“Make friends with pain and you will never be alone.”~Ken Choubler, Leadville 100 mile race founder
Here is something no-one tells you about ultra-marathons and 100-mile races in particular: It doesn’t matter how in shape you are physically, if you don’t get your mind right, you will fail.
To run 50, 65, 100 miles, takes more than physical conditioning.
This article covers training regimes, nutrition, and gear considerations to get you ready for your first 100-miler.
Because it is so important, we will start with the mental side. Use the table of contents to skip ahead if you prefer.
Table Of Contents:
- Finding Your Why
- Mental Toughness
- Am I ready To Run 100 Miles?
- How To Train For A 100 Miler
- What Is It Like To Run A 100 Mile Race?
- What To Bring: Gear & Nutrition
- What’s Next?
- Recommended Reading & Podcasts
How To Run 100 Miles In A Nutshell
100 mile races are grueling. Mile by mile they tear down our joints and muscles until they are, paradoxically, hard knots of jello. Then each mile takes its turn chipping away at your will power.
To be successful at finishing your first ultra race, whether its 50K or 100 miles, requires mental fortitude.
Further on we will get in-depth about training tips and tricks but you must start with why.
Find your reason for running 100 miles and your mind will hold you accountable. Start with your mind and you will excel much faster than those around you.
Don’t get me wrong, you also have to train your physical side hard (like really hard—we get into that further down too), but the key to long term success while maintaining your drive is mental toughness.
Through training we build calluses on our feet. As renowned hardman David Goggins puts it, we must also work to build calluses in our minds.
Please remember, the content provided below is not meant as an expert opinion. Information is based on personal experience and personal research. Always consult a professional first.
Finding Your Why
As Simon Sinek reveals in his influential, Start With Why, knowing the reason you are doing something will help you sell that idea to others.
When it comes to running 100 miles, knowing your why will help you sell that seemingly monumental task to yourself. This sounds silly, but it is critical to success.
I have seen athletes in much better shape than me hallucinating on the trail, curled up in the fetal position at the aid station, and zoned-out standing motionless in the middle of the trail at 3 am.
Sometimes runners struggle into an aid station, sit down on a cot or the ground, and they don’t get back up. I have seen them sit down and quit at mile 50 just as often as mile 80.
That momentary comfort instantly melts their drive down to nothing because they didn’t prepare their minds. They didn’t know their why.
When the going gets tough, and it will, you need to have a solid why in your mind to keep you moving forward.
One of my favorite running Vloggers, Billy Yang, sums it up in this inspirational and beautifully made video:
Talk To Yourself
The quickest way to find your why is to talk to yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions and be brutally honest. Look in the mirror before every training run and focus on why you are running in the first place.
This method was first popularized by Claude Bristol in The Magic Of Believing—a roadmap to the power of the mind that was way ahead of its time. Bristol calls it the Mirror Technique.
David Goggins uses a similar technique he calls the Accountability Mirror.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to get started:
- Why did I start running in the first place?
- Why is running mt first 100 miler so important to me?
- What will it feel like to complete a 100-mile race?
- Who will be the first person I tell about it?
- How have I changed since I started running?
- What would have to happen to accomplish this goal?
Take some time to dig into the real reason for wanting this and own it.
Maybe you are running to raise money for a cause or you might be running to prove you can do it. Maybe you made a bet. Perhaps you have started a new phase in your life and this is the culmination.
Whatever your reason, none is too small or too big. What matters is that it is true for you. Hold that in your mind for the entirety of your preparation as well as the actual event.
Knowing your why is a huge component of mental toughness. Without it everything else will eventually fall apart. However, just like improving your lactate threshold or V02 max, it is something you have to train.
This is not something I just made up. You can find proponents of this ‘mind-first’ training attitude in every pursuit requiring will power.
Want to learn about mindset for endurance in-depth, check out In Pursuit Of Excellence, by Terry Orlick; and my personal favorites Training For The New Alpinism, by Steve House et al; and just about anything by Mark Twight (the guy who trained Superman and the 300 movie actors).
Repetition Is Power
Wherever you are in your running journey, when you step up to 100 miles or more, start out by training your mind just as often as you train your body.
