The First Test: 50K with No Long-Run Training

In the first eight miles of the Laurel Highlands 50K — for which I trained almost entirely on the track, with precisely zero runs longer than seven miles — there was a 700-foot climb followed by a 500-footer followed by a 1200-footer.  And all of it on rocky, technical terrain like I’ve never run before.

I sure can pick ’em.

Those eight miles took me an hour and 44 minutes, thanks in no small part to a 20-minute mile, a 17-minute mile, and several 15’s.  By the end of that stretch, I was ready to call it a day.  And a career.

And yet, I’m still not ready to give up on this low-mileage, no-long-run training plan.  Here’s why.

The idea in a nutshell

In case you missed my post on low-mileage training, the approach I’ve been experimenting with is this: Optimize your workout time by focusing on building your anaerobic system, mainly through speedwork and tempo runs, with nothing that could be considered long, slow distance.

This depends on having an aerobic base already, and if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t dare attempt this.  But I ran the Boston Marathon in April, so I figured that was sufficient.  (And according to the folks at CrossFit Endurance, where I discovered this approach to endurance training, if you can run for 90 minutes then you’ve got the aerobic base you need.)

I really do want to stress this point — don’t try a plan like this if you haven’t run a lot of long races before. I’m not sure what the CrossFit stance on this is, but I would never recommend this low-mileage training for a first 50K or even a first marathon.  If this had been my first race at this distance, I have no doubt that I’d have quit.  Or died and been left for maggots on the trail.

How I Trained

The Boston Marathon was almost eight weeks before Laurel Highlands.  I did very little training in the week immediately following Boston or in the week immediately prior to Laurel Highlands, so that leaves us with about six weeks of actual training.

During those six weeks, I focused on speed workouts at the track.  I did eight or nine track workouts (I need to keep better records), mostly intervals of 800, 400, and 200 meters, with each workout totaling less than five miles inclusive of recovery jogs between sets.

Between track workouts, I did hard runs at a hilly trail, always between four and seven miles, at a pace that left me very tired by the end of each workout.  (Since the terrain varied, I adjusted my speed to maintain a “comfortably difficult” tempo-run intensity.)

And that’s it.  No long runs, no easy runs (okay, one easy run with dogs and the family), and probably only 12-15 miles per week.  I had actually intended to do more frequent speed workouts, but I found pretty quickly that my recovery time wasn’t what it was when I was in Boston-qualifying shape.  So I limited hard workouts to three per week, but as I continue this training through the summer, I’m planning to add a strength component and probably an additional speed or tempo workout as I gain fitness and recover faster.

How It Went Down

The 50K felt like a disaster.  It was as hard as any 50-miler I’ve done, and after eight miles I really did feel like I was done.  But I pulled it together and finished, even though several times I really felt like dropping out, having a beer, and never running again.

I finished in 7:16:08, and when you compare that to my previous 50K times of between 5:30 and 5:45, it seems terrible.

But though it wasn’t a great race for me, it’s not so horrible as it appears — my time was good enough for 39th place out of 93 finishers (114 starters).  Even the winner, who blew away the rest of the field by almost half an hour, ran a 5:11.  #2 was 5:39.  That’s how hard this course was.  (The crazy part is that Laurel Highlands also has a 77-miler that started on this same course.  Unreal.)

No doubt, this race was brutal.  The fact that it was so much harder than the previous 50K courses I’ve run sort of muddles up the experiment, but I did note several interesting things about how I felt that could be related to this unorthodox method of training for an endurance event.

