This is the question I get asked all the time, what do I need equipment wise to be an ultra-runner? The flippant answer would be to say, just a pair of running shoes and a sense of adventure. While that is true, as many ultra-runners will tell you, there is a mountain of equipment you can buy, which will help make your running adventures more comfortable and safer.
So where to begin?
Going back to my flippant response, shoes are still key. These are your contact point with the ground and the piece of kit through which you drive yourself forward. After your body, they are also the one item of your equipment that will come in for the most abuse, whether you are running ten, thirty, fifty or a hundred miles.
There are various considerations when it comes to running shoes but the three key considerations in my mind are fit, comfort and grip. Let’s take a look at each in turn.
It sounds simple but everyone’s feet are different and for some of us our left and right feet are different too. Some have wide feet, some have narrow. Some have ongoing medical issues with their feet or long-term injuries to consider as well. Do you pronate? Are you a fore, mid foot or heel striker?
Now I am by no means an expert but the one piece of advice I would give any runner, is to take the time to go into a shop and get a pair of shoes properly fitted.
Most independent running stores will have a treadmill set up, which you can use to test out various shoes while in the store. Even better they will do some video analysis to check how your feet are landing in them. The best will do all sorts of amazing things with computers but you’ll generally need to pay extra for that.
The key thing is to seek expert advice and identify the right shoes that work for you and your feet.
Fit will play a massive role in the comfort of your feet of course but in addition to that, the make-up of the shoe, the materials used and the level of cushioning will contribute as well.
If you have ever browsed websites, shelves in a running store or magazine articles, you will be aware that there are loads of different options out there, both across and within the brands.
From maximal to minimal shoes. From narrow to standard and even wide fit. Super lightweight, to more rugged materials. Do you go Goretex or other waterproof lined shoes or not? All of these will play a part in the comfort of the shoe.
Weight is another important aspect. It may not seem like much but if you consider how many steps you will take in a fifty-mile race, your legs and hips will thank you for even a saving of a few grams. That said, with reduced weight tends to come, in my experience anyway, reduced durability.
Hands on reviews of shoes can be easily accessed online these days but be sure to look for those reviewers that have done a decent amount of mileage. On my own website for instance, I aim to do at least a hundred kilometres and ideally a hundred miles in a pair of shoes before I publish a review. This allows me to really get to know the shoes in a variety of conditions and also test out how they stand up to prolonged use.
Another common question is whether to go with Goretex or not? Many are attracted to the weather proofing this offers and why not? After all, wet feet tend to suffer more correct?
It is true, that wet feet can lead to blistering or even issues like trench foot. However, in my mind, waterproof liners are only really useful when running through dew laden grass or shallow snow, where you are trying to keep surface moisture out. They won’t help with a full submersion of the foot like crossing streams or boggy ground. Even with the waterproof lining, there is still a massive hole in the top where your foot goes into the shoe. Once water is in, that lining turns your shoe into a bucket and soaked feet are all but guaranteed.
Personally, I would suggest you go for a pair of shoes that will drain easily and then look are your sock choice and other approaches to general foot-care, to help prevent issues with moisture.
Which leads us onto the next consideration when it comes to shoe comfort, what socks do you wear?
In addition to the shoe, the socks you wear will also play a massive role in the comfort of your shoes and feet. Just like shoes, there are a myriad of choices out there and you will get different advice from different people. For what it is worth, my personal choice is an Injinji liner sock made of merino wool (to help with warmth and moisture control) paired with an outer sock to suit the particular conditions I expect of face.
In winter, this could be a knee-length waterproof sock, to protect my feet from all but the worst dunking. In summer, this will be a short ankle or mid-calf based sock, with the X-Socks Sky Run 2.0 my personal favourites.
Socks are obviously cheaper than shoes, so this does allow you to play around a bit and find what works. Whatever you choose, make sure you take them with you when you go to try new shoes on, as they could impact the fit.
