Robbie Britton's tips for running your first ultra-marathon

June 22, 2023 5 min read

Loose, rocky ground on the Lavareto Ultra Trail, Italy. © Pete Aylward, RunPhoto

Loose, rocky ground on the Lavareto Ultra Trail, Italy. © Pete Aylward, RunPhoto

The first time you toe the line for an ultra-marathon it can be a little daunting. You’re running further than you have ever run before and it can be a fine line between a good day out and one you want to forget. The tips below might help you enjoy yourself.

If you’re reading this before your next race, then obviously the first bit of advice is to buy 1001 Running Tips. It’s got more tips than I could ever give you here and can help guide you through years of your journey into running.

Don’t rush into ultra

Having enough time to prepare properly and build up over time is a great way to get into ultra-marathons. Too many people feel like they have to rush up to longer distances before they have really worked on their 5K to marathon times.

Yes, it does make it easier to look good on Strava when you run a long way, but taking the time to progress through the distances will give your body the time it needs to condition to the miles of movement you’re asking your legs to get involved in.

It also means you can develop some leg speed and strength that will hold you in good stead for future training and racing too.


You can run in any weather  – skin is waterproof – but make sure you've got a jumper waiting for at the summit finish. © Robbie Britton
You can run in any weather  – skin is waterproof – but make sure you've got a jumper waiting for at the summit finish. © Robbie Britton


If you’ve already rushed … 

If you’re reading this article because you have an ultra-marathon next weekend and you need some last-minute tips then we’ve got your back too.

To start with, make a plan. A plan for what you ask? As much as you can. The easier you can make it on race day, the better chances you have of making it out alive at the other end. You don’t have to be overly obsessive about everything, a relaxed attitude is also key and there will be a lot of unknowns that require flexibility, but here are some things you can plan for:

1) A logistics plan for travelling to and from the race, getting to the start line and organising any accommodation or crew support for the race can all be done beforehand and shouldn’t be left until the last minute. You might have plenty to worry about in race week (or you might not) but having things like train times or hotels sorted in advance is easy enough to do.

Extra tip: if you’re booking from a long way out, do check the cancellation policies as the ultra-marathon training can be tumultuous and it’s smart to be a little wary if you can. No one plans on an injury or illness but it can happen.

2) Kit and shoes checklist

One of the exciting things about being new to the sport, any sport really, is the shiny new outfits and kit you can you get. As ultra-running becomes more popular, the numbers of gadgets and quality products grow each year too.

With the quick reminder that the most sustainable bit of kit is the one you already own and that repairing it to prolong its life is a really good idea, it’s also important to make sure you have the right gear for race day.

A lot of races have a mandatory and recommended kit list so that is the first place to start. Don’t just go for the lightest options to chuck in your pack … oh, you might also need a pack … But find the best kit for your circumstances and the environmental conditions too. Pack intelligently, but have enough with you for the worst case scenarios too. You’re not carrying emergency extra layers for when you’re moving well, but for the tired latter stages when your body isn’t producing as much heat itself.

Start with comfortable shoes and socks, then work your way up (although not when getting dressed, then you should start with your underwear). A check list prepared in the weeks before means you are less likely to be rushing around in race week trying to find a different pair of shorts that have a special pocket, or a new sports bra that you don’t have time to test.

And last, but not least, nothing new on race day. Chaffing can really ruin your day and you want your kit to be a known quantity, at least for the length of your longest training runs.  


A happy hound and a happy runner on the Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Italy. © Pete Aylward, RunPhoto
A happy hound and a happy runner on the Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Italy. © Pete Aylward, RunPhoto


3) Always have a race plan 

The great Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” and the first few hours of any ultra-marathon can feel like you’ve been through a couple of rounds with Iron Mike … if you pace it badly.

That said, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan, just that you need to be able to adapt when the time comes. And it will come. 

There is lots of planning you can do before race day that not only makes things easy for the big dance itself, but also helps you troubleshoot when you need to. Going through the time between checkpoints, what you will carry for each section, where you will meet your crew and what you might eat and drink.

You will have to adapt as you go, but having been through the process beforehand means you might know what options are best, have prepared for some of the hurdles and also built the psychological patterns and coping skills that will hold you in good stead.

Build on what has worked for you in the past, in your long training runs and previous marathons. Practice your plans, from food the day before, wake-up time on race day, breakfast, kit and any thing else you can think of that will physically and mentally prepare you for the starting line and can be rehearsed beforehand.

4) Enjoy yourself

This last one might feel over-simplistic, but it’s so often overlooked and is key. Training is fun, but the race is the best part of the whole experience. Make sure you smile on the start-line, wish your fellow runners a good time and enjoy the race.

The Italians say “In bocca al lupo” to each other at the start and its translates as “into the wolf’s mouth”, the equivalent of “Break a leg” but much cooler I reckon. Then just have fun.