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!

Interested in being coached by Dr. Rogers? Click here to learn more.

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