How to Train for your First 50K

Training for your first 50K requires a similar effort as marathon training, but usually with less speed work and more back to back long run days. Just like marathon training, you won’t be running close to the full distance in one shot and don’t need to.

It may seem daunting to add that word “ultra” in front of “marathon”, however, you’ll soon realize that ultrarunning is a different beast than marathon training. Especially when tackling your first because there is no pressure of chasing a PR!

Your first time completing the distance makes it an automatic PR.

All the more reason to enjoy the ride, so you’ve got something to beat when you do it again…because there’s always another, right?!

The biggest difference will be if you are doing a road or trail 50K because the time on feet increases with the amount of vert or technical trail.

Beginner 50K Training Plan

If you can run a marathon, then you can run a 50K. At just five miles longer than the marathon distance, you don’t have to tack on much more volume than you would a typical marathon training plan.

Training plans for a 50K run about 24 weeks, if you’re a beginner or average 20-30 miles per week, giving you time to build up that weekly mileage. You don’t want your total for the week to be less than the full race distance :).

If you’ve recently run a half marathon or marathon, you can jump into the training plan in later weeks.

Ultra training plans tend to differ a bit from road marathons for a few different reasons:

  • Most ultras take place on trail
  • Speed is not as important over a longer distance
  • You need to train for fatigue
  • Mental training becomes even more important

Click here to access a free Printable Beginner 50K Plan!

This is similar to what I followed, though my weekly mileage was higher mostly because with COVID shut downs I had time!

Beginner 50K Training Plan

Training for 50k Tips

Ultramarathons are growing in popularity, which means you’ll have an easier time finding races now and people who have been there done that to share tips! The number has surged from 103 races in 1996 to 1,500 in 2016.

Though the 50K is just over 5 miles longer than a marathon, they are different races and therefore require different training approaches.

Here we’ll break down how training for a 50K differs from the marathon.

More Slow and Steady Miles

Trail races differ from road races in that the weather can change in an instant, the terrain is more technical, and elevation profiles will constantly force you to alter your speed.

  • Run by effort, not by pace.
  • You’ll find that your 50K pace will tack on several more minutes to your per mile pace.
  • Don’t freak out, this is normal!

Where most marathon training plans include speed work in the form of tempo runs or track workouts, you’ll find that ultramarathon plans don’t focus so much on speed, but rather time on feet.

Ultramarathons can take anywhere from 5 to more than 20 hours, depending on the distance.

The real priority is learning to sustainably manage a consistent pace over that many hours.

  • More time running hills
  • More runs focused on time than pace
  • Working on your mind to enjoy being out there for that extra time
  • Testing shoes that provide enough cushion for the duration and space for feet to swell a little
  • Practicing navigation skills that keep you from spending too much time searching for trails
  • Learning to power walk uphills to save energy

On steep hills, you’ll travel just as fast sower hiking as you would running, and it preserves energy.

Even elite athletes walk on hills!

Back to Back Weekend Long Runs

Most ultrarunners incorporate back-to-back long runs as part of their training plan. Rather than run multiple super long runs over the course of a few weeks, the idea is to split up the mileage to minimize the risk of injury.

  • Training your brain and legs to run when tired
  • First run will be the longer of the two runs.
  • Use the first run to focus on downhill technique, hills, or pace, while you’re fresher.
  • The second run is strictly easy miles and could be anywhere from half the miles to equal the distance of run 1.

If you have a busy schedule and can’t run all of that in one go, then break up the miles. Your 20 miler could look like 12 in the morning and 8 in the evening.

I’ve talked about splitting the long run in marathon training and the same things apply here, you have to know that doing it consistently could hurt you on race day, but once in awhile is fine.

The back to back long run may seem daunting at first, but you’ll be surprised at your body’s abilities.

Here’s how to make the most of back-to-back runs:

Course Specific Training

If you’ve ever looked at a trail race elevation chart, you’ll notice right away that they look a little scary. Some make you think that you’re able to tackle Mt. Everest.

Often, they’re scarier than they look, however it’s important to realize that trail running includes far more hills than road running.ultra tips

Study the map and learn the grade and length of the hills. Take note of the total elevation gain and model your training for those specific statistics. You want to practice similar grades and lengths to build your stamina and practice power hiking.

If you live in a flat area (and even if you don’t), incorporate this 3-minute “mountain legs” routine by ultra running coach David Roche. He suggests performing it three to four times per week after runs.

Strength Training for Ultrarunning

As with any running distance, I can’t stress the importance of a strength routine enough.

Running a 50K means spending a lot of time on your feet. You need your muscles to stay strong when the fatigue sets in, otherwise you’re headed for many common running injuries. Which means, no training and no race.

Focus on building a strong core, building glute strength, and hip stabilizing exercises. Here are a few strength routines to get you started:

What to Eat During a 50K

Ask any trail runner and they’ll tell you, without hesitation, that trail races have the best aid stations. They’re stocked with delicious foods like fruits, PB&J, chips and candy.

SO MUCH CANDY.

While ultra runners certainly rely on gels and chews like road runners, they tend to fuel with whole foods during training and on race day, thanks to the lower effort compared to a marathon they’re able to digest these foods without stomach distress.potato running fuel

Bring potatoes in some form as fuel, is SUPER COMMON. They’re easy to digest, full of nutrients and nice when you get tired of all the sugar.

You’ll be out running for at least five to six hours, if not more for a 50K, which means you’re burning a ton of calories that you need to replenish during the run.

