How to train for an Ultra marathon

finishedLanding back in the UK after completing the 2015 Marathon Des Sables, knowing I had pushed my body and mind to the limit, was an amazing feeling. Since then I have come close to experiencing that feeling but have never quite reached that level of fulfilment. It took me a while to find something that would push me as much as the MDS, but one day it just clicked and Castle to Castle was born.

1,130 miles over 22 days, visiting the castles of all the UK and Ireland’s capital cities. From The Tower of London to Edinburgh Castle, Belfast Castle, Dublin Castle and Cardiff Castle, before returning to The Tower of London. The preparation for this Ultra of all Ultras is in some ways unique, however, many elements of my normal training regime still apply, elements that can help you to have a successful event.

My advice to anyone with an Ultra in the diary is to make a plan and set goals. To safely complete your race, I would suggest increasing your mileage by 10% each week, aiming to reach 60-80 miles three weeks before the event. Having this as your end point allows you to determine when you will need to start your training. Along with your weekly running you should include some strength training to ensure your body can withstand the pressure of high mileage events. In addition to this, a weekly yoga or Pilates session will ensure your flexibility and core strength are at their peak and your posture is on point.

27667426865_d117b9559a_zTraining Events –
Taking on an Ultra is a huge challenge and training needs to be broken down to manageable chunks. Enter half-marathons and marathons in the months leading up to your final event to allow you to set mid-term goals. These events will also serve as check points to evaluate whether your training is going as planned. As the mileage for Castle to Castle is so high I’ll be doing some Ultras as training events, including Race to the King, a double marathon hosted by Threshold Sports, the amazing team behind Race to the Stones.

Nutrition – It is essential that you look at what your consuming before, during and after each training run so that you are aware of what your body requires to be efficient. Along with the food you are consuming you should also explore your hydration strategy. Carry out a hydration test to see how much you need to drink during each hour of your race. You can do this by weighing yourself (unclothed), running at a strong pace for 60 minutes, and weighing yourself (unclothed) again. The difference in weight is the amount of fluid lost. e.g. A loss of 1kg = 1kg of water needed = 1ltr of water.

Recovery – Sleep is so important when training. Solid nights and maybe the implementation of a day time nap where possible will help the body to recover and develop in the way it needs to be able to execute such a high volume of training. Along with good levels of sleep, a regular sports massage can help speed up the recovery process. Every four weeks would be my general recommendation.

Kit – Taking your running to the Ultra distance brings with it many new requirements. One of the better ones is the need for new kit, such as a race vest or rucksack to carry some food and water. Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with this element of preparation. Getting it wrong can ruin your final race, which is why I advise practicing with your kit and tweaking it if necessary. When you find what works – stick with it. Also make sure you look at the route and terrain of your race. Often these events are off-road and underfoot conditions can be pretty variable so have a couple of trainer options in case of a change in weather conditions.

Psychology – Like any other endurance event the Ultra brings many mental hurdles to jump over. My advice is to not ignore this but train to overcome them. Like the mileage, it can be prepared for.

The three tips to overcome mental walls are:

  • Break the event down into smaller chunks. People often break it into first half and second half, but this is too much. I would break a marathon into four achievable chunks and an Ultra into even more.
  • Reward yourself during the event. Give yourself a favourite food or drink to celebrate reaching certain points of your run.
  • Find a new friend. One thing I love about Ultra events is the friendliness of the participants. The route is filled with a community of runners, organisers and volunteers, all willing to encourage you along the way. When the going gets tough, don’t be afraid to spark up a conversation or stop at a checkpoint to refuel and receive some words of encouragement from the crew.







How to train for an Ultra marathon

Five things I’m asked about…running the Marathon des Sables


What made you want you do something so extreme and intense?

I’ve always been a keen runner and did my first London marathon in 2005, going on to achieve a PB of 2 hours 39 minutes in 2013. Taking part in the MDS had been a dream of mine since watching Ben Fogle complete it in 2004, and by 2015 I had reached a stage in my running where I was looking for a new challenge and felt that I was ready for it. I enjoy seeing how far I can push my body and what I can get out of it – and this was definitely a big push!