  1. I felt surprisingly good during the first eight miles. Considering the size of these hills and the rockiness of the trail, neither of which I was used to, I felt really fresh through the hardest section of the course.  I didn’t feel winded or like my legs were working extremely hard, even though they were — many of the hills were so steep that running up them was impossible.
  2. By the halfway point, my legs were in a lot of pain. Not the burning type of pain you get when your muscles are working hard, but the sore-and-stiff type of pain that you often feel after 20 monotonous, pounding miles on the road — pain in the feet and the knees, where there are lots of small stabilizer muscles.  This was new for me: Up to this point, I’d always found that this kind of pain only happens on roads or in miles 40 to 50 of a 50-miler.
  3. I got a strong second wind during the final five miles. After hurting so much that I had to walk significant parts of several miles, I started cranking out 10- or 11-minute miles towards the end of the race.  This may not seem like much, but on these technical trails where it was hard to even open up a stride, this was good.  I noticed at this point that my legs weren’t hurting — maybe due to the aid station stop at Mile 26 — and this lack of pain was the reason I was able to run fast again.  (That, and the realization that I only had five miles left of this hell was far less soul-crushing than having 23 miles left of this hell.)
  4. My lungs felt great and were not a limiting factor. Not that they usually are in a race of this distance or more, but still, with the hills on this course, that felt like a victory.

What I Took from This

Those thoughts might seem jumbled to you, but to me they add up to one thing — this method of primarily anaerobic training with no long runs improved my resistance to fatigue, but did not allow my legs to build up the tolerance to pain that comes with lots of miles.

But like I said, those first eight miles sort of wrecked the experiment.  Who knows, the pain in my legs could have been the result of running those hills, a stretch like I’ve never run (or walked) in my life before.  But a lot of that was walking, due to the steepness of the hills, so I really don’t think that would have created the pain I was feeling that I immediately recognized as the kind that comes from repeated pounding on the roads during long runs.

So the best I can say now is that the results are inconclusive.  I’m still planning to run the Vermont 50-miler again in September, and this jaunt at Laurel Highlands taught me that no way in hell am I going to limit my long runs to only 7 or 10 or 13 miles, like the CrossFitters claim to do.  I’ve got to develop some resistance to the pain.

But on the other hand, I’m encouraged to continue focusing on speedwork.  I’ve made dramatic gains in what I can do in this workouts in only six weeks, and I’m excited to see what else is possible.

And what probably matters more than any of that is that I’m having more fun running than I have in a long time, since back when I was training to qualify for Boston.  For the first time in what seems like ages, I look forward to getting out to the track, working my butt off for half an hour and feeling that burning in my lungs and being so out of breath I can’t speak.



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  1. Matt—I’ve been seriously taking a look at the CFE program lately. Every time I read or watch something by Brian Mackenzie I’m more and more interested in what he’s teaching. I don’t think it’s a good program for elite ultra runners (you’ve got to run a lot, and run fast if you want to win those races) but for mid packers or back of the packers I think it’s a great idea. I was going to take the CFE certification course in Feb but backed out because of funding and a lack of knowledge about the program…I’m totally kicking myself that I didn’t do it now. Next time the program is in my area, I’m dropping the 600 bones without hesitation. Good job on the race and can’t wait to see how the VT50 goes.

  2. Sean Kroah says:

    No way would I follow that routine for an ultra in the rocky Pennsylvania hills. I am preparing for the Susquehanna ultra in Sept. and I am doing long runs in the woods with lots of steep ascents and descents on the hottest days I can find. The guys that won the Susquehanna last year must have quads and ankles of steel and I don’t think you can get that without the hard mileage, in the woods, on the hills.

  3. I’m certainly no CFE expert, but it is based on establishing a strong foundation of strength (with proper form) FIRST and running second, not the other way around. They do those shorter intervals of running, but only after doing the strength component. In other words, just doing the running part isn’t going to give you the training stress to adequately prepare you.

    Glad to hear your already established base of running was able to keep you going, but you need both elements of the CFE program in order for it to have a solid impact. That said, I still think you need some longer runs as you get closer to the race. But until you get that close to the race, you can build up a ton of strength and speed.

  4. Been thinking about something like this (no long stuff) ever since I read 4HB. Thanks for being the guinea pig 🙂 Think I’ll pass.