Repetition is power. There is no better way than constant repetition to build new skills, especially mental skills. The more you do something the easier it becomes.
In fact, new evidence shows repetition is the key to mastery. As noted in The Talent Code, talent is actually a process whereby we repeat a task over and over in different ways.
Our mind creates the pathways to handle that task. The more that pathway is fired—repetition—the stronger that pathway becomes; leading to mastery.
Importantly for endurance athletes, the more you condition your mind to persevere beyond your limits the easier it is to access that mindset when it counts. Create mental pathways leading to unstoppable perseverance.
If you are starting from 0, go out and just run. Maybe 1/2 mile is too much for you. That’s ok. Run 1/3 mile today. Tomorrow add some more; run 3/4 miles. The next day or week hit 1 mile.
You are slowly training your body, but you are also forming new pathways in your mind. Repetition is the power that will get you from here to there.
Your Mind Runs Harder Than Your Legs
Even if you are already a great marathon distance runner but want to do 100 miles, train in a way that is always pushing your mind as well as your body.
For a quick look, check out 10-Minute Toughness.
Maybe that means longer-faster intervals. Or it might mean going out for a long duration run over a fast run.
Put yourself in whatever position makes your mind want to quit, then drive right through it.
Here is the man himself on training your mind:
Motivation is wanting to run a 100 miler; drive is putting in daily effort to make it happen. Motivation is starting a race feeling good; drive is finishing a race despite feeling like hell.
When David Goggins talks about building calluses in your mind, this is what he is referring too.
In the middle of the night, at mile 72 when you’re bonking on energy gels and gummy bears struggling to keep your eyes open its not the physical conditioning that keeps you moving, it is your mental toughness.
Train for drive over motivation. Do that, and you will cross the 100-mile finish line before you know it.
This Is Going To Take Time
You might have stumbled across training programs or people claiming that you can run a 100 miler off the couch if you want.
The guy we mentioned above did it, why can’t you?
Well, he put himself into kidney failure and constantly rolled the dice with death (turns out he had a hole is his heart the whole time). He proved it is possible. But that doesn’t mean it is wise.
Most structured 100-mile training programs will last around 24 weeks, a half-year, minimum. And that is assuming a moderate level of fitness to begin with.
It takes time to build up the physical and mental conditioning required for a 100 miler.
Am I ready To Run 100 Miles?
All this might lead you to wonder if you are ready to run 100 miles.
In my experience, any person with the time and the right reason can run 100 miles.
Are you ready to put in the time? Do you know your why? Is your mind prepared to propel you through any obstacle in the way of that finish line?
Yes? Then you are ready.
No? Then start today, right now, and you will eventually succeed.
As a wise-crazy man once said, “Don’t focus on what you think you deserve. Take aim at what you are willing to earn.”
It sounds simple, but that is the truth.
How To Train For A 100 Miler
Let’s get into the meat of it.
First off, start ASAP. As I said, this is going to take time.
Whether you are starting from the couch or from a solid marathon level base, training for ultra-distance will be different than what you are used to.
For people who are starting from zero, it might be wise to build up to a marathon level base before progressing to longer distances.
Hanson’s running has some great free programs. Here is an example:
Build Up Your Base
This is the most important part of long-distance training.
In this phase, you must be a tortoise. Go slow, but maintain consistency. These base-building runs, whether on trails or roads, should be run at a conversational pace.
A conversational pace means having enough breath to carry on a friendly conversation while running.
It is important to build your base at this slower pace to prevent injury (check the reading suggestions below for more on preventing injury).
You will be quickly increasing your weekly mileage well beyond what your body is accustomed to; give it time to adapt.
To successfully run 100 miles you need to gradually increase your weekly mileage volume and the overall distance of your long-distance training runs.
As you get stronger you will want to start stacking runs.
An example of stacking runs might be running 7 miles on Monday, a day or two off, then a 20-mile run Wednesday followed by a 30 mile run the next day.
Once you get stronger, start stacking runs in the same 24 hours. This might look like running 20 miles in the morning, take 5-8 hours off for work or sleep, then hit another 20-30 miles in the afternoon.
Be sure to do this in a structured manner. You don’t want to over-train.
