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Training for a Marathon vs. an Ultramarathon: how they differ

A lot of runners may think that marathon and ultramarathon training are quite similar, especially if you’re talking about a flat road 50k. And while a traditional marathon and road 50K are indeed quite similar, things change drastically when we move things to the trail. Once there is technical and vertical terrain involved, the distinctions become clearer. And once we get past the 50K mark, training is indeed very different from traditional marathon training!

Let's break it down:

  • Pacing: in marathon training, we place a big emphasis on managing your "race pace." Marathon athletes are running at higher intensity for several hours. In ultramarathon training, however, we focus more on energy conservation and management due to changing terrain and loss of sleep as race distances get longer. Athletes running ultras may be on their feet for 6-24 hours or more!

  • Terrain: the terrain plays a major role in how we train for a race. Many marathons take place on the road, allowing athletes to really hone-in on maintaining a steady pace. Ultramarathons are more likely to take place on trails with changing terrain and possibly large amounts of vertical gain/loss. Uphill hiking speed, running on tired legs and managing technical trails is highly important in this situation instead of solely focusing on a sustained pace.

  • Aerobic Base: While marathon training relies heavily on speed work and running at sustained efforts, developing a robust aerobic base and muscular endurance are the foundation of ultramarathon training (especially for beginners.) The ability to endure for long hours on trail comes from your aerobic base and muscular endurance. Speed work is still important, but the amount and structure of that speed work may look different for an ultramarathon.

  • Non-Fitness Factors: In ultramarathons, runners sometimes need to be more self-sufficient. There may be long stretches between aid stations or very limited aid. Also, running through the night and changing weather conditions takes a mental toll on athletes. Hydration, electrolytes, nutrition and mental toughness are absolute necessities when it comes to running long distances in unpredictable circumstances. The longer you are on your feet, the more that can go wrong! Deficits in hydration and fueling become compounded with time and can completely derail an ultramarathon, especially towards the end.

For anyone who feels ready to step into the world of ultrarunning, here's a recap of the major pillars of training:

  1. building a large, robust aerobic base

  2. gaining technical skills on trail (i.e. uphill hiking speed, self-sufficiency, managing unsteady terrain, etc.)

  3. learning how to fuel and hydrate for long events

  4. mastering mental toughness strategies

Ready to start? You can book a free zoom call here: Book Online | Run Wild. Be Well. (

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