  5. I have never followed a specific training plan because for the most I just run for the enjoyment of it. About a year ago I decided I wanted to complete an ultra. I planned to start with a 50k and work my way up. Since I already used Crossfit for my weight training, CFE seemed like a natural place to start. After a year what I have come up with is a combination of both. I agree with CFE that you can get your mussels up to par with intense speed work but I also agree with the traditional view that to get your body ready for long distance you have to run long distance. So basically I either run hard or long. It’s common for around 50% of my weekly mileage to be completed in a single run. This has worked well for me and one of the big benefits I see is that my injury rate has been zero. I think everyone just needs to take the time and decide what works for them. I have heard many people say “Run your own race; don’t worry about how other people are running.” I think the same should go for training. Train the way that feels good for you and don’t be a slave to any training plan.

  6. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Congratulations Matt on another race well done. I guess a proper randomized controlled study would have you do the CFE philosiphy of running and apply it to the VT 50 so you can compare it to your last VT 50. Good luck with all that.

  7. Great run last Saturday! I read multiple race reports, the hiker’s guide to the trail and looked at a few elevation profiles but none of it captured how tough the course really is. There is a reason 46% of the 77M folks didn’t finish this year. Same for almost 20% of the 50Kers. Those are crazy numbers! I think you’re right on in making sure your stabilizer muscles are a focus as you head into Vermont. All the best as you prepare!

  8. I love the website and the Facebook page. I am CFE certified and I think you are right on with your view of running. I am not a vegetation but I did run my first marathon on plants…6 months of training. I have been playing with running fatigue training as it relates to running strength, endurance, and speed training for 5 years now and think it is crucial for all athletes to understand that more is not better. I have seen too many runners get injured by running 50 plus miles per week and not adding any strength training to their program. The only time I run over 30 miles a week is if I have a long run with my marathon group, a charity event, a race or someone needs company…and my birthday run… 40 this year=40 miles. Other than that it is 3 miles 3 days a week plus CrossFit type workouts 2or 3 times a week, track, and intervals. I have found that balance and core work are the hidden secret that people talk about but know one actually know how to incorporate into a training program. Do you need a base? Most definitely but integrating some simple strength exercises into your routine will benefit greatly.

    Keep working, be relentless and if you make it to Dallas (Frisco) look me up.

    Distance is relative. -Ham

  9. When did crossfit become such experts at endurance sports? more like the next Tae-bo.

    • Some of us get certified in CFE to be more marketable to the growing CrossFit population. Did not say I do everything that they promote. If you have the base then try something new. Monotony is what hurts runners. CFE and Hanson/Brooks are both promoting the same thing…low miles and faster running. That’s all. Why don’t you check out my site and see what I’m all about.

      PS…you still need to have a handful of over 15 mile runs and one 20 mile run in a marathon program.

  10. As a girl who loves to experiment, I give you major props for this.

    I haven’t done much reading about crossfit, but I have taken Mark Sisson’s “Case Against Cardio” to heart and spent all winter doing speed work once a week and cutting way back on the long runs/workouts. I signed up for a spring half marathon with virtually NO long run training (one 12 miler a couple of weeks before, just to be sure I could go the distance!) and I ran the exact same time I’d done it in the year before (1:51) – where the previous year I’d spent the winter and early spring doing weekend after weekend of long runs. I definitely think there’s something to speed work and anaerobic training and is definitely worth exploring further! I too love the endorphin rush after a track work out, and I especially love that I’m done in a half hour!

    Thanks for sharing your experience, looking forward to reading about what comes next.

  11. Chris G. says:

    Congratulations on another great race (39 out of 114 starters in an ultra is super) and more importantly, having fun.

  12. Not doing a long run might not be a great plan for a marathon+ but while I haven’t intended to not get a long run in I haven’t run over 7 miles at once since my 1/2 M at the end of April. I have a 10k on July 9th that I am prepping for by doing the speed and tempo runs from Run Less Run Faster. I have the longer runs on my schedule but with a 4 and 2 year old it’s hard to fit them in when the husband is home to watch them and not interfere with family time that is so precious. I am doing traditional strength training to build strength and hope to add more ply work in eventually. While I would love to get a long run in outside (the speed and tempo’s are usually on treadmill at the gym for childcare) I don’t know if it’s going to happen. I was able to run my first 10k after a month and a half of running (a year and a half of exercise before that) so I know I will be fine and I hope to PR. That’s won’t be hard though as I am almost under an hour ( I was still running pretty slow my last 10k, should be faster now!)

