A few weeks ago, Coach Sage Canaday discussed how one can appropriately make the transition from road marathons to ultra-marathons. This week, he thought he’d take it one step further to discuss what an actual training plan would look like for your first ultra-marathon. Understanding key differences is one thing, but what about actually implementing the steps to build a training plan that will yield success?
Let’s dive in to learn more:
Today, we’ll be addressing a popular question I frequently get about the recommended training period for a first-time ultra.
For marathons, I typically advise 16-week training blocks. However, when it comes to a 50K, does it require a longer training period besides increased mileage? This is a great question, and the answer depends on your experience level.
If you’ve completed multiple marathon training blocks and have followed a serious 16-week training plan, you’ll find the transition to a 50K much easier compared to someone who has only run shorter distances like a half marathon or a 10K, without a formal 16-week training plan.
At Higher Running, our training plans generally span 16 weeks for both marathons and ultramarathons, but they cater to different experience levels. If you have years of experience, consistently run high mileage, and race several marathons per year, moving up to a 50K may not be too extreme. Although there are differences in fueling, time on feet during long runs, and the specific type of 50K course, transitioning from a road marathon to a runable 50K is more manageable.
However, if you’re considering a longer ultra like a 100K or 100 miles (160K), and the course involves significant climbing, technical trails