How to enter the world of trail ultra-running as an older athlete

The secret to being a successful trail ultra-runner as you get older includes a lot of walking and eating.

If anything has the word “ultra” in front of it, the chances are it’s going to be a challenge like no other. And you can be sure that if you want to take the leap into trail ultra-running, you’ll enter a world where the possibilities are limitless.  

The “trail” part refers to the surface – we’ve got a trail-running for beginners guide that explains more – and an ultra-run is a distance of more than a marathon (26.2 miles/42.2 kilometres). But before you back away and say, “I’m too old for that”, there are participants in the trail ultra-running world who are crossing finish lines in their fifties, sixties and seventies, achieving world records.  

It’s easier than you think to become an trail ultra-runner; if you can walk then the world is at your feet. All you need to do is set yourself the challenge and go for it.  

Trail ultra-runner in mountains walking with poles.Credit: Shutterstock/Nick Vakhrushev

What is trail ultra-running?

If you cover a marathon distance and keep going, you’ll become an ultra-runner. If you choose to run on unpaved surfaces – such as forest paths – you’ll be trail-running. 

Many ultra-running events start from 50 kilometres (31 miles). But other popular distances include 80 kilometres (50 miles), 100 kilometres (62 miles), 160 kilometres (100 miles) run either on or off-road.  

There are longer distances, if you want to push yourself further, that typically take place over number of days. Or, if you want, you could take on a world record like Mimi Anderson, who ran the length of Ireland (555 kilometres/345 miles) when she was 50.  

Ultra-running trail events involve a lot of walking, says former British long-distance runner Sarah Rowell. “A lot of people get into trail ultra-running from long-distance walking events. Then people decide they want to do them a bit quicker and run/walk them (also known as Jeffing).” 

Almost everyone walks at some point in trail ultra-running races, says Rowell. “Very few – if any – of the elite athletes run the whole distance.” 

If you enjoy walking and are looking to cover distances a bit quicker, trail ultra-running could be the sport you’re looking for.  

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How to start trail ultra-running for beginners

It’s possible to start today if you’d like to give it a go, says Rowell. “If you are 50 or above and have no health issues, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it. If you start off sensibly and don’t run off like a bat out of hell, there’s no reason why you can’t be a trail ultra-runner.”  

The Long Distance Walkers Association hosts lots of events, including walks of more than 50 miles, if you’d like to try out the distance first to see how you feel. 

If you’ve not run before, Couch to 5k is a good place to start so you can build up a running base, advises Rowell, and from there you can start exploring. “Go at your own pace and find what excites you.”  

Kevin Otto is training for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) race and says: “I’m sure there is a misconception that a running race should be entirely run. The truth is that the longer the race in distance and time, the less of it that is run and the more that becomes fast walking and eventually a slow shuffle to the finish.” 

Don’t forget to rest and recover

I go and see a physiotherapist once every four to six weeks, whether I’m injured or not,” says Rowell. “Because I know bits of me stiffen up and doing that keeps me mobile and helps prevent any niggles or aches and pains.  
 
“And I try at least twice a week to do my own little strengthening routine. One of the things about getting older is that you tend to lose muscle mass, but I find including strength training helps keep me feeling strong. Factor in rest days, too, when you don’t run.”  

What are the benefits of trail ultra-running?

Deciding to become a trail ultra-runner has many of the same benefits of running as shorter distances, but the best part – in my opinion – is that you don’t have to run all of it, which can take the pressure off joints and knees, as opposed to running consistently for hours at a time.  

The softer surface of the trail environment lessens the impact on your body too. Plus there is the added benefit of helping proprioception (your body awareness) due to the uneven nature of the ground.  

In the trail ultra-running events that I have taken part in, I’ve walked the uphill sections of the route (along with a lot of other people) and taken the chance to re-fuel, re-hydrate and chat to other participants. Most of the time we laugh and bond over that fact that we’re taking part in an ultra-run on a weekend, when most people are still in bed.  

There is also a lot of eating involved because you’ll burn hundreds – if not thousands – of calories. And while it’s best to eat nutritious food to fuel your long run, I won’t claim to have not stuffed a few brownies and a load of chocolate in my mouth along the way.  

What to wear trail ultra-running

Our running gear essentials guide will tell you what you need if you’re new to running.  You’ll also need to ensure you have shoes that are specifically designed to cope with the uneven ground. Road-running shoes won’t cut it.  

Brands such as Salomon and Saucony have a selection of trail-running shoes, as do the majority of the major running brands now.  You’ll be able to find some of them in running and sports shops. It’s always best to try them out first to see how they feel, rather than picking the most popular ones, as everyone’s feet are different.  

You’ll need to carry food and fuel with you, so a hydration vest with pockets like the Salomon Sense Pro 5, or Up Leader Race Vest are good investments.  

Rowell says it’s also a good idea to take an extra top with you. “If something happens to you and you have to stop, ask yourself if you’ve got enough clothes to keep warm. Ninety percent of the time I’ll take an extra top with me when I run, so I have something if I need it.” 

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How to stay safe when trail ultra-running

If you’re running on your own, tell someone where you are going, advises Rowell. “And carry a phone so you can be located. If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s a good idea to navigate using a map and compass. A GPS is handy, if you know how to use it.” 

Map reading is an important skill to have if you’d like to become an ultra-runner because it enables you to explore different areas that don’t have a footpath. Ordnance Survey has lots of useful information and beginner’s guides if you’ve not read a map before.  

It is also a good idea to wear reflective and bright clothing so that you can be seen. Remember that the great British weather likes to keep us on our toes. And just because you set off when it’s sunny, it doesn’t mean that it will last all day. As the scouts say: “Be prepared.” 

But apart from that, the trail ultra-running world is yours for the taking.  

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Rebecca Frew

Written by Rebecca Frew she/her

Updated:

Becky Frew has written various articles for newspapers and magazines focusing on fitness, is a qualified run leader, and a certified sleep talker trainer who loves to help advise people how they can nod off easier. When she is not writing or reading about fitness, she is at hot pod yoga, bounce class, training for an ultra-marathon or booking anything with a medal and free food at the end.

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