  13. Elizabeth Eaton says:

    Congratulations and thanks for the experiment and results! Interesting information. Best of luck in September.

  14. Very interesting post, and I’m glad you tried the experiment. I agree with a lot of your analysis of why things went wrong, and agree that, generally speaking, speedwork doesn’t seem to get nearly the attention it should from marathoners and ultrarunners (myself included – I’m working on fixing this). But I still don’t think that you can completely excise the long runs when training for something long (I’m thinking particularly of ultras), and, all that said, am glad to read that you’re planning to run more distance before doing the 50M in the fall, haha.

    From your post first introducing this training plan, the thing that especially caught my eye, and about which I’m most skeptical, was this:

    “Brian Mackenzie and the people at CrossFit Endurance are training their athletes to run 100-mile ultramarathons on less than 30 miles per week. Even more incredible is that they do this without running more than a half marathon in training.”

    I believe that this kind of training regimen could work well for a half marathon, and even “get someone across the finish line” on a marathon. I have a friend who hardly trained – really, hardly trained, and wasn’t in tremendous shape to begin with – and managed to finish his first marathon in Honolulu. He said it was really, really rough, but he managed to finish (he hasn’t done another in the five years since, if that speaks anything to his experience running that one). Point being, I feel that up to a marathon distance (maybe a little more), most people CAN finish with inadequate training (which, IMHO, the CrossFit plan is, if you’re trying to run anything more than a half marathon).

    Are there any results – anywhere – of someone attempting a 100-miler after following a training plan with “no more than 30 miles per week”? I can’t think it would be anything but a train wreck (or a 50-miler, for that matter – particularly, Matt, as you said, for someone who hasn’t run anything like that before). I can’t remember where I read or heard this, but there’s a quote from someone saying that a 100 mile race is more a test of nutrition than physical endurance, or something along those lines. While I don’t entirely agree with this (largely because I like to think of myself as a runner, not a nutritionist [I think nutritionists are wonderful, but it’s not why I run ultras]), I still think there is some grain of truth to it, and not just the nutrition aspect of a very-long distance run. You touched on some of them in your analysis of your 50k, but I think base mileage does a lot in terms of preparing both the body and mind that short (even extremely difficult) runs simply cannot. Like how your feet feel after slapping the ground for 70 miles (or the rest of your legs, for that matter). And yeah, simple nutrition – you don’t have to learn how to eat while running for anything less than a two-hour run, generally speaking – you don’t have to think about what foods you can and cannot digest while going at x pace, or particularly how much water and salt/endurolyte caps you need to be taking in while going at x pace in y temperature. These are things, at least to me, that are learned, through much trial and error in very long runs leading up to the race.

    I apologize for the rant, I’m done. But I would be very interested to see any empirical results on people running a 50-miler or more doing such little mileage leading up to the race.

  15. Sorry, meant to add this on the last post – Tim Noakes, in his “Lore of Running”, talks about how the best marathoners in the last half-century or so have traditionally actually been 10k runners, where the Olympic marathon they won was more often than not their first, second, or third marathon EVER. This blew me away to read (as I imagine it would most others), and superficially, would seem to fit with the CrossFit plan. But these are world-class 10k runners, who may run 100+ miles per week. Noakes’ argument (as I remember it – probably a bit fuzzy) is that they get their base by doing so much mileage every week, but their main focus is on speed. So speed helps them to become fast and win 10ks, but they have the high-volume base ready when they go out for the marathon. Again, speedwork is important, but may be worthless without the mileage to base it on.

