4 Primary Differences Between Marathon and Ultra Marathon Training

Many run­ners have heard some­one say, “If you can do a half marathon, you can do a whole.” The thought process is that the ded­i­ca­tion level is very sim­i­lar, and the train­ing method is the same — you just train longer. So…does this same logic apply to ultra marathons? If you’ve com­pleted a marathon, does it mean you have what it takes to com­plete an ultra? Not exactly. The train­ing for a marathon vs. an ultra marathon does have a few piv­otal dif­fer­ences that one must con­sider before mak­ing the dis­tance leap. 

4 Primary Differences Between Marathon and Ultra Marathon Training

Ultras are not so much about speed as they are about brute endurance. Of course, like most races, ultras are timed and even have time cut-offs, but you will be hard pressed to find two or more peo­ple sprint­ing to the end to be the win­ner. More com­mon, there may be an hour or more between the first few fin­ish­ers. When cov­er­ing dis­tances of 30, 40, 50….100 miles, the most effi­cient way for the human body to make it through is to slow down. Train­ing is no dif­fer­ent. There is less need for short and fast track work­outs, since really long, slow runs that accus­tom your mind and body to hours of repet­i­tive pound­ing, are by far more help­ful in prepa­ra­tion for an actual ultra.

Most marathon train­ing pro­grams will encour­age run­ners to com­plete one long run per week, prefer­ably in the morn­ing (as that’s when 99% of marathons begin), and add only 1 mile at a time – up to 20 miles — to the dis­tance. Ultras of 40 or more miles, how­ever, require a min­i­mum of one long run per week, and unless you have sev­eral years to train, you’ll need to add more than a mile each week. Although it’s never wise to try and run the full race dis­tance in train­ing, you should go beyond 20 miles at least once. Some ultra run­ners will run a marathon or shorter-distance ultra, like a 50k (32 miles) as a train­ing run for a longer ultra. This is not a bad idea, as it pro­vides moral sup­port, com­pany, and free food at the end – not too shabby for a train­ing run!


Some peo­ple may be able to com­plete a marathon with­out tak­ing in any­thing other than water and a few Clif Block Shots, but fail­ing to replen­ish your calo­ries in an ultra marathon is not viable. Not only will you not reach the fin­ish line, you will also suf­fer phys­i­cal con­se­quences includ­ing – but not lim­ited to – a stom­achache, barf­ing, diar­rhea, or pass­ing out. Remem­ber, ultra marathon­ers are burn­ing thou­sands of calo­ries in a long train­ing run or race; those calo­ries are what pro­vide the body with energy and must be replen­ished as quickly and effi­ciently as pos­si­ble in order to avoid neg­a­tive phys­i­cal consequences. 

One inter­est­ing aspect of ultra marathons, how­ever, tends to be the food offered and con­sumed at these races. While the aid sta­tions at marathons are gen­er­ally packed with water, a sports drink, and var­i­ous gels, the aid sta­tion tables at ultras are noto­ri­ous for hav­ing a spread resem­bling a tween sleep­over: Coca-Cola, bur­ri­tos, Skit­tles, M&Ms, pizza, peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wiches, crack­ers, grapes, apples, oranges, avo­ca­dos, and so on. The the­ory is that when you’re burn­ing that many calo­ries at one time, you des­per­ately need to replen­ish your body with calo­ries – wher­ever they come from.  Run­ners and experts alike are cer­tainly divided on whether Coca-Cola and Skit­tles are really more ben­e­fi­cial to a phys­i­cally stressed body than noth­ing at all, but the point is that an ultra run­ner must be pre­pared to face these ‘nutri­tion’ options and have a def­i­nite plan as to how they want to man­age their caloric intake.


Pack Weight
For a marathon, you should plan on wear­ing about 2 pounds of extra weight – the weight of a water belt with a small pouch in it for what­ever you favor as your nutri­tional sup­ple­ment. Most ultra marathons, how­ever, have none or few aid sta­tions, so a run­ner must carry sig­nif­i­cantly more on them. A favorite pack­ing method for ultra marathon­ers is a hydra­tion pack, which also has pock­ets and web­bing for things like extra food, extra socks, gloves, Vase­line, band-aids, a head­lamp, and a ban­dana. Ultra run­ners would only be doing them­selves a favor by train­ing with their pack, fully packed, so they can adjust their gait if needed to make it more com­fort­able, and han­dle any chaffing issues due to mal­ad­justed straps.

When it really comes down to it, the most impor­tant train­ing tool needed for an ultra is the same as a marathon – pure ded­i­ca­tion. If you have that, you’ll be just fine.