Triathlon to Ultra Marathon: The Key Differences
23/01/2002 | Alice Hector
Pro Ironman 70.3 champion, 3 times European elite championship bronze medallist and multi-ultramarathon winner up to 100 miles - Alice Hector’s extensive knowledge on competitive endurance racing is indisputable. Whilst Triathlons and Ultra Running have their similarities, they also have their stark differences - so how did her training differ between the two sports? Alice’s transition was both humbling, rewarding and informative.
I gained some good experience of ultra-running in 2010 to 2012 (working up the distance ladder from 50km to 50 miles to 100km and 100miles) and loved it - well, at least up to mile 80, so coming back in, after a successful stint as a pro triathlete from 2014-19, I have some experience and know what I am letting myself in for. Here are my findings so far...
Despite the long events, ultra-running is generally less time-intensive than triathlon. Thanks to the low/no impact of swim and bike in triathlon, there is potentially endless weekly training volume to get through! Running by nature is more damaging, so naturally requires more downtime, but with the remedial work and cross-training (swim, bike and gym are all still in the picture), it can still be a pretty full schedule.
It's important to be fit and strong for longevity in ultra-endurance events, so cross-training is a great way to build up fitness without breaking down with injury. However, to compete in an ultramarathon you cannot scrimp on the run volume completely, as you need the conditioning that only 'time on feet' will yield. Without this, leg pain and/or injury will stop you in your tracks, usually somewhere around the marathon distance.
I have experience in building myself up from beginner to pro, and I know the process takes time: it simply cannot be rushed. It's so important to set goals and work hard towards them, but be mindful of chasing TOO hard. Set goals, then let the goals come to you. By being too determined in this type of sport, you can easily over-train, burn out or pick up an injury. You have to be tactical with your training and know when to push on and when to back off, much like a game of chess. Choose and time your moves wisely.
I expect to be in the conditioning phase for the next year or more: building slowly, allowing the body time to recover, and phasing in more running gently, whilst adapting to the new stressors. A big theoretical plus point of ultra-distance is there is less of an age-based performance window: there are runners in their 50’s and 60’s setting records and delivering inspiring performances. Endurance can increase with age, but it must be worked on in a specific, patient way.
For ultra, don’t worry about doing the distance in training. You need to be well-conditioned but for the successful 100 mile attempt in 2012 (my longest race so far), the longest training run leading in was an easy-paced 4 hours. I had completed 50 miles and 100km races the previous year, so that was most probably the most crucial factor in being able to go in on minimal training, but you can leave a lot for the day. If you’ve completed a 50 mile run, for instance, you can take reassurance that the conditioning from that will last months. A few run/walks of 3-4 hours nearer to your next event will provide a really solid base.
Building the distance ladder is a great way to condition the legs. I’d definitely recommend starting at 50km and then progressing to 50 miles, 100km then 100 miles, and beyond if you like. I tried to drop into a 100km event mid-professional-triathlon career and my legs gave up after 60km (my only ultra failure so far!) It drummed home that the two sports, whilst similar from an endurance perspective, require specific, focussed training to do them justice.
Compared with triathlon, ultramarathon running is far simpler a concept! The intensity is lower, giving you time to take in your surroundings, and trails can usually be found on your doorstep: there is much to explore in the UK. Running takes you to places that are inaccessible by bike or car, and I like the fact that only you can break! (In triathlon, you are always at the mercy of the puncture gods.)
The equivalent phrase 'the runner's high' does not exist in swimming and cycling, and I can attest to that. Running can feel hard and ugly when starting out or building back from injury, but stick to it and you will get rewarded with a shot of endorphins during some runs, which in that moment, can really make life feel wonderful, no matter what’s going on outside.