Here is an example training plan from Relentlessforwardcommotion.com:
You can see towards the end of their training plan they are stacking a marathon distance day with a 3:30:00 run.
This is a great program as it builds slowly and steadily with scheduled recovery.
From my experience, however, I would do a lot more stacking towards the middle-third of the training program.
You don’t have to run the distances suggested above, but stacking distances like that will push your body while also pushing your mind. That is critical.
One other thing about the suggested plan above, I don’t believe there is enough total distance. Their longest week, other than the 100-mile race at the end, is 73 miles.
If you want to crush 100 miles your body and mind need to know what that feels like. Aim for 100 mile+ weeks somewhere in the middle of this timeframe (i.e. around week 17-18).
Still, remember to listen to your body and rest when needed. The training plan above will absolutely get you through a 100-mile race. My additional suggestions are for taking your training to the next level.
Other important components included in the training plan above, are speed work and hills. Something I would add, are intervals.
Adding interval work to your training program is the magic ingredient that will take you from runner to ultra-ultra runner.
Interval training consists of three main workout types: Tempo, HIIT, Fartleks.
What all these workouts do is force your body to become increasingly efficient at oxygen transportation and utilization while improving its ability to deal with lactic acid.
This increases your V02 max and improves your lactate threshold.
Essentially, intervals make your body more efficient which allows you to run harder for longer.
Incorporate these workouts at least once a week. On the practical side, intervals have the added benefit of packing more work into less time, and they’re fun.
Maybe that is not a real word, but near-distance runs are important.
Plan the longest mileage day of your training program for approximately 1.2 months (about 6 weeks+/-) before race day.
Ideally, this is a distance at or near actual race distance.
For a 100 miler, don’t run 100 miles in a day while training. Instead, an example near-distance run might be signing up for a 50 miler then doing another shorter run the day after.
Regardless of how you organize it plan your longest day with enough time before race day to recover as well as continue to build endurance.
One more thing I would alter with the plan above, I would taper much more drastically as you approach your race date.
Obviously this comes down to personal preference but be sure to taper enough that your body is rested without being de-conditioned.
Still, you also want to enter race day with enough rest that you are itching to get going.
At the minimum, during the 2 weeks leading up to the race, don’t go over 30 miles per week maximum.
The last week leading up, eat more than usual until a few days before. Carbo-loading is great but taper that too as you approach 32-24 hours pre-race day.
And if you can, the two days before start time, do nothing. Literally nothing. Lay around, read, meditate, stretch, whatever. Walks are great too as long they require near-zero effort.
During your training program be sure to consistently get enough sleep.
It seems obvious, but it takes a lot of time to fit these miles into your week and making time for sleep can feel impossible.
There is no easy remedy for this when you are balancing life with training. Remain aware and make an effort to make space for sleep.
Chances are you won’t sleep much or sleep well the night before the race. Don’t let that stress you out.
The night before the night before is actually your most important night of rest. Set that day up for optimal sleep whatever it takes.
There is a lot of debate out there about this topic. Haters will hate. I can tell you I am not a good sleeper and have never slept well the night before a race.
But I can also say with certainty if I don’t sleep well two nights before and the night before a race, my performance goes way down.
What’s It Like To Run A 100 Mile Race?
Truth be told, it’s a mind f*ck. If you’ve been reading along you might have expected that response, but its true.
Don’t believe me, see what Jes Woods, a runner and NBC suit had to say about it.
After 83 miles of her first Javelina 100 attempt, she dropped out. Her reason, her mind wasn’t right.
The best way to describe it; running 100 miles is like being underwater. It’s not easy, it doesn’t feel right, and the longer you stay down the closer you get to puking.
But at some point everything fades away and life is just right there in your next step, waiting for you to take it.
How Much Of A 100 Miler Do You Actually Run?
This depends on what type of 100-mile race you are doing. There are plenty of long races on flat roads or access roads. Then there are some brutal races that yo-yo up and down the mountains on both single-track trails and fire roads.
Even some of the top distance runners will speed hike steep inclines.
In a race this long you are going to walk at some point, the key is figuring out when is right for you.
This is where your training comes in. Get out on lots of different terrains during training runs so you know what works best for your body.
