the race organizer wishes you to carry. As a minimum you should expect to have to carry a waterproof jacket with taped seams, a certain amount of water (at least 1.5 Ltrs), a phone, and whatever might be required for the conditions you are running in. I have known people who have not been able to start the race because they didn’t have a jacket.

Remember, compulsory gear is for your safety.

Fueling Your Body

One thing you will find as part of an Ultra Marathon is that the aid stations are normally very well stocked with all sorts of food and snacks. Make the most of it when you can but try to remember not to eat things that you aren’t used to that may affect you later down the line.

I have seen aid stations that supply the energy gels that you see runners use. It’s my personal choice, but I stay well away from them as they are one of the main reasons people have serious gut problems during a race. I try to stick with fruit, nuts, and the odd bit of cake, along with the odd cup of Coke for a bit of a boost.

If you are doing a long race like 100 miles you might find that the midpoint aid station does some hot food too.

Hydration

Remember this if nothing else – stay hydrated. If you are thirsty you are already starting to dehydrate. Take sips regularly and keep a constant stream of fluid going in. Do this even if it is cold as you will still get dehydrated.

As I said previously, have some salt and hydration tablets or powder that can go in your drink. When you sweat you are losing key minerals that need to be replaced.

Drop Bags

Many of the ultra races allow you to have a drop bag. This is a bag that is normally transported to the aid station closest to the halfway point of the race.

Fill it with any clothing you might want to change into, or any food etc. you might have.

Top Tip – Make sure you have spare socks. I made the mistake of not doing this on a race and regretted it later – it will never happen again.

Foot Care

This really goes in line with having spare socks but I wanted to offer some advice. If you at any point start to feel a hot spot or rubbing on your foot then you need to stop immediately and deal with it.

On a shorter run, you can get away with ignoring this sort of thing, but on an ultra, it will come back to haunt you. So I will say it again – if you start to feel a hot spot on your foot, stop and deal with it. This might be the difference between you finishing the race or not – and your recovery afterward.

Mentality

Ok, so this one is interesting and I don’t want to sound all psychological – your mind will give up way before your body.

Many people give up during a race because their mind starts playing tricks on them. Your body is way stronger than you think and can put up with more than you would ever expect it to (but please be sensible about it).

As an example, when I ran the 86 mile Ridgeway race, a big part of the race is through the night. There is one checkpoint at around 60 miles where they have the greatest drop out rate which is equal to all of the other 9 checkpoints added together.

The main reason that the drop out rate is so high at this checkpoint is the fact that most people arrive in the early hours of the morning and there are seats and a nice campfire set up. Guess what happens next?

People sit down, get comfortable and warm and their mind tells them that ‘this is nice’, and they don’t get back up to finish the race.

On the other hand, I arrived with a couple of other guys, we grabbed a hot cup of tea and drank it whist standing away from the fire and then went on our merry way. We didn’t put the temptation in front of us.

Enjoy It

Sometimes we forget that we often run through some of the most amazing scenery. Take the time to enjoy what the world has to offer. You are probably about to achieve what many people can only dream of doing, so why not make the most of it.

Plus you get a nice shiny medal or buckle to brag about at the end.

Post Race

You will be sore. I would be lying if I said you wouldn’t. But hey! you just completed an ultra safely and that is something you should be very proud of. I remember the absolute joy I felt when I finished my first one, even though I was aching all over.

The main thing now is to take time to recover and let your body heal. Even if you decide to keep running, give it some time if you plan to run another ultra. Sometimes we often feel better but the body isn’t fully recovered. This will depend on the person of course but use common sense.

And finally, if you are wondering if running an ultra marathon is safe, I hope this post went some way to answering any of your fears. Do things the right way and you should be on the road to a great experience that you will probably want to do time and time again.

Mark Emmerson

Mark loves everything outdoors, especially trail and ultra running. He has competed in many events ranging from half marathon up to an 86 mile ultra. He also follows a primarily plant-based diet.

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