Extreme ultra-marathon runner Audrey McIntosh has taken part in some amazing races around the world. Discover her top tips for running an ultra-marathon.
Running an Ultra-Marathon
I tend to be cautious about offering tips and advice on running because what works for one person does not necessarily work for another. Also it is not as if I have a degree or in depth sports science knowledge, nor am I a coach or trainer.
Personal experience of running an ultra-marathon has shown me that there are many differing views and passions with regard to what is right and wrong. There has been many an occasion when I have sought advice only to be faced with a myriad of views, often opposing, and have been left more confused: none the wiser.
And therein lies the secret. When it comes to running an ultra-marathon, one size does not fit all. We sift through, try out and decide what works, just as we do with our shoes and kit.
Here are a few tips based on my own experiences.
Always get shoes properly fitted and once you have the right ones, you can then take advantage of online prices.
I quickly found that my one pair of trail shoes did not quite cut it. It’s a horses for courses situation and there is a danger that you will become the Imelda Marcos of the running shoe world.
There are shoes for easy trails, fells, muddy and wet conditions, hard rocky trails. I could be here for quite some time. Best start with a good all-rounder and go from there.
Back Pack & Contents
Ultra-marathon races often have a mandatory kit list. Get a back pack that is light and hugs your body. If it moves it will really bug you, not to mention chafe you. Easily accessible pockets and pouches are good.
I prefer bottles on the front of the vest over a bladder. Using bottles reminds me to drink and I can easily see how much I am getting through. My current back pack is the Salomon SLab Skin 12
Essential kit for your back pack could include:
- Lightweight water proof jacket and trousers
- Foil blanket
- Small first aid kit
- Tissues/wet wipes
- Anti-chafing gel
- Midge repellent (if in Scotland)
- Sun block (depending on time of year/location)
- A buff or hat and gloves (again depending on season and conditions)
- A fully charged mobile phone
Clothing can cost as much or as little as you choose to spend. The main thing is that it is appropriate for the activity and comfortable. You are going to be wearing it for a long time.
As we all know, labels come at a price so be smart and shop around. There are also a number of high street stores producing perfectly good kit at decent prices. H&M does perfectly serviceable set of sportswear as does Gap – where I often pick up kit. Ladies, don’t forget to invest in a high impact sports bra.
If you are going extreme, then specialist kit will be needed! The organisers will advise you and provide a kit list, but do your research. When I ran in the Antarctic I used outdoor and mountaineering kit which was lightweight, could be layered and was flexible enough to allow me to run.
Related: Nutrition for Runners
Fluid & Nutrition
I still have not entirely cracked this one. I drive my husband insane when I am running an ultra-marathon and he is supporting me. Nutrition plan in hand, he waits expectantly at the check point with the stated food in hand only for me to go ‘no, don’t want that’ or ‘No, I don’t want anything’. He then has to try and tempt me with alternatives whilst ripping up the plan.
There are many differing opinions with regard to ‘real food’ versus sport specific food. My experience is that sports specific nutrition makes me sick after a while and upsets my stomach. I hardly use it now. However, that said, I find that I can tolerate Tailwind (if well diluted) and Active Root .
Let’s face it, if you are going to be running an ultra-marathon you are going to want real food. Experiment when you are training to find foods that you like and that your stomach will tolerate.
The ultra-runners dirty secret: Coke. Packed with sugar and caffeine it will hit the spot and that slight pepperiness helps. It can also stop nausea, and I have no idea why.
Cheese is a good standby for when you get fed up of sweet stuff and it neutralises the sugars in your mouth protecting your teeth.
Crisps, nuts, mars bars and chocolate, rice pudding, soup and mashed potato are all things I have used. Others swear by mini pork pies and sausages. It really is down to personal preference.
The main thing it to eat little and often and just keep pushing those calories and fluids, but do not over hydrate. Drink to thirst.
Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail
My first ultra-marathon was not an outstanding success as I crawled in second last hugely frustrated with myself. Where had it all gone wrong? I had failed to plan properly.
To my shame I had not done a recce of the route which was close to home, nor had I trained on similar terrain. I had not thought about my eating plan or what to do if things did not go to plan. In addition to this I started too fast and did not eat and drink enough.
A similar thing happened at another event a couple of year later when I had failed to recce and train on the most technical section of the route and lost a lot of time tackling it.
Contrary to popular opinion ultra-marathon runners are not gung-ho risk takers. We spend a lot of time planning all aspects of our runs. Here are some tips based on my experience and lessons learned:
Planning Tips for Running an Ultra-Marathon
- Get to know your route. Train on it if possible and if you can’t try and find similar routes and terrain to train on.
- You don’t have to train up to the full distance of an ultra. It is more about being consistent. By all means get your mileage up but don’t fret about the full distance. I rarely run more than 30 miles on a long training run – that takes me all day.
- Consistency is key. The aim is to build up distance and strength not niggles and injuries. Compared to many ultra- runners my mileage is low; but I cross train on a spin bike and do strength and core work. As a result I find I am rarely injured.
- Create a race plan as a guide for you and your support crew if you have one. Bear in mind that on the day it may not go to plan: in fact expect it not to go to plan and you will cope better.
- Have a nutrition plan too; again it will be a guide and make sure you have options for if you find you can’t or don’t want to consume something in your plan.
- If the event has a drop bag system plan what you want in them. It will always be too much. Keep them small. Zip lock food bags are ideal, although I use small plastic post bags as they won’t get torn or accidentally opened.
- Decide what kit you will need and train with it.
- How things go on the day will depend on so many things: weather, terrain and condition of the terrain, how your body responds. There will both good and bad days and you have to roll with that.
- Don’t be overwhelmed. Break it down in bitesize pieces: reaching the next check-point, the next landmark, the next tree.
- Don’t fight the terrain. Save your energy to make the most of the easier sections. Expect to walk and aim for perpetual motion. As someone said to me about the West Highland Way race: everyone races to Tyndrum (half way) then its run, walk or crawl to Fort William.
About Audrey McIntosh
Audrey McIntosh is an extreme ultra-marathon runner from Scotland. Since Audrey started running in 2010, she has had some amazing experiences.
In November 2013, Audrey made running history when she became the first Scot (and second British woman) to complete the Antarctic Ice Marathon and Antarctic 100km double — in the space of three days.
In 2015 Audrey completed the North Pole Marathon and became the first Scot to complete all 3 polar races. She also added the West Highland Way Race and West Highland Way Triple Crown and 100 miles in 24 hours at the Glenmore 24 hour trail race to my tally of achievements.
Audrey became the first person to complete the double extreme marathon event of the Namibian Sand Marathon and Genghis Khan Ice Marathon: 36 degrees to minus 32 degrees.
To find out more about Audrey McIntosh head over to www.audreymcintosh.co.uk
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