If you can speed hike up an incline just as fast as you can run it, then speed hike. It will save you valuable energy when it counts.
Does your course cover lots of uneven terrain like the Hurt 100 in Hawaii?
You might be better off walking or speed hiking those sections. Walking might ruin your time but a sprained or broken ankle will put you out of the race altogether.
Regardless of the terrain, there is no shame in walking. As long as you keep moving towards the finish line you will get there. Walk when you need too.
You can also make up bits of time by walking and eating through the aid stations rather than stopping.
Moral of the story, unless you are a top runner, you are going to be walking a lot. That’s ok, that is normal. Be strategic with your walking to make up time and save energy.
Obviously a personal preference. I have seen both men and women walking and peeing at the same time in the middle of the night.
Many female runners use the She Wee to save their leg muscles the work of squatting every time they have to go.
Having a deuce in the locker can be a bigger problem. Depending on where you are in your race, taking the time to sit down and go to the bathroom can destroy your momentum.
Because aid stations can be well-spaced, it’s worth it to carry a few biodegradable wipes in your pack or waist belt.
There is no easy solution for these situations, just be aware. Make these pit stops as short as possible.
What To Bring On A 100 Mile Race
Even though all official races have extravagant aid stations, most runners carry a small running pack or waist belt.
Inside, people will usually carry a lightweight extra layer, some fluid, and some sort of snack.
What you carry largely depends on if you have a crew following you or not.
Even if you don’t have a crew, you can prepare drop-bags ahead of time that will be waiting for you at a specific aid station.
Put extra supplies like batteries and a headlamp, a sandwich, or an extra pair of clean socks in a large ziplock bag with your name and bib number on it in permanent marker.
You will hand these in at a specified time and place well before the race starts.
Each event has it’s own rules, so check the details for your chosen race before the start date so you can plan ahead.
Just remember, for a 100 miler you will need a good headlamp overnight.
This topic can be a point of contention. Running packs are light but once you start throwing stuff in they get heavy quickly.
Here is the full set up I use and recommend. All of this with about 500 mls of water shouldn’t weight more than a 1.5 pounds or so (not including the weight of the pack).
1.Pack (I prefer a pack over hip belts): I don’t use bladder packs because they tend to get moldy but also because it makes it much more difficult and time-consuming to fill up and to mix in energy powders. My two top choices, the Nathan VaporKrar or the Ultimate Direction Ultra.
2. Light-weight Layer: Look for something wind-proof, water-resistant, and ultra-packable. My go-to for over a decade; the Patagonia Houdini Jacket.
Tip: These jackets a fairly fragile but easily repaired. Use clear-no-glue bicycle tube patches for a quick fix that will last.
3. Socks: Whether you stash them in a drop-bag or carry them, always bring an extra pair of socks.
For anything longer than 50 miles I wear toe socks. If you haven’t tried them, get a pair and test them on training runs. They greatly reduce blistering between toes. Most times I wear toe socks with an ultra-thin regular sock over top.
My choice, one of the best-made toe socks out there; the Injinji Run 2.0.
4. Water Bottle: I have been using Amphipod running bottles for a while now. They are inexpensive, lightweight and get the job done. If you want something with more storage space try the Nathan Speed Draw.
5. Quick Calories: Hammer Nutrition has been in the endurance game since the 80s. They are my favorite running supplement company and were one of the first to offer sustained energy drink mixes without all the junk.
Headlamp: Get the lightest one with the longest battery life and have a backup stashed in a drop-bag. Try the Black Diamond Iota. It’s lightweight and rechargeable.
Some Extras: I also always carry some athletic tape (for blisters) wrapped around a chapstick tube and a wad of toilet paper or wet wipes.
Some people change their shoes mid-race. Personally, this doesn’t make a difference for me unless they have gotten wet for some reason.
Regardless of your preference, it is smart to have a spare pare waiting for you in a drop-bag at one of the aid stations just in case.
Something to consider, if you aren’t already doing this, size up your shoes at least 1/2-1 full size. Your feet swell during long races. If your shoes are too small you run a higher risk of blisters.
Try this technique out during your training. And never wear brand new shoes to a race.
Coming into a brightly lit aid station at mile 72 is going turn you into Pavlov’s dog. Resist the temptation to reach for sweets or too much Gatorade.
