Training for Your First Fifty Miler | February 24, 2009
So you’ve taken on the challenge of running a fifty miler. Congratulations! You’re in for quite an adventure, and I don’t mean the race itself. You’re training will be an exploration of self. You’ll test your patience, your determination, your mental toughness, and your physical limits. Then you’ll need to learn to extend all those things beyond what you ever thought possible.
Chances are when you think back on how you felt at the end of your last marathon, you wonder how on earth you’re going to last another four hours and cover another 25 miles. Here’s the bad news. Your four hour marathon time is not going to translate into an eight hour 50 miler. Think more in the range of ten hours or more. But here’s the good news. You’re already familiar with the basic pattern that your training is going to take, that is, solid weekly mileage with a long run on the weekend that steps up in duration from week to week, not unlike marathon training
Just how much mileage is necessary each week to guarantee success? Nobody knows for sure. Runners have succeeded with a wide range of training mileage. Some elite runners get up into the scary one hundred miles a week plus range, but most mortals get by on a lot less. Forty miles a week is probably a bare minimum. Most first timers shoot for the 50 to 60 mile range. That allows for daily runs of 6 to 8 miles, at least one rest day a week, and a long run in the 20 to 30 mile range. You’ll want to work up to your target mileage slowly, no more than a 10% increase in total miles a week. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Take an easy week if the training starts to feel burdensome or overwhelming. It should take about four months of solid training to go from marathon ready to ultra ready.
The heart and soul of your training will be the long run. Here you’ll meet the physical and mental challenges that define ultrarunning. How long is long? Distance is not as critical as time on your feet. You can start with a three hour long run, for example, and add a half hour each week until you’re long run is six or more hours. Keep in mind that these long runs are not the continuous, non stop, highly paced, stressed out training runs familiar to you from preparing for a marathon. Running like hell and then collapsing in a heap at the end of three hours is not the goal. The long run for ultra training should be a relaxed, measured effort with walking breaks and an emphasis placed on staying out there and maintaining your form even after you’re fatigued.
During the long runs you’ll also be learning how to eat and drink properly to replenish your energy stores and stay hydrated. You can experiment with different foods, energy drinks, and energy gels to find out which ones work for you and which don’t. You’ll also be stress testing your running shoes, trying out equipment, such as a hydration pack, and finding out which clothes work best in which conditions. In fact, you should get out the door in all kinds of weather to learn what it takes to cope with heat, cold, rain, and any other extreme conditions you might face in the actual race. You’re also going to be working out details like where you need to apply skin lubricants to keep from getting chaffed, what you need to do to prevent blisters, how to protect yourself from the sun, and how to stay safe on the trail.
Where you do all your training miles should be dictated if possible by the 50 mile race you are expecting to run. If your race is going to be mostly over single track trails, you should seek out trails during your training. Actually trail running in general provides a more comprehensive workout than running on smooth, flat surfaces. The unevenness of the surface causes you to engage a greater array of muscles in your legs and hips, and strengthens the muscles that keep you stable. Always running on flat surfaces stresses the same more limited set of muscles over and over again. If the race course is hilly, you will definitely need to train on hills. Hill training has a lot of added benefits anyway. It builds strength very efficiently and the varied intensity of the effort on hills mimics interval training as well.
A key part of ultrarunning that may be new to you is walking. Marathoners are usually signaling defeat when they resort to walking. In an ultra, walking is often the smart thing to do. Your legs get a break, you conserve energy, and you significantly extend the time you can keep going. A walk even provides a mental break. Most ultrarunners walk the uphills during a race and run the downhills and flats. The walk is not a casual stroll, though, but rather a strong steady efficient pace. Some runners will exaggerate their arm swing to better power themselves uphill. Practice your walk during your long runs. It will exercise the proper muscles and get you used to the transitions from running to walking and walking to running.
Toward the end of your training, throw in a few workouts that force you to run on tired legs, a condition that you’ll undoubtedly face in the last half of your fifty mile race. A classic technique is to do back to back long runs of at least 20 miles on two consecutive days. You can also try running your total 50 mile distance over the course of three days, 20, 10 and 20 miles. Another way to intensify your training is to throw in a “two-a-day” once in a while, that is, do an eight mile tempo run in the morning and then follow with a slow ten mile run later in the day. These stressful workouts will train you to hold your form and keep moving forward even when you’re fatigued. They’ll also help you develop the mental toughness that you’ll need to go the distance.
Building your mileage and intensity slowly should help prevent injury but there is no guarantee. At the first sign of any unusual or persistent pain, back off your routine and take more rest days. Go to a cross training activity like swimming or biking temporarily while you monitor your problem. Some stiffness and muscle soreness is normal, but the pain should be mild, disappear with warm up, and not persist while you’re running. Restless sleeping, irritability, elevated resting heart rate, persistent fatigue, or a drop off in performance are all signs of over training. If you start developing these symptoms, you’re probably getting inadequate rest and not allowing your muscles to recover sufficiently between workouts. Give yourself an easy week or two to allow your body to rebuild and then try returning to your program.
Finally, you are going to want to take a full and rejuvenating taper prior to the big race. Your last big stressful workout should come a full three weeks before the race and for certain not less than two weeks out. Cut your mileage in half the first week of the taper, and then the week before the race, just do a couple of very easy maintenance runs. Nothing you do the last week is going to increase your fitness significantly, but too much effort can cause you to show up on race day not fully rested and your muscles not fully recovered. Your goal is to line up feeling fresh and bursting with the desire to get out there and go long.
All that being said, no two runners follow exactly the same formula for success. You will need to experiment with just about every part of your preparation to find out what works best for you. In a way, that process of finding your own best path is what makes preparing for an ultra much more fascinating than following a lock step program that leads to a marathon. Good luck with your challenge. Don’t forget to relax during your race and don’t forget to enjoy yourself along the way. As ultrarunners often say when parting company on the trail, “See you at the finish.”