How to Train for Your First Ultra over 50K
A training plan and general principles to guide your first foray into longer ultramarathons
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First, a disclaimer (starting the article with some sexy talk for all the lawyers in the house). There is no single way to train for a longer ultramarathon. Each person can succeed through a bunch of different approaches, and this one may not be right for you.
If you’ve read these articles over the years, you know I hate giving specific advice without five non-controversial articles from medical journals to back it up. I’m like the annoying character on a TV drama that always says why the seemingly incontrovertible evidence the hero has gathered might be wrong. My style is basically Scully from X-Files mixed with a golden retriever.
However, one thing I always see is people being so daunted by the general idea of the 50-mile distance (and higher) that they never chase the goals that truly ignite their passion. They often think it requires tons of weekly miles, a Wolverine-like recovery ability, or a Batman-like ability to be way too confident in one’s abilities. In other words, they think longer ultras are for superhumans.
But ultras are for everyone who is motivated by the allure of seeing just how far they can go. This article goes over some principles that you can apply to your training if you’re debating going over 50K, and it even provides specifics through a 12-week intermediate training plan starting at 30 miles per week. The goal isn’t to tell you how to train, since like the number of analogies that is excessive in a trail-running article, I don’t know the answer to that question. Instead, it’s designed for athletes without coaches or backgrounds in training philosophy looking for a quick guide to chasing their scariest dreams. Let’s start with six big principles:
1. Overall training load is less important than specific training stress. (Translation: you don’t need to run crazy-high mileage, though some big weeks and back-to-back long runs can help.)
Top road-marathon performances often involve more training mileage than top ultra-trail performances. That seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t longer distances reward even more miles in training? The reason that isn’t always the case is that marathon performances are usually aerobically limited, with velocity around aerobic threshold being most important and biomechanical resilience being secondary. In ultras, ability to withstand biomechanical stresses often matters more than the raw power of the aerobic engine.
Marathoners run huge volume and do massive workouts because it’s the best way to optimize aerobic development and running economy, whereas ultramarathoners are usually more focused on handling the unique demands of performance over rocks and vert for many hours.
For ultra athletes, it’s hard to prepare for the acute stresses of long runs and mountain runs while also under high levels of chronic stress from extra-high volume unless they have a big base and durability to match. There are tons of stories that illustrate the point. Cat Bradley averaged 66 miles per week before winning the 2017 Western States 100, Zachary Ornelas averaged 60 miles per week before winning the 2018 U.S. 50 Mile Champs, just last week Kat Drew averaged 52 miles per week before winning the Chuckanut 50K. You’ll rarely see similar stories of pro marathoners consistently below 80 to 100 miles per week (though there are plenty of examples in both directions).
For your training, focus on building up to key efforts that simulate the demands of race day. That can be extra-long runs or training races (see week four in the plan) or back-to-back long runs that spur glycogen depletion and stress the musculoskeletal system (see weeks two, three, and five in the plan). Chronic stress matters (weekly miles), but acute stress matters more (key specific efforts on terrain like race day).
2. Running economy at higher intensities correlates with economy at lower intensities, like those on race day. (Translation: speed matters.)
Studies show that output at lactate threshold (around a one-hour effort) generally corresponds with performance at distances that are both shorter and farther than one hour. While there are tons of variables in long ultras and it won’t be an exact correlation with speed, optimizing running economy at faster paces usually makes slower paces more efficient.
In other words, going out and slogging through the miles each day just improves your slogging ability, and slogging ability can only improve so much over time. A faster 10K or ten-mile race pace will usually correspond to a faster all-day pace with a moderate amount of specific training, and it will reinforce adaptations that can compound over multiple training cycles. That running economy includes low-level aerobic development from easy days and top-end sustainable speed from shorter strides and intervals. This is all a convoluted way of saying that well-rounded training will improve ultra performance, plus it may allow for more long-term development than just focusing on long trail days with lots of climbing.
For your training, it’s important to work on running economy most of the year to avoid plateauing and eventually regressing from not reinforcing neuromuscular adaptations needed to run fast. In practice, that probably means doing strides (most Tuesdays and Sundays in the plan), shorter workouts (most Wednesdays in the plan) and some longer tempo runs (some Saturdays).
3. However, your “minimum velocity” will often be more relevant on race day than your velocity at lactate or aerobic thresholds. (Translation: be a confident hiker and consider cross training.)