The final key consideration when looking at shoes is the grip they provide. This is controlled by two components, the type of compound that is used on the outsole and the tread they have.
Vibram are the king when it comes to grip in my opinion but their use is still few and far between in running shoes. This is slowly starting to improve, with both North Face and Hoka using it on some of their models.
When it comes to tread, there are so many different options. Tread for road, tread for trail. Tread for hard packed trail, tread for thick mud. Tread for snow and ice, tread for descending.
As your running career develops, one thing is for certain you will end up having a mountain of shoes in your arsenal. You can easily translate the joke that cyclists have used for years to running by saying that N+1 is the number of shoes you need as a runner, where N is the current number you have.
Personally, I have well over ten pairs of shoes in use at any one time. This is extreme granted, as I typically have a couple of pairs on review and also like to rotate through various makes and models to improve my foot strength and match the terrain.
So how to choose. Well the simplest is to look at the surfaces you typically run on in your training and also the terrain underfoot in your next race. This should give you a good indication of what you need and go from there.
So that about covers shoes. What else would I recommend for new ultra-runners?
My next top tip would be to get a good watch. I’m not necessarily talking about one of the all singing all dancing GPS monsters from the likes of Garmin or Suunto, although I do have one myself. The key requirement I suggest, is to get one which allows you to track your heart rate, ideally using a chest strap, as wrist based monitors can be less accurate when it comes to running in my experience.
Why? Well one of the most common issues I see is people running too fast. Strava and Co have a lot to answer for here, with many of today’s ultra-runners constantly chasing running segments when they should be focussing on running economy.
Using heart rate, you are able to monitor and manage the intensity you are running, regardless of the terrain and weather conditions you are running in. For ultra-running, efficient aerobic running is the key and the best way to improve this is widely agreed to be running within your aerobic heart rate zone.
This subject could be a whole article or even series of articles in itself and maybe I will write that soon on my own website(www.ultrarun.in) but for now, simply getting a watch that allows you to see your heart rate while you run is a great starting point.
Reading up on something like the Phil Maffetone method could also be useful too. It’s likely you will need to run slower than you feel you should or want to in the beginning but stick with it and you will see the longer-term benefits, I promise.
Next on my list, is choosing and training with a suitable backpack.
The majority of ultra-marathons will have a required kit list, which is unlike the majority of shorter races you may have run previously. Due to the longer distances, you are also likely to need to carry your own food and fluid to see you between the checkpoints as well.
In most instances, a waist belt won’t be sufficient to fit everything in and you’ll need to consider getting a backpack.
Again, as with everything, there are a massive range of packs aimed at runners available, with new manufacturers coming to market each year. Like shoes it is going to come down to fit and the amount of stuff you will need to carry. The needs of a fifty-kilometre race for instance are typically less than a hundred miler, where you may need to run through one or more nights.
I’m a massive fan of the packs provided by Ultimate Direction and Salomon, and you won’t go far wrong selecting one of these. However, ask around, see what other people use and see if you can borrow a pack and try it on a run.
Also remember a fully laden pack will feel different to an empty one, so if you’re trying in the shop, grab some other items and load it up. It’s also worth trying the pack on with a range of different clothes on. A full pack will fit and feel different over a t-shirt, to a full set of waterproofs with multiple layers underneath.
As your mileage increases, then so will the need to run in the hours of darkness. Whether this is during the winter months to keep your training up or in races themselves. A comfortable and reliable head torch is therefore essential for any ultra-runner and will be on the vast majority of mandatory kit lists you will encounter during your racing career.
Again, the choice of head torches on the market today is bewildering. Do you go for a torch with both the battery and light on the front or one with the battery pack on the back? Do you go for one where the battery pack can be detached entirely or one where the light can be worn on your chest or waist? The later may sound strange but when running on rough ground, the additional shadows a lower light produces, can help avoid an unfortunate stumble or even worse.
Size and weight are an important consideration. Not only will you have to carry it in your pack during the day but once it is on your head, its weight and balance will play a key role in its comfort too. Going super lightweight may be the obvious option but with this you will compromise the strength of light and battery life it can provide.