What was the hardest part?

The final 10 miles of Stage three were definitely the toughest for me, both physically and mentally. The terrain was made up of loose sand so it was extremely hard to move forward. At times it felt as though I was in one of those dreams where you’re trying to run but simply aren’t getting anywhere. I just had to keep turning my legs over and making very slow progress. I was so, so glad when it was done.


Was anything easier than you thought it would be?

One of the race rules is that all kit, including food, must be carried by competitors. To avoid having to carry extra weight I only took the amount of food required to meet the race’s minimum calorie guidelines. Whilst technically this was enough to sustain me I anticipated having problems as I didn’t know how my body would react once I was out there, and hunger is not something I deal well with. Thankfully I managed to judge it just right and didn’t feel too hungry at any point – which is good as there was no way to get any extra rations out to the middle of the desert.



What advice would you give to someone else doing it?

Don’t just think about the mileage of your training runs, practice with weighted packs so that you get a feel for how it will be to carry your kit with you over those longer distances. Something else I found extremely helpful was to reduce the weight of my pack as much as possible. Race regulations set the minimum pack weight at 6.5kg (not including water) so try to get as close to this as possible. There’s obviously the essential kit, such as medical items and food, that you have to take, but other than that, question everything that you put in to your pack. I became quite obsessed with it – cutting labels out of items, removing packaging and even trimming the handle on my toothbrush. It might sound extreme but even an extra kilogram will make all the difference when you have to carry it for 6 days over a hundred and fifty six miles.


How would you sum up your experience? 

I can honestly say that it was a truly incredible, life-changing experience. When I first thought about doing the race back in 2004, I just wanted to take part. Then I just wanted to complete it. As I trained more and more, I thought that coming top-50 might be achievable and in the end I came 21st and was the 2nd fastest Briton to complete the race. It really made me aware of what can be achieved with enough time, effort and determination. There’s something quite incredible about getting that far, in such difficult conditions, just under the power of your own two legs.

Five things I’m asked about…running the Marathon des Sables

Race report: Race to the Stones 2016

Back in February I entered Threshold Sports’ Race to the Stones, a 100km race from the Chilterns in Oxfordshire to the North Wessex Downs. This would be my first event since running 32 miles in the Dorset CTS last December. My training started in April and gradually I upped my weekly mileage from 50 to 100, hitting my maximum distance 2 weeks ahead of the race. Usually I would allow myself a longer taper period, ideally 3 weeks, however, I didn’t feel I had enough miles in my legs so I pushed an extra week to up my endurance. Whilst my training went pretty well, I didn’t feel entirely race-ready due to the gap between this and my previous race. Plus I was having a difficult time preparing mentally. RTTS would be the longest distance I had ever covered, surpassing my previous maximum of 92km during stage 4 of the 2015 MDS. Despite not being much further, the MDS wasn’t really comparable as there had been 3 earlier stages, it was in the desert and I carried my food and kit. Back then I was just trying to make it through the stage but I was entering RTTS to compete, not just complete! I told anyone who asked that my target time was 9 hours, however secretly I was aiming for 8.5. Plus, I felt more confident in how I’d handle the first 50km so had a sub-target of completing that in under 4 hours. But, as this would be the first time I had run over 35 miles in a race scenario, I was unsure of how my body would react. This uncertainty played on my mind in the week leading up to the event and cost me quite a bit of sleep.


On the day of the race, after a first-breakfast of cereal, I set off from London at 6am with my support team. The race was incredibly well organised and within 2 minutes of arriving I had my race number pinned and was ready to go. This organisation was maintained over the course of the race, with well-stocked checkpoints and very supportive marshals. Plus there were over 600 signs across the route – a fact that my wife found reassuring as she consistently doubts my navigating abilities. After registering I had my second-breakfast – a bowl of porridge to fuel my first few hours – and checked over my kit. I use a Salomon race vest with plenty of pockets for energy bars and electrolyte tablets, and had chosen to wear Adidas Ultra Boost trainers. They’re a road shoe but as conditions had been dry I knew the trails would be hard underfoot and I wouldn’t need too much grip. Plus they offered more cushioning than my second choice – the Adizero – which would come in handy due to the length of the race.


