How to Train for Your First 50K Ultra-Marathon

Great news!  Running a trail ultra is a great post-marathon challenge and one that can change the way you run for life.  Although it may seem intimidating at first, once you begin to train, it will feel familiar and more like a slightly altered marathon program.  Here are nine things you need to know to train for your first 50K ultra-marathon.

Train specifically. The more closely you simulate the trail terrain you’ll be racing on in training, the more prepared you’ll be.  Do your research on the course to identify the level of technical difficulty, hills, altitude, and weather.  Will you be running on single track (narrow trails) with tree roots and rocks?  Will the course roll up and down gradual hills, short steep rocky hills or long climbs at altitude?  Is it a typically hot and humid or dry climate?  Are you running on sand, dirt, rocks or grass?  The more you know the better you can tailor your training to weave in similar terrain and optimally prepare your body and mind for race day.

Merge off road gradually. Although the impact forces while trail running are lower than road running, the demands on your muscles, tendons and joints will be greater when you begin to run on trails.  Every step is unique which ultimately lowers the risk of overuse injury however, because these patterns are new to your body it will need time to adapt.  Start your journey to the trails with a few shorter runs during the week and hold this pattern for the first 4-6 weeks.  Once you begin to feel comfortable, begin to transition your long endurance runs on the trails.

Watch out for trail drain. One sign you know you’ve run hard on roads is the unmistakeable muscle tightness and fatigue that comes from the impact forces.   You can literally feel the effects of the impact on your body.  This is not the case on trails.  The body hurts less and fatigue shows up in an overall energy drain and decrease in the ability to maintain strong running form (tripping, falling).  Like marathon training, it is just as important to follow the flow of easy and hard workouts to allow your body to acclimate and recover efficiently.   It is wise to respect the new demands of trail running and in the initial stages treat trail runs as harder workouts until your body adapts.  Listen to your body for signs of trail drain (low energy during runs, fatigue, higher breathing rates at average paces, dead legs, and feeling generally tired all day).  If you have the drain, cross-train for a few days at an easy effort and run on flat roads for the week to recover.

Modify your long run strategy. Yes, in order to race longer you need to train longer but you don’t need to go crazy.  You can run lots of super long trail runs well beyond the 31 mile race distance, but just because you can, doesn’t mean it is the wisest way to roll.  If you invest all your energy for the week in running long, you will also need to invest all your energy in recovery.  Balance out your training recipe with a variety of workouts and you’ll improve your stamina, endurance, strength, technical skills and recover more efficiently so you can train harder for longer.  You’ll also have an easier time balancing your lifestyle with ultra training too!  Like making chili, if all you put in the pot is black beans, you’ll end up with a great pot of warm black beans.  Mix up your long run strategy by running a single long run one weekend as you did for marathon training, followed by a back to back series of long runs the next weekend (ex. 16 kilometres Saturday + 9 kilometres Sunday on trails), followed by a cutback long run (14-16km) the next.  Continue to build the long endurance runs to 38-40 kilometres (single long run) and the back to back long runs to 22-26 kilometres Saturday + 13-16 kilometres Sunday.  This three week cycle allows you to run long and slowly for the continuity in the single long run, slightly faster and on tired legs the second weekend and recover the third weekend.  Remember to build these long runs gradually just as you did for the marathon training.

Mix it up, run on roads and cross-train. Balance out the rest of your training program with a mid-week 60-80 minute easy run, a faster paced road run (tempo or intervals) to maintain foot speed, and one or two shorter easy paced road runs.  Weave in cross-training activities that are lower in impact and will compliment the needs of the ultra athlete.  Mountain biking is one of the best forms as you are in and out of the saddle developing core and leg strength in your hips and quads all while training without impact.  Don’t skimp on the core strengthening exercises (planks, killer caterpillars) and flexibility work (stretching, foam rolling) as it will keep you balanced, healthy and improve your body’s ability to run longer with greater durability.  If you are planning to continue to run on roads for training and racing, it is wise to stick with at least 40% of your training one the harder surface as you’ll maintain the ability to withstand the impact forces.

Run with the rhythm of the trail. The greatest part of trail running is it teaches you to run by the terrain rather than your watch.  It doesn’t mean you have to toss your watch aside, it simply means your normal pace won’t mean much on a winding, technical single track trail.  Set a goal this season to run by effort (how you feel – breathing, heart rate) rather than pace.  This can and will change the way you run forever.  One, because you end up running your best effort on any given day (hot, humid, cold, low energy) and two, it gives you a sense of freedom that empowers you to explore beyond your numerical limits.  It allows you train simply by matching your effort to the planned workout for the day (easy, moderate, hard) versus trying to run by a planned pace which may or may not be optimal for the day.  For example, the training plan calls for a 60 minute trail run tomorrow and it is going to be 95 degrees and you haven’t slept all week.  Rather than running at a planned 10 minute pace (which would cause you to go into a red line status), you run by feel, refer to your watch only as secondary information and run at a pace that is optimal on the day (much slower).  Because you are wise in running by effort rather than pace, your body rewards you with efficient recovery and allows you to run hard two days later when the weather cools.  Good stuff.

Be self contained. Although there will be kick-butt aid stations on the ultra course (bananas, pickles, sports drink, water, electrolytes and more) you will need to carry fluids and gels with you on the trail.  Fueling for an ultra is much different than a marathon because you will be out there longer (due to the longer distance and the demands of the trail).  Find the right balance of fuel for you while training this season and learn the hydration system that works for you.  There are three basic ways to go for carrying fluids (handheld bottle, backpack/vest bladder, and waist belt with multiple bottles) Learn more about these three systems here.

Make friends with walking.  Even the best ultra runners utilize the benefits of walking in training and on race day.  Power walking allows you to pace yourself evenly, dim the intensity on technical, hilly terrain and move more efficiently for longer periods of time.  Some ultra athletes set their watch alarms and perform run-walk intervals (ex: run 5 min./walk 1 min. or 15/4) while others run by the terrain and run the flat and predictable sections and downhills and walk the uphills and highly technical parts.  The latter strategy works very well for rolling, hills courses.

Race like the tortoise, not the hare. The secret to successful and joyful ultra-marathon races is in your pacing strategy.  Because any given mile could be flat, rolling, muddy, technical, it is impossible to race by your watch at a specific pace (unless of course you’ve trained on the course and know it by feel and even then it will be hard).  Rather than relying on your watch, use your natural pacing instincts and run by your effort.  Learning to race by feel will have a tremendous impact on all your other races as it will teach you to run from within and through any racing condition and cross the finish line at your strongest.  Break the race up into three parts and color code them.  Run a light green for the first third where you can’t hear your breathing and you’re at a happy effort.  Run the second part of the course at an orange where you can just start to hear your breathing but still running at a moderate and controlled effort.  Finish the third section in the red where you can hear your breathing, but you know you are in the last part and have the energy and stamina to push hard to the end.  If you invest in the final act (third section), it will pay off in many hard, but happy miles in the end not to mention a fantastic finish line photo!

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