This principle is adapted from something I heard from coach and athlete Ian Sharman, who talked in a Science of Ultra podcast about making sure your least-common-denominator pace (what you can do when the stuff hits the fan) is optimized. Minimum velocity means being able to hike fast uphill and run efficiently downhill late in races. I don’t care how fast someone is, if they slow to a crawl when hiking or lose the ability to run downhills on pounded legs, then they will probably be doing the slowest walk of shame late in ultras (trust me, I’ve been there).
In training, make sure you are a confident hiker. Practice good hiking form on trail runs (weekends in the plan), possibly add treadmill hikes of 20 to 30 minutes at 15 percent grade and four-plus miles per hour (Wednesdays after week seven in the plan), and consider adding nature hikes when it sounds fun. Run downhills purposefully in long runs to prepare the legs for the pounding of race day, gobbling up free speed in the process. Cross train/strength train if you have time and energy to spare.
4. Biomechanical stresses of downhills often cause more breakdown than aerobic and musculoskeletal stresses of uphills (Translation: practice efficient downhill running)
Every downhill is an opportunity. Running downhills in ultras, most athletes will be well below aerobic threshold, with low heart rates even at solid paces. Theoretically, that means it should be all-day pace. In practice, though, the biomechanical and neuromuscular demands of downhill running can cause breakdown and residual fatigue that makes what should be an easy effort feel impossible.
Here, it’s more about practice of a skill than the more painful adaptations from going hard. To practice, use several long runs (some Saturdays in the plan) as a chance to work on purposeful downhills. The body adapts to eccentric muscle contractions with just a few bouts of steep downhill running, so the biomechanical adaptations don’t take much reinforcement. Neuromuscularly, it’s tough at first, but eventually it becomes second nature. Plus, it’s where a lot of experienced trail runners describe “finding flow” of being in the moment, with a little bit of effortless transcendence mixed in.
5. Glycogen depletion can cause substantial decreases in output. (Translation: practice pacing and fueling.)
As described in a recent iRunFar article by coach and athlete Corrine Malcolm, ultras really are an eating competition. Studies show that low glycogen can decrease power output even before the dreaded bonk, so it’s important to stay on top of fueling. Part of that comes from pacing, with higher-intensity efforts burning more glycogen relative to fat, making it essential not to go out too fast. And part is adapting the small intestine to absorb nutrients during activity, which can be trained relatively rapidly.
In training, consider practicing race-day fueling on most runs over 90 minutes. There are other approaches that can work for some athletes, but most of us should just focus on excelling in the eating competition.
6. Unique psychological demands of race day require practicing performance-enhancing tips from sports psychology. (Translation: positive self-talk is key.)
If you sign up for an ultra, you are doing it because it’s hard. Doing it without difficulty being a primary motivation would be like getting to the cashier at the post office and asking where you can find the milk. Sports psychology shows that positive self-talk can super-charge performance, reducing perceived exertion and actually improving fitness over time.
Let’s think about why that is. Imagine you’re doing that 5 x 3-minute hill workout in week seven of the plan. That one hurts. It often hurts really, really bad.
Or does it? What if it hurts “good” instead? By changing the narrative around exertion to something positive, an athlete may avoid the slight panic that can set in on hard efforts or some of the fatigue of long efforts. They might be a touch faster, and even if they aren’t, they’ll be less stressed. Recent research shows that stress can have a primary influence on adaptation. So it’s possible that just by thinking positive thoughts about yourself and what you are doing, your physiology can adapt better to the same stimulus.
More importantly, it’s way more fun to go around thinking about how awesome you are. And on race day, that might be what gets you out of the chair at the mile-40 aid station.
There are lots more principles that are relevant, but if you’ve read this far, I assume endurance is already your strong suit. So we’ll stop there for now. The big message is pretty simple.
Be consistent, get fast, stay fast, go long in moderation and believe in yourself. Do that, and there is no trail race you can’t conquer with a smile.
Sample 12-week plan (starting at a consistent, healthy 30 miles per week)
Note: This plan might not work for you. In fact, it might be too general to work for anybody. But it illustrates some of the principles above for a template athlete with no coach and limited background in training philosophy that wants to step up to longer ultras.
Double note: I just realized that note is not adequately expressing positive self-talk. (Looks in mirror). It’s a great plan. You got this.