Again, this is up to personal preference.
Use your training time to experiment with different nutrition regimes so you can find what works best for you.
A sometimes hilarious and inspiring example of this is Bernd Heinrich’s, Why We Run.
He set the100 Km world record in 1981 fueled only by cranberry juice.
Regardless of what you choose be sure to alternate more complex carbohydrates with the simpler ones that you get in gel shots or drink mixes.
I’ll usually alternate these drink mixes with a few bites of a premade sandwich every few hours.
On long runs I always carry a bulky sandwich of chicken, cranberry sauce, sprouts, and potato bread.
Some people think this is stupid due to the weight and extra blood it takes to digest but I need real food out there.
Again, experiment to find what works best for you.
My go-to nutrition for sustained energy:
Previous conventional wisdom advocated for at least 30 ounces/800 milliliters of water intake per hour of strenuous activity.
New evidence suggests that number is much too high, but also relative to body size and environmental conditions.
Hydration, your body’s ability to absorb and utilize water, cannot occur without electrolytes. This is part of why salt pills or electrolyte pills have become popular in the running world.
Salt pills or electrolyte tablets have become increasingly popular because they work. Their formulas vary, but for the most part, you take 1 before the race then 1 every hour after that.
As always test this out on your training runs first.
How much you hydrate will depend on how much you sweat, the temperature outside, and how hard you are working.
As a minimum, try for a few big sips every 15 minutes while staying on top of your electrolyte replacement.
Look into some of the resources suggested below.
Pushing your body for 100 miles or more isn’t easy, it’s not a normal thing to do. But you are not ordinary, you are extraordinary.
Anyone with the time and motivation can run their first 100 miler. Arm yourself with the tools and knowledge to do it right.
For a little inspiration, I thought I’d leave you with this mini-documentary of Bernd Heinrich; a legendary runner and author who runs for the pure love of it.
Recommended Reading & Resources (in no particular order)
- The Rich Roll Podcast & Finding Ultra, by Rich Roll
- Why We Run, by Bernd Heinrich
- North, by Scott Jurek
- 50/50 & Ultramarathon Man, by Dean Karnazes
- Can’t Hurt Me, by David Goggins
- Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall
- In Pursuit Of Excellence, by Terry Orlick
- 10-Minute Toughness, by Jason Selk
- Extreme Alpinism & Kiss Or Kill, by Mark Twight
- Start With Why, by Simon Sinek
- Relentless Forward Progress, by Bryon Powell
- Trail Guide To The Body, by Andrew Biel
- Fixing Your Feet, by John Vonhof
- Tread Lightly, by Bill Katovsky
- Endurance Planet Podcast
- Trail Runner Nation Podcast
- Endurance Plante Podcast
- Billy Yang Films
Running 100 miles isn’t going to be easy. A 100 miler will test both your mind and your body.
Train your mental toughness just as much as your physical fitness.
Take some time to discover why you want this goal. Knowing your why will allow you to tap into the power of your mind. After all your mind controls your body, not the other way around.
Re-affirming your why over and over as you train will build mental toughness and drive which will allow you to run through any barriers that might come up between mile 0 and mile 100.
Train for both distance and time. Incorporate interval training into your plan as much as possible.
Mix things up. Run-on different types of terrain at different elevations often. Take a pack on some runs and go without a pack on others.
Be sure to get a ‘near-distance’ run in approximately 1.2 months before the start date.
Start tapering at least a month in advance.
Don’t forget to take a minimum of a few 100% rest days leading up to the race.
Plan ahead and bring the necessities with you. Know your race’s rules so you can stash supplies in drop-bags at aid stations along the way as permitted.
Test out your hydration and nutrition strategy on training runs. Avoid too much simple sugar, stay on top of electrolytes with salt or electrolyte pills, and keep in mind that overhydration and under-hydration can both be detrimental.
Be sure to schedule in rest during both your training and leading up to the race. The night before the night before is your most important night of sleep.
You can run a 100-mile race.
Running 100 miles isn’t going to be easy, but is anything worthwhile ever easy? It just takes time and perseverance.
Follow the suggestions in this article and soon you will be the one explaining how to run100 miles.