I began the race with a friend who was completing the 50km section. We ran together for the first part and kept a nice pace but I chose to hunt out the front-runner who had set off a little quicker than us. I caught up with him at startthe first checkpoint and despite our different styles – his stride was longer than mine which meant he was more suited to downhills and flats and I had an advantage on the uphills – we were quite evenly matched and continued to run together. I reached the half-way point 2 mins ahead of him, and within my goal of 4 hours. Looking back I think the first half went quite well. It was maybe a little quicker than I would have liked as I was aiming for 7.30 min/mi but actually came in closer to 7.20.


After 50km the race really began for me as I made my first big mistake: I missed the water-station at the half-way point and had just 250ml of water left, which ran dry between 50-60km. Unfortunately, by this time the sun had made an appearance and I was running across an exposed section of The Ridgeway. I began to really suffer. My morale took a dent and I became worried. I was so relieved when I saw the marker telling me the next checkpoint was just 1km away. I took some time there to rehydrate with some glasses of squash, ate a little and filled up my water bottles. My morale picked up and I felt good for having made it to the 60km mark. Unfortunately, this feeling was short-lived! I had taken on too much food and drink in too short a time and was left feeling nauseous by the time I reached 70km, hitting a bit of a blip, both mentally and physically. I was expecting to experience both at some point during the race – just not at the same time! My legs felt like jelly and I started to question my ability. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?


fieldIt was at 70km that my running companion, the eventual winner Rob ‘Wyclef’ Forbes, left me. It wasn’t a case of him upping his pace, I just couldn’t maintain mine and we slowly drifted apart. Once I’d lost sight of him I pushed him from my mind and focused on running my own race. 70-80km was a real battle and I re-evaluated my race plan. I counted down the miles and aimed for the 80km mark where I told myself I would break the remaining distance down into two 10km races. At the 80km checkpoint I received a much-needed boost from the volunteers – I must have looked as though I needed some encouragement and they certainly gave it. Once I’d passed 80km I took my mind to my 10km training route at home. Mentally I took myself around its landmarks, focusing on the smaller stages and pushing the bigger picture and longer distances from my mind. Then I hit 90km. Only 10km remaining. Just 6 more bleeps on my watch. I directed my thoughts to the rewards that I would get at the end – food, drink, a lazy recovery day, all just within my reach. I told myself that I could actually achieve second place. I didn’t know where my nearest challenger was and wouldn’t allow myself to turn around for fear they were just over my shoulder. I had to run my own race.



Whilst there were many tough points to the race, one of the hardest was the route for the last 1km. The path looped around the Avebury Stones, meaning that we had to run past the turn-in for the finish line to complete the final section of the race. Seeing that line and having to push on past it was so, so difficult. It was at this point that the winner ran past me in the opposite direction. I knew then that he was too far ahead for me to catch but it didn’t matter as I was almost done. After passing the stones I headed back towards the finish line and, having spent much of my childhood being put to work on our family farm, I can honestly say that this was the happiest I have ever felt when running in to a farm-yard! I crossed the line at 8 hours, 26 minutes and 36 seconds, smashing my target of 8.30 and achieving second place. I had allowed myself to consider a top 5 position before the race but I didn’t think 2nd place was within my reach. I am more than happy to say that I was beaten by a better person – Rob broke the course record and was a phenomenally strong runner – his win was well deserved.


Looking back there was just one thing I would do differently. I should have built some events in to my training schedule. Whilst I put in the mileage, training runs are completely different to running in a race scenario and having some of these in the lead up to RTTS would have allowed me to reacquaint myself with race-day nerves and anxiety ahead of the main event. It’s a piece of advice I often give to my clients, I just need to start applying it to my own training. However, on the whole I’m incredibly pleased with how the race went and I’m already looking forward to next year!





Race report: Race to the Stones 2016