  • Plan to consume 250 to 300 calories per hour. — Note this is standard advice, but I often find it’s too much food for many runners and instead staying consistent with hydration, a great pre-race meal and 100 calories an hour keeps them going with less gastric issues. You Have to know your body.
  • Aid stations are few and far between on trail races, so go prepared with your nutritional and hydration needs.
  • Test out potential foods during training by checking the race website to see what they stock at aid stations.

Check out these great running hydration vest, including the one I’ve used for years, to find one that let’s you carry all the things you’ll need besides food!

Choosing Your First Ultramarathon

When selecting your first ultramarathon, there are a number of factors to look out for, including:

  • Race reputation (a fun and supportive atmosphere)
  • Organization (ample course markings, well-stocked aid stations)
  • Minimal elevation gain
  • Less technical trails
  • Generous cut off times

Finding that perfect first race may take a bit of research. Ask friends who have run ultras or your local running store which races they recommend in your region.

Starting with a race close to home will relieve you of the added stress of travel and you may be able to convince a few friends to come support you for your first ultra.

But…

A destination race could be fun, too. If this is your choice, then just factor this into your mental training.Beginner Friendly Ultramarathons

Beginner-Friendly Ultramarathons

There are plenty of 50K races across the country that are beginner friendly. What that means to us is longer cutoff times, less competitive atmosphere in many cases, less vertical and pacers allowed.

Are these the easiest 50K races? I’m not sure that exists, unless you do a solo ultra like I did and choose your own course on the day the weather is best!

Here are a few to check out:

Pacific Northwest Ultra marathons

McKenzie River 50K, Central Oregon 

Oregon’s oldest ultramarathon follows the beautiful McKenzie River, featuring waterfalls, lava flows, old growth forest, and the famous Tamolitch Pool with deep blue waters. The trail is known as one of the most beautiful in the country with a net elevation loss of 3,328 feet.

Rainshadow Running, Washington, Oregon

This NW-paced race group hosts over 10 races in some of the most beautiful spots around the Northwest, including the San Juan Islands and the Columbia River Gorge. Many even allow dogs, so if your dog is your training partner, they can join you!

Daybreak Racing, Washington, Oregon

Relatively new on the ultra scene, Daybreak Racing events host some of the most beautiful and fun races in the NW. Race Director Jeremy Long puts on fun and inclusive races with high quality swag with a focus on safety and organization.

Mountain West Ultramarathons

Golden Gate Dirty 30 50K, Golden, CO

While this Colorado race isn’t easy, this one is all about the experience and the views. The Dirty 30 welcomes newbies while also still caters to elite athletes. Most importantly, the woman-led race recognizes the barriers women face in a male-dominated sport, and encourages women to participate, by reserving 50% of spots for women.

Aravaipa Running Races, Arizona

Aravaipa is best known for the Javelina Jundred, a 100-mile race that is beginner-friendly. They also host several other races in Arizona, with a focus on community. The organization hosts weekly group runs, both on the track and on the trails.

Midwest Ultramarathons

Ice Age Trails 50K, La Grange, WI

This is your chance to participate in one of the longest-running ultra marathons in the country, going strong since 1981. The course winds through natural features left behind from the glaciers that retreated over 10,000 years ago.

East Coast Ultramarathons

The Georgia Jewel, Dalton, GA

Runners can choose from 35, 50, or 100 mile distances in this rugged trail adventure. Georgia’s longest-running ultra features stunning Appalachian ridgelines and a rock garden that will give you a new appreciation for rocks…or not. The finish line boats a fun and energetic atmosphere.

Finger Lakes 50K, Hector, NY

Located on a network of trails outside of Ithaca, the course is a 16.5-mile loop that runs through the Finger Lakes National Forest along a mix of single track, paved and dirt roads, and pastureland. The best part about this race is that many participants camp out together the night before the race.

Road Ultramarathons

If you want to stick to the road, but still want to tackle an ultra, there are a few races out there for you. Be warned, some of these are very tough races!

  • Comrades Marathon (55 miles/89km) in South Africa is the largest and oldest ultramarathon race in the world
  • Badwater Ultra Marathon – I mean it doesn’t get much more intense!
  • Self Transcendence Ultra is 52 days running 3100 miles around a city block
  • Ok so basically it’s starting to look like you need to be extra crazy to do a road ultra, but I didn’t feel that way doing mine, ha!!

Solo Ultramarathon

Personally, I wasn’t interested in the worry about will or won’t a race happen right now.

I also knew that this was all about me seeing if I could go the distance, so I was ok treating it like a long run without any major fan fare.

  • I left the house alone about 5:30 in the morning
  • I took off running on the roads with a good plan of where I was headed
  • Miles 1-19 were incredible and joyful
  • 19 suddenly I had a severe and sharp right knee pain. I was struggling to walk and willing to call it a day over causing major injury.
  • I called my husband to meet me around mile 20 and I kept walking. There I changed shoes and gave myself a little pep talk that I would just take a few more steps and see what happened.
  • Within about 1/2 mile I was slowly running again.
  • Within a mile the knee ached, but no longer hurt and I knew I could keep going.
  • We shifted the plan from continuing on the road to a nearby lake that had some crushed gravel.
  • David met me there and around mile 28 he was becoming my I think I may have to just walk with you buddy.
  • Mile 30 hit and all those endorphins came back so I managed to run the full last mile.
  • Finished in 6 hours and 15 minutes, which wasn’t my original goal, but considering the pain, the solo day and the air quality from fires…I was SO FREAKING PROUD.
  • I’ve never cried that hard finishing a race, what a mess.

I’d like to try this again and see if I can do it pain free. SO who knows what next year will bring.

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