Reader Question: How do I train for my first ultra marathon?

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That’s another of an infinite number of training questions for which the answer is “it depends”.

What does it depend on? (1) It depends on your current level of fitness; (2) it depends on what the distance of the ultra will be, (3) it depends on what type of course it will be run on (flat road, flat trail, hilly road or trail, mountain, high elevation, etc).

By definition, an ultramarathon is any distance longer than a standard 26.2 mile marathon, but in practical terms 50K is usually considered the standard entry level distance. Training for a 50K (31 miles) is quite a different proposition from training for a 100 mile or longer ultra. I highly discourage anyone from jumping into a 100 mile or longer race as their first ultra. (Occasionally an overly enthusiastic but sedentary sort will decide a “couch to ultramarathon” plan is a good idea; it isn’t, in a drunken “hey, Bubba, watch me jump off the barn into the kiddie pool!” kind of way.)

I’m going to assume you are the smart sort and aren’t planning to run anything longer than a 50K as your first ultra (or jump off the barn), since that is most common and makes the most sense. It allows you get a feel for the logistics (hydration, eating, footwear and other gear) and the ethos and unspoken rules of the ultra community without spending two days in the woods fooling with broken headlamps, nausea, blisters, hallucinations, and other super fun things.

I’m also going to assume you have run a few marathons and/or have been regularly running at least 30 -40 miles per week for most weeks of the last few years (i.e., you are in good shape to start with, and could finish a marathon distance run right now or with minimal further training).

I will further assume you know that your best bet for a pleasant first 50K will be to find a race that is not on super technical trails (bad footing and such) and not run in the mountains at high elevation. (I’ve only run a handful of ultras, mostly 50Ks, with a fairly flat Florida trail result of 5:15, and a mountain race in New Mexico all above 9000 ft altitude, with a climb up to 11,300 ft, in well over 8 hours. The latter was much tougher than a 50 Mile run I did in Florida (but with a bit less sand in my shoes). It was a great adventure, but I had a handful of longer races – and lots of time running mountain trails – under my belt before I did that one. (I was ill and injured the previous year and dropped out half way while coughing my lungs out; had I gone on I could have had serious health problems on the climb to the peak – people do die in the mountains when they do dumb things.)

So check the ultra race listings and read the course descriptions and reviews to find a ‘first timer’ friendly race. Most are run on trails, but a few are on pavement. I suggest you’ll have a better time on the trails, as long as you can train on trails.

So let’s assume you are more or less ‘marathon fit, and you are going to do a relatively non-technical trail 50K. There’s not really much of a secret here; if you have had success with a marathon training program, your 50K training won’t look all that much different (still, hiring a coach makes things much easier – they think, you run). Again, this is assuming you picked a ‘beginner friendly’ type of 50K – training for a tougher 50K will diverge a lot more from marathon training.

I submit you could use a marathon plan to prep for the 50K and get to the finish line. But you will feel better and be more confident about putting in those extra ~ 5 miles if you modify the marathon plan to increase the length of a few of the long runs, and simply put in more “time on your feet” as they say.

There is debate among ultra runners as to the utility of many of the types of training runs used for marathon and shorter race training, such as “threshold” runs (to improve anaerobic threshold), “intervals” (to improve maximal endurance, i.e. VO2max), and “repetitions” (to improve raw speed). I come down on the side of including threshold (aka tempo) runs at least, even though you will likely never run anything faster than your usual “easy run” pace in the ultra. Being more fit translates to the easy pace being, literally, easier – less effort to run the same pace. Just as for marathon and shorter training, I recommend running a handful of strides after a couple of easy runs each week to keep a bit of speed in the legs and to improve running form.

Others disagree and have had a lot of success doing lots of miles and training as close as possible on the type of terrain they will race on. The truth is there are multiple ways to reach the same ultra goal, so a lot depends on what you are comfortable with and what gives you the most confidence that you can finish in a vertical posture.

A good book to consider is called Relentless Forward Progress. It discusses many of the topics I’ve covered, and a lot more, and includes a lot of advice and opinions from experienced ultra runners. It has sample training plans, too.

I’ve never been very keen on the marathon for myself, and found myself in agreement with many others that a 50K with friends in the woods felt much easier than any road marathon. Chose your race well, train properly, stay off the roof and you likely will have a great time.

Good luck!

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Dr. Matt is listed on the USATF Coaches Registry

Matt and Kathy K with age group wins (3)


Dr. Matt is now listed on the USA Track & Field Coaches Registry and SafeSport List under the New Mexico association.

What does that mean? Per USATF, Dr. Matt has “met all requirements of the registered coach program which includes an extensive background screen and completion of USOC SafeSport course.