  16. Hey Matt – enjoyed this post and your experiment. I do very few long runs ever and do quite a few ultras each year. Here’s the kicker – I combine speedwork with hills and a lot of strength training and yoga. And I’m not just talking about free weights in a gym…but ass kicking strength training like lunges down a steep hill, weighted stair climbs, and jump squats all followed by jumping up stairs or a weighted hill sprint…we should talk! 🙂

  17. Stephanie says:

    I second the comments here that the CFE running workouts are not intended to build your capacity, without the WOD element (weightlifting and/or METCON). Also, I think you really have to incorporate long runs in training for running long. From my understanding, it is what builds the necessary tendon, etc. strength. I’m no expert, and while I know that LSD actually promotes injury, I don’t think it would be smart for a first-timer to not have their legs conditioned to run long, having only done speed work and WODs.

  18. Let me preface this by saying I LOVE Cross-fit and the whole concept of muscle confusion and short but intense workouts. I was an avid cross-fitter who basically gave up on the program when #1 it got ridiculously expensive and #2 the mentality of (some) Cross-fitters that they are the only “true” athletes in the world become some overbearing that it was like going to battle every time I walked in the door (being vegetarian didn’t sit well with my Paleo-or-nothing ‘friends’). Anyway, I truly believe that cross training will improve all areas of life and that many runners neglect important things like their core. Of course, many elite runners have no desire to add any kind of muscle due to the added weight they will potentially carry on race day.

    However, call me old fashioned, but I just can’t get past the thought that in order to run further you have to…well…run further. And in order to run faster, you have to run faster. I can totally see how the short burst, intense runs on the CFE plan can help condition a person but for me, claiming that running such short runs (even WITH WODs) will prepare someone for a marathon would be like saying the deadlift will help you do pull ups. Or like telling an NFL quarterback that swimming laps and tossing only 10 passes a week will make him an even better quarterback. It just doesn’t add up.

    IMO, Some things require sports specific training. Sure, CFE will help someone FINISH a marathon…shoot, I trained with people who carried a purse, drank starbucks and ate peanut M&M’s the whole time but were able to ‘complete’ their half-marathon on event day. But it doesn’t mean that it was pretty or that they set any records.

    • Great conversation. The base is important and should be the first thing that is trained. I questioned the whole 13 mile long run at the CFE Cert and it goes like this…13 miles is the tempo or time trial and is the actual workout. Before the actual workout you should warm-up…mile or 2 and cool-down after…mile or 2. If you add all that up it could be a 17 or so mile run. That is a good “time on feet” run. It’s all how you “package” the program.

      Can you run 100 miles with only 30 miles a week running? If you have done 50-60 miles before and understand the mental toughness that is required…yes. The only issue I have with the 30 miles a week for a new ultra runner is what will happen when they hit 40 or 60 miles and the legs hurt, blisters set in, and chaffing starts? Will they know how to hydrate? Do they know how to trail run? Have they ever run in the dark? Will they ask for help or go at it alone? Those are my questions…

      • I agree, although I have been a runner for many, many years (plus a cross-fitter, boxer, and kettle bell enthusiast), I just completed my first marathon on Jun 5. NOTHING in my prior training would have prepared me for the tests that come along after I hit 13 miles…then 17, then 21…I learned during my long training runs which sports drinks worked, which Gu’s and gels didn’t hurt my stomach, which socks didn’t bunch up under my toes, and which shorts didn’t chafe. I also learned how to push through the discomforts of being on my feet for hours (I’m slow), not to stop for too long if a bathroom or stretch break was needed (due to immediate stiffening of tendons). Believe me, I am L-A-Z-Y when it comes down to it so I would love to find a way to get by without long runs taking up my “Real Housewives of Winnamucca” time. Right now I am training for the Nike Women’s Marathon in October using the Hansons-Brooks training program…and while the DON’T have a 20 mile long run, they DO have back to back to back runs that mimic running on tired legs. Plus, having at least completed one marathon, I have my nutrition/clothing issues dialed in…I hope!

  19. Sean Kroah says:

    Lot of good comments. I’m mostly reminded of my music teacher telling me that, yes I need to do my scales and drills, but mostly I need to train for the performance.

  20. Maureen says:

    I love reading about your training experiments! Currently, I’m trying to hammer out a training plan for the Jacksonville Bank Marathon, in December. I think I’m going to end up with a combination of Run Less Run Faster, Hansons, and your Marathon Road Map.