Many manufacturers now sell their torches with rechargeable batteries built-in, which can be charged through a USB socket and swapped out with another rechargeable unit if required. Some also allow you to use standard AA or AAA batteries in place of the rechargeable battery, which can be useful when trying to keep the cost down or running through multiple nights. However, be sure to check the small print in the manual first, as switching to a different type of battery may disable some of the more innovative features of the torch. Also, be sure to practice changing the battery in the dark, as that is when its likely to happen in a race and can be tricky, especially if you are tired, cold and wet.
One of the most useful introductions in recent years, is reactive light technology. This not only dramatically extends the battery life, without increasing the weight but also means the torch will automatically adjust its brightness based upon whether you are looking at something close up or in the distance. You can typically adjust these settings yourself, by plugging the unit into your computer or using an app on your mobile phone. This can be useful for adjusting the settings to match the particular demands of an upcoming race, although in practice, I have found I use this feature once and then just forget about it.
Needless to say, with so much choice, it is advisable to try before you buy if you can, as what works for one person may not work for another. My personal preference is the Petzl Nao, as I find it extremely comfortable to run in and believe it provides the perfect balance between weight, brightness and battery life. I also carry a Petzl e+Lite as a small emergency backup to get me off the hill or help me change the battery pack in the dark.
If you would like to hear more of my ramblings about head torches, then you may be interested in my Runners Guide to Head Torches from Petzl, which I wrote over at MyOutdoors.co.uk at the end of 2016.
My final choice for this list is a good pair of shorts.
Why shorts? Well a good pair of shorts can make or break a race. While many will worry about how they look, the key things I look at are fit and moisture management.
The longer you run, the more heat and sweat you will generate between your thighs and in your groin. I have seen many people suffer from this in ultra-marathons and what starts as a fun day out can soon decent into an extremely sore and miserable journey to the finish line, with no amount of Vaseline able to ease the chaffing.
As with everything I’ve talked about today, the right short for you will be different to others and it will come down to personal fit and preference. You are an experiment of one, so play around with a variety of options in your training, especially your longer runs and see what works for you.
Many prefer to layer shorts, so maybe pair a tighter fitting compression shorts, under a more traditional pair of running shorts. Be sure to cut the liner out of the running shorts if you do this to improve the ventilation. Pockets can also be useful too, to hold things like gloves, buffs and empty food wrappers.
My personal preference is shorts from X-Bionic, which I have found to provide excellent moisture management and I have so far managed to be mostly chaff free in my races when wearing them. They are pricey but worth the investment and I tend to keep mine for racing and my longest training runs, to get the most out of them.
So, there we have it, my quick spin through the five items that I think every new ultra-runner should be looking at when choosing their equipment. Namely shoes (and socks), heart rate monitor, backpack, head torch and shorts.
As I’ve already mentioned, the specific items you choose in each category must be suitable for your needs, size, shape and build. Take your time and enjoy the process. Ask other people’s opinions and advice, and if you can borrow some kit. It is always good to try before you buy.
Hopefully you have found this a useful article and I thank Mikula for the chance to publish it here on his excellent website. I would love to hear your thoughts and what other items you would include in your list. Feel free to contact me through my website(www.ultrarun.in) or on Twitter(@ultraruninuk) or simply leave a comment below.
Good luck in your journey as an ultra runner. Above all else, have fun and I hope to meet you out on the trails soon.
Giles Thurston loves nothing more than a long run in the mountains, exploring new areas and photographing and writing about his adventures. He is a Running Ambassador for Mountain Fuel, has written for a number of print and digital publications on the subject of ultra-running in recent years and is a member of the Running Editorial Team at MyOutdoors.co.uk. Giles lives with his wife and two children in Cambridgeshire, UK, where you will regularly find him running across The Fens. Follow his running adventures over at www.ultrarun.inor on Facebook, Instagramand Twitter.