30 mi total
|rest||4 mi easy||2 mi easy, 8 x 30 sec hills mod/hard with 90 sec easy recovery, 2 mi easy/mod||4 mi easy||rest or x-train||10 mi easy on trails||6 mi easy on trails with 4 x 30 sec fast/2 min easy|
33 mi total
|rest||4 mi easy||2 mi easy, 10 x 30 sec fast (think mile race effort)/1 min easy, 2 mi easy||4 mi easy||rest or x-train||10 mi easy/mod on trails. Work the downhills. On easy/mod runs, you can push if you feel good||6 mi easy on trails plus 4 x 20 sec hills mod/hard|
37 mi total
|rest||5 mi easy with 6 x 20 sec fast/2 min easy||2 mi easy, 15 x 1 min fast/1 min easy, 2 mi easy/mod. Think 5k to start, more effort to finish||5 mi easy||rest or x-train||12 mi easy on trails (30 min mod/hard in middle around 1-hour effort)||6 mi easy on trails plus 6 x 20 sec hills mod/hard|
41 mi total
|rest||5 mi easy with 4 x 20 sec fast/1 min easy||2 mi easy, 10 x 2 min fast/1 min easy, 2 mi easy/mod. Think 10k to start, more effort to finish||5 mi easy||rest or x-train||14 mi easy/mod on trails. Work the downhills||8 mi easy on trails plus 6 x 20 sec hills mod/hard|
37 mi total
|rest||5 mi easy with 4 x 20 sec fast/40 sec easy||2 mi easy, 6 x 1 min hills hard with 2 min easy recovery, 5 min easy, 15 min mod/hard (think 10k effort), 2 mi easy. NOTE: can add treadhike in PM any Wed until race week||6 mi easy||rest or x-train||10 mi easy on trails (30 min around 1-hour effort in middle)||8 mi easy on trails with 4 x 30 seconds fast/2 min easy|
48 mi total
|rest||6 mi easy with 4 x 20 sec fast/2 min easy||2 mi easy, 3 x 8 min fast/3 min easy (think 1-hour effort), 2 mi easy with 4 x 30 sec fast/2 min easy||6 mi easy||rest or x-train||16 mi easy/mod on trails. Work the downhills||10 mi easy on trails with 4 x 30 sec fast/2 min easy|
51 mi total
|rest||6 mi easy with 6 x 20 sec fast/2 min easy||2 mi easy, 5 x 3 min hills hard with 3 min easy recovery, 2 mi moderate||6 mi easy||rest or x-train||20 mi easy on trails (1 hour mod in middle around marathon effort)||12 mi easy on trails with 4 x 30 sec fast/2 min easy|
39 mi total
|rest||2 mi easy, 20 min mod/hard (think 1-hour effort), 2 mi easy with 4 x 30 sec fast/30 sec easy||5 mi easy||rest||2 mi easy in AM||25 mi to 50k pushing a bit on trails (can be a training race). Practice fueling and work downhills. This will be tough and make you question life decisions||PIZZA!|
58 mi total
|rest||6 mi easy with 4 x 30 sec fast/2 min easy||2 mi easy, 8 x 3 min fast (think 1-hour effort to start, more effort to finish) with 1 min easy recovery, 2 mi easy||8 mi easy||rest or x-train||20 mi easy/mod on trails (30 min mod around half marathon effort in middle). Work all downhills||16 mi easy on trails plus 8 x 30 sec hills mod/hard|
50 mi total
|rest||6 mi easy plus 4 x 20 sec hills mod/hard||2 mi easy, 5 x 3 min hills hard with 3-4 min easy recovery, 2 miles mod||6 mi easy||rest or x-train||18 mi easy/mod on trails||12 mi easy on trails plus 4 x 30 sec hills mod/hard|
37 mi total
|rest||5 mi easy||2 mi easy, 30 min hard on trails, 2 mi easy. Have fun with it and get comfortable with discomfort||5 mi easy||rest or x-train||10 mi easy on trails (20 min mod around half marathon effort in middle)||6 mi easy plus 4 x 30 sec hills mod/hard|
|0||rest||2 mi easy, 15 min moderate (think marathon effort to start, faster in last 5 minutes), 2 mi easy||3 mi easy||Rest||2 mi easy in AM||50 Miler! Start easy, fuel lots, smile more, and celebrate no matter what happens||PIZZA!|
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now at Bookshop.