    My biggest challenges are my work schedule, which prevents me from doing any training at all, two days a week, and my complete lack of hills to train on, which I’m trying to substitute with beach running, both in the surf, and in the soft sand.

    If I’m reading it right, it sounds like your legs were just plain fatigued, which is what the FIRST and Hansons plans (and the traditional LSD) are supposed to train you for – getting used to running on fatigued legs.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your experimenting.

    • Hey Maureen – I’m just an amateur runner (i.e. not a trainer or anything along those lines), but have a fair amount of experience in marathon/ultra training and running. I’ve had many periods where I was absolutely unable to train a few days a week, and simply treated those as my rest days (it’s lousy to have to work on your rest day, of course, but at least you can get training in the rest of the week when if you want it). And is the Jacksonville race supposed to be hilly? Everything I’ve read says that it’s usually good to train for the terrain you plan to race on (though hills are always beneficial, of course). I would think running on the sand would be great for building leg strength (though that’s only from experiential observation, hehe), and a good substitute for hills may be some sprints, or something like 300-400m repeats – the main advantage I get out of hills is building strength in my legs, and particularly quads, which is largely what sprints will do for you. (There’s a lot of literature saying that doing fast hills can be used in lieu – or addition to – speedwork/sprints, and vice versa, so that’s not *just* my own opinion.) Good luck!

      • If you do not have hills this is when the dreaded treadmill is a great tool using the tabata protocol. 20 on…10 off X 8 rounds on a 12% incline at 10K to half marathon pace. 4 minutes of fun if done correctly. Recover and do plyometric exercises…jump squats, jump lunges, box jumps, jump rope. Add pushups and you are done in 30 minutes and finished with hills for the week.

      • Thanks, Ted! Jacksonville is very flat. I think the only hill of note, in the race, is a bridge. I’m just looking at from a strength training perspective. A lot of training plans have hill training written into them. I think maybe sprint intervals on the beach may be the way to go! As for the rest days, my only concern is that I have to take them consecutively, whereas most training plans space them out, after a speed day, and after a long run. I know I’m being too literal with the training plans, but I’m still new enough to marathon training that I’m a little uncomfortable plotting my own. Thanks for the words of experience!

        • Forgot to mention that I don’t have access to a treadmill, so that’s not an option, and there are no safe (for pedestrians) bridges I could use, either.

        • No problem! Sprint workouts on the sand would probably be great (watch out for shifting sand and your ankles, of course, haha….) I actually feel like I tend to do my days off consecutively, or at least have in periods in the past. Lots of times what works well for me is to follow a day of speed workouts with a long, slow run – that’s usually when the long runs feel the best, at least for me. I imagine you could go the other way too (long run one day, then speed the next), though I’d think that would be much more difficult (though of course, could be good for you too – though I can’t speak as to how that would be from a risk of injury standpoint.) I’d think you’d be fine, the only danger (I think? Someone correct me if I’m way off) would be of doing speedwork while REALLY tired, and hence using bad form (which could easily lead to injury) – though I suppose this could apply to doing long runs while tired from speedwork… and so on. (Anyway, in my opinion, you can pretty safely stray from the strict marathon training routines by quite a bit, so long as you’re not overdoing it, and you’re not completely slacking… I’ve seen so many different routines, and they all seem to get people across the finish line in the end. Just my 2 cents…). Good luck!

  21. I ran the Laurel Highlands trail about 2-3 weeks before the race but decided not to run the race (cross country season is coming up..) but man oh man it was a TOUGH trail!

  22. so far this hasn’t worked very well for Brian Mckenzie from my understanding

  23. Matt, thanks for sharing your experience with CFE. I wrote a post about this after reading The 4 Hour Body. I’ve updated it with a link to your post.

  24. Sounds like a bad idea. If you want to get a serious injury then train this way and run a race you’re completely unprepared for. It reminds me of those infomercials using the little shocking noids to get you ripped! Now you can work out without working out!
    If you want to run these distances you’re going to have to put in the time to do a long run weekly.

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