So you’re trying to decide to take the leap from road running to trail running — that’s amazing! Moving up in distance can be an exciting and challenging experience, but transitioning from a half or full marathon on the road to a 50km or longer trail ultra-marathon requires additional preparation and considerations. Trail running offers unique challenges and rewards, from navigating uneven terrain to taking in breathtaking scenery.

In today’s article, Coach Sage Canaday will share his top 5 tips to help you prepare for your first ultra-marathon and make the transition as smooth as possible. Whether you’re a seasoned runner or new to the sport, these tips will help you stay focused, motivated, and confident as you tackle this new challenge:

“For a little background on myself, I raced 5k, 10K in track in college, and then eventually moved my way up. Maybe you’re in the same boat though. Maybe you’ve started running recently or you’ve gotten back into running and you’ve been doing 5K or 10K road races.

Maybe you’ve been doing dabbling in some half marathons, and now you’re looking to do a marathon and eventually an ultramarathon. The general trend is that you move up in distance as you gain more experience. This newsletter will specifically focus on transitioning from those road half marathons or road marathons.

I have five key tips, for making a successful transition to ultra-marathons, such as the 50K distance, 100k distance, even a hundred miles in the mountains and trails.

Tip Number One:

You have to have a consistent mileage base, which is essentially the aerobic base I frequently refer to. 🫁

For example, instead of running three days a week, you start running five days a week. Instead of running 30 miles a week or 50K a week, maybe you’ve started to average 50 miles a week or 80K a week. That kind of base generally really helps you in long distance racing! If you’ve got that consistency of just getting out the door, hitting those weekly mileage totals, spending time on your feet, training the aerobic system, even at relatively low intensity, it’s gonna set you up really well for doing an ultramarathon.

Now let’s briefly look at the physiology in terms of stressing your heart and lungs. A 50K is really just a minor extension off of a marathon, right? As long as it’s not a super high-altitude race or something really technical, it hopefully won’t feel too different than a regular marathon. A 50K should be very doable if you’ve gotten in consistent mileage base and experience in marathon training, so it probably best to start off with a 50K and see how your body responds.

Tip Number Two:

Add in hills or vertical. 📈

Not all ultra-marathons are going to be flat. In fact, most won’t be! Because there’s going to be a lot of vertical gain (at least more than what you’re used to in a regular road marathon), it’s critical to prepare your legs for that pounding of downhills and climbing strength for uphills.

To run strong uphill, it’s important to build overall strength and get that type of cardiovascular benefits for your heart and lungs. In a lot of our Higher Running Training Plans for Mountain Ultra training plans, we do have workouts like high intensity, short hill repeats, or have you do all uphill tempo runs or treadmill works where you’re adding in vertical gain and up relatively steep grades.

We’re talking 5% grade, 10% grade, even 20% grade. If you’re going to be training for a mountain race, you need to get used to that change in vertical. To take this one step further, add in hills and add in some long runs that are rolling that mimic the profile of the course. Your legs will get really strong doing this. Your heart and lungs get better with these specific types of aerobic adaptations.

Tip Number Three:

Throw your time and splits out the window. ⏱🚫

Unless you’re running a 50K on a track or you’re doing a really flat, non-technical ultramarathon race, you’re probably going to have no idea in your first ultra what kind of relative pace you might hold. For example, we have a lot of people that run sub-3-hour marathon in the roads. They run the Boston Marathon, and they’re fast on the roads. Then, all of a sudden, you throw them out on the trails and they’re splitting four or five hours for a 50K. Letting go of your expectations will help you enjoy the race more and get a better understanding of how you respond to longer races.

For me personally, I’m frequently slogging 10–15-minute miles. I’ve even done races where I’m power hiking up a mountain at 25-minute mile pace (18-minute km pace). It’s not like road running or flat, fast track running. Throw times out the window, you have to go by effort.

Tip Number Four:

Ultra-marathons require their own, specific long runs. 💪

Long runs are the bread and butter of a lot of our marathon and ultramarathon training plans at Higher Running. Try to build your long runs off what the actual course is going to be. Take the time to do your due diligence and research the types of trails it’s on, how much total vertical the race has, etc.

One you’ve done this, try to mimic that in some of your long runs. Now, obviously, you’re not going to go out and run a 50K ultra when training for a 50K. But you might be doing a 20-mile long run (32km) as part of your regular training, and it’s important you’re mimicking the terrain you’ll be racing on.

And like I said in the previous tip of throwing your time goes out the window, you might just be looking to spend time on your feet. Go out on the weekend (or whenever you have more time to actually train on trails) and you say, “okay, I’m going to do a four hour long run.” Or, “I’m going to spend half the afternoon out on the trails.”

Tip Number Five:

Ultra-marathons require specific nutrition and gear. 🍌

This is something you’re going have to figure that out, because everyone is different!

However, I can briefly address the basics:

Nutrition: You need to have probably more calories on you. Some people use hydration packs, whereas others rely on aid stations. Research what’s at the aid stations, practice your fueling strategy, and dial in what works best for you.

Gear: You’re spending more time out in the elements. You’ll have to have all types of jackets, extra shoes, extra socks, etc. You could get more extreme temperature changes as well. But it depends on where your ultramarathon race is and how long it will take you.

Moving up in distance from a road marathon to a trail ultra-marathon can be a daunting task, but with the right preparation and mindset, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Remember to focus on your training, stay motivated, and be patient with yourself as you adjust to the unique challenges of trail running. With these tips and your own determination, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your trail ultra-marathon goals.