“The USATF Registered Coaches Program was conceived to establish a set of standards for all coaches affiliated with USA Track & Field. The program involves a four-pronged process, which results in a published list of coaches who have demonstrated the ethics, honesty and trustworthiness necessary for endorsement by the national governing body. The centerpiece of the process is a comprehensive Safe Sport Handbook which focuses on only the highest ethical and honorable standards. Registered Coaches also carry with them the rights and privileges available only to those within the registry. These benefits may include:

  • Discounts for premier seminars and coaching education programs
  • Registered Coach credential at USA National Championships
  • Selection to international team staffs
  • Selection for Coaching Enhancement Grants
  • Involvement in USATF High Performance Programs
  • Compensation from USATF or USOC athlete support programs “

“The Registered Coaches application process includes: (1) a current  USATF membership, (2) a background screen, (3) completion of USOC SafeSport course, (4) agreement with the policies in the Safe Sport Handbook and (5) listing of your coaching affiliation.”


USATF Registered Coaches Program


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Race Report: Revenge of the Sand! King of the Hill Trail Run

Did I mention there was sand? There was sand.



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10K,  Los Lunas New Mexico, March 12, 2016

Since moving to New Mexico from Florida three years ago, I’ve found that I rarely get more than a few grains of sand in my trail running shoes. I don’t miss it. Most of my Florida trail runs ended with me pouring sand out of my shoes and socks, followed by a good scrubbing of my blackened feet.


Dirty Trail Foot, Florida Style
Dirty Trail Foot, Florida Style. Even the cat is disgusted.


In Albuquerque I run in the Sandia Mountains several times a week and come home with mostly clean shoes and feet, save for an occasional cactus spine. Today I discovered that when it comes to sand, Florida has nothing on Los Lunas. Unlike Florida trails where you run for a few yards to maybe a half mile in “sugar sand” before hitting more solid turf, about 95% of the King of the Hill course is made of deep sand. There’s also a big hill, as you might guess from the name. Today I learned that running uphill in sand is much less fun than running downhill in sand. I heard several runners comment that the steep downhill section in deep sand was more like downhill skiing than running, and I concur. As long as I hit heel first, I would scoot/skate down the hill.


This was the type of course on which you had to pick your battles; take it slow and steady climbing up the steep sandy hills (I hit some 11 minute plus mile splits on those) and let go on the few hard packed sections and sandy downhills. One of the benefits of this type of race is that race time is irrelevant compared to any other course. The best you can do is compare to how everyone else did, unless you ran the course last year (which I did not).


The start (and finish) was on a cinder road, which was the best running surface of the course, with rolling hills that led to the trails. Quite a few folks made jackrabbit starts, apparently unaware that saving some energy early on this type of course would pay off later. I went into “stalker mode” right after the gun, knowing that on a tough course many of the folks that go out fast are folks I’m going to see again later (not counting the folks who are clearly faster than me).


After reaching the trails and coming to the realization that the course description of “some sand” was rather understated, I simply held as comfortable a pace as I could and waited for things to get better. After climbing the steepest namesake hill, the only section where for me walking was preferable to running, there was more gradual uphill slipping and sliding. My running form – arms flailing, truck twisting – reminded me of someone trying to swim in rough surf; road running is more like swimming in a pool in comparison. It was awkward, but fun to have a different challenge from the norm.


The trail was wide enough for vehicles (no single track at all), so my strategy was to run where the tire tracks had hopefully packed down the sand. That really didn’t help, so I found myself crossing back and forth trying to find the most solid ground. After a while I tried landing in the foot prints in front of me, using them like rock climbing hand-holds. I don’t think any of that really helped, other than to give my mind something to do besides focus on how hard I was working just to run that slow. Somewhere past the halfway mark I was relieved to find we were now going downhill and could actually start letting go and racing a little bit.  I was still wind-milling my arms, but at least it was too keep me from going too fast and falling on my face on the downhill sections. I really hope no video was taken, but if there was it should probably be set to a Benny Hill style sound track.


Around that time a couple of gentlemen in turn went flying past me with reckless abandon on the downhills. There was of course still a lot of sand, so I calculated I would probably see one or both of them again near the finish. Other than those two, the only other runner near me was the soon to be second place woman, who was handling the course just a bit better than I was (ah, youth). Fairly early on I had caught the folks that went out too fast, so the overall places were just about sorted out. With around 2 or 2 ½ miles to go, we merged with the middle of the 5K race that had started 30 minutes after we had. I managed to weave through the bulk of those folks using a few shouts of “on your left” or “on your right”. Fortunately even those wearing headphones did a good job of letting the 10K runners pass, and having some people to catch helped me keep my focus. If the race grows much larger, however, they might need to rethink the logistics or this merging will cause a logjam.


As expected, around the 5 mile mark I caught one of the guys that had passed me earlier, then back on the cinder road with about ¾ mile to go I caught and passed the other guy. There was no use trying to catch the woman in front of me by that point, so I focused instead on passing the few 5K runners headed for the same finish line. By that point in a race this difficult, you just want to run fast so it can be over and you can get some red chili pancakes.


I crossed the line in 55:37, 16th overall and 1st in the “Old Geezers” (50-54) age group. For comparison, the winning time was 41:52 by some whippersnapper half my age. Dang kids. Other members of the Dukes TC also won their respective age groups, with Jesse Espinoza (46:54) finishing 5th overall and Ben Willis (48:06) taking 6th. We should probably suggest a team competition for next year, assuming Jesse recovers from his sand trauma by then.


Several members of the Albuquerque Road Runners also enjoyed the run, including Kathy Kirsling who won her age group and beat a slew of younger runners. As always, Perky Garcia was at the ready with her trusty instamatic and captured some great photos. Heck, she even got a picture of me (second picture below) not flailing, in addition to the post race photo below. Wendy Wiggins stated off the record that she is not fond of sand running. 


Dr. Matt with Age Group Winner Kathy Kirsling, who is proudly displaying the blank side of her medal
Dr. Matt with Age Group Winner Kathy Kirsling, who is proudly displaying the blank side of her medal


Did I mention there was sand? There was sand.
Did I mention there was sand? There was sand. Photo by Perky Garcia


Age group winners and not, everyone agreed this was one of the toughest 10K (or 5K) races they had ever run, with the word of the day being “sand”. So much sand. I poured about a half pound of it out of each shoe post-race, and it invaded my dreams last night. As I write this, over 24 hours later, my legs are sore and I’ve postponed my Sunday long run until tomorrow (I’ll get a short recovery run in this afternoon). It’s always best to recognize and accept when an adjustment to training is indicated, especially for us old folks who don’t recover as fast as we used too.  


Dukes Masters Jesse Espinoza (L) and Dr. Matt
Dukes Masters Jesse Espinoza (L) and Dr. Matt


This was the second year for this run, and the organizers and volunteers did a great job. The red chili pancakes were a much appreciated post-race treat, and plenty of other food and water was available. I plan to return, but next time I will be wearing my winterized trail running shoes, a pair of no longer made New Balance MT110s with a neoprene zip-up booty covering. (I had them sitting by the door, but as I was leaving I foolishly thought, “nah, I won’t need those”.) They might be hot, but I think having sweaty feet will be more comfortable than having sand rolling around inside my shoes and causing a blister on my heel. If you don’t have anything like this, I suggest at least using shoe gaiters over the least porous shoes you own. There’s a lot of sand out there; you’ve been warned.

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Welcome to Sport Science Running and Fitness

Comrades Wall South Africa 2010




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With this brief introduction, and through upcoming posts, I hope to use my story to inspire you to learn more about the wonderful world of running, fitness, and health, and to apply that knowledge to your own story. I will write more about my improbable, and hopefully inspiring, rise from awkward, unathletic, overweight kid to collegiate runner and beyond in upcoming posts.


I chose Sport Science Running & Fitness as a title after considering many other ideas, some clever and some more straight forward and descriptive. I settled on the latter because, even though I (attempt to) use humor in my writing, the main focus will be to share insights from my 40 years and counting as a runner, my training in Sport Science, and my experience in exercise physiology, physical rehabilitation, and research. I hope you will be able to put this information to practical use, or at least find it interesting and entertaining.


I also plan to write about controversial issues and pseudoscience in an informative and educational manner, that will no doubt result in much wailing and gnashing of teeth among some ‘true believers’ in such things. In the internet age, purveyors of health and nutrition misinformation (usually with a profit motive) have gained wide audiences and do a lot of damage, and are experts at getting their victims to defend them. I will share the work of other science communicators that are dedicated to exposing con artists and quacks. 


If you spend any time in running forums, you have also no doubt seen virtual holy wars break out over topics such as ‘the best running shoes’, ‘the best diet’, or the ‘best training plan’, and the rules of the sport. Sometimes these fights even break out over some very silly and trivial issues. Much has changed during my four decades in the sport, and I find we are experiencing some growing pains with the much increased popularity of running. Hopefully I can help bring some sanity to these discussions. After all, running is important to us, but it’s also supposed to be fun.


I welcome any ideas you have for blog posts, any suggested corrections for my posts, and any running or fitness related questions. Please keep comments civil and PG-13 rated. Be sure to like the Facebook page, too 

Talk to you soon.



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