The biggest fear I hear from coaching clients asking about ultramarathon training is about whether or not they can handle it.
It’s almost as if just adding the word “ultra” before marathon makes it sound too long, too extreme, too … ultra.
But that isn’t the case.
As Matt pointed out many years ago, if you can run a marathon, you can run an ultramarathon. It’s just a matter of setting your mind to it, letting go of fears, and making smart, simple adjustments to your training.
Simple enough that the transition to a 50K ultramarathon doesn’t have to include major training volume increases to time commitments.
Just straightforward adjustments to the type of miles you run.
Why Ultramarathon Training is Different
Excuse me for stating the obvious, but ultramarathons are longer than marathons. Even though a 50K ultramarathon is only 5 miles longer than a marathon, it may take two or more hours longer to complete.
And with added distance come added challenges …
… Slower running and increased time on your feet.
… More intense mental doubts and low points.
… Fueling to keep you energized late in the race.
So when we talk about making adjustments for ultramarathon training, we’re talking about preparing the body — and mind — for the increased distance, hours, and challenges.
How to Adjust Your Training for an Ultramarathon
The way I see it there are four main adjustments, or steps, to take when transitioning from a road marathon to a 50K ultramarathon.
Steps — not giant leaps — that shouldn’t require any significant increase in training.
Included with the steps below are quick tips to get you started:
1. Learn to Run Trails
For many of us, one of the most attractive elements of ultrarunning is the fact that most of them are run on trails. Sure, you can find road and track ultras, the world famous 89K Comrades Marathon being the first that comes to mind, but for the most part people associate ultramarathons with trail running.
So it’s only natural that one of the first things you need to do is learn how to run comfortably on trails, by gradually shifting some of your runs to the dirt.
Here are a number of resources to help you get started:
- The Indoorsman’s Guide to Trail Running
- 6 Rules to Follow for Your First Trail Run
- Why Every Runner Should Be a Trail Runner and How to Become One
- 6 Things Every Beginner Should Know Before Trail Running
Quick Tips for Adding Trail Running:
- At first, add just one to two shorter trail runs per week. After gaining experience and strength, switch your long runs to mostly trails.
- Start with easier trails to learn proper foot placement and stride adjustments. Build up to more difficult trails over time.
- Once you’re ready, select trails that mimic the difficulty, elevation, and surface of the race course.
2. Slow Down
That speed work becomes much less of a priority at the 50K distance and beyond. Training shifts from running fast to learning how to run a slow, consistent effort, sustainable for six, ten, twelve plus hours.
Decrease the amount of speed work in your plan and replace it with easy paced aerobic training, focused on building leg strength and endurance.
Quick Tips to Slow Down Your Running:
- Keep 75-80% of your runs to an “easy” or conversational pace. You should be running slow enough to sustain a conversation with a running partner.
- Use a heart rate monitor or the closed mouth breathing technique to ensure you’re maintaining the slow effort.
- When running on a hilly trail, reduce your speed to a hike on the inclines to maintain the easy effort.
3. Go Long
Consistent long runs are a major part of any endurance training, but never more important than when you’re training for an ultramarathon.
The long run is your classroom, teacher, and exam. It’s where you learn how to deal with mental fatigue, prepare the body for race day, and put your plans to the test.
Make your weekly long run the center point of your training, slowly increasing mileage over time.
Quick Tips for Going Long:
- Long runs on a trail will take more time than on the road. Instead of always running for distance, run for time. For example: swap a 10-mile long run with a 2-hour trail run.
- To increase weekly distance without significantly increasing weekend long runs, utilize the higher-distance weekday run option, typically placed on a Wednesday and run at an easy pace.
- Carry the nutrition and water you need with you. I recommend using either a hydration vest or handheld bottle for ease on the trail.
- After 4-6 weeks of increasing your long run, cut back by 20% to allow for a planned recovery or low-mileage week before ramping up again.
4. Perfect Your Nutrition
But even though the 50K might not look that much longer on paper, the increased time makes proper nutrition and fueling a necessity.
Practice and test different fueling options during long training runs.
Quick Tips Ultramarathon Nutrition:
- For ease, think in general calories, not carbohydrate-to-protein ratios or grams, but stick with mostly high-sugar foods like energy gels, fruit, or specialty sports drinks.
- Aim for 250-300 calories per hour — coming from all energy sport foods (gels, gummies, etc.), or a combination of energy foods, real food (fruit, potatoes, etc.), and sports drink.
- Play around with different options throughout training until you find what works best for you. Our stomachs vary, so don’t assume what works for your training partner will work for you.
- Start consuming nutrition from the very beginning of your long run or race. If you’re feeling low on energy you’ve waited too long.
The Transition to Ultra Isn’t as Big as You Think
When considering a first 50K ultramarathon, there’s nothing more daunting than the training.
“Will I have time for anything other than running?”
“Can my body even handle the distance?”
“Do I have to run up mountains like Anton?”
Sheesh! It’s a wonder anyone signs up for one of these things to begin with.
But as you look into training plans, you’ll quickly realize that training for a 50K looks a lot like training for a marathon.
And that making the transition is as easy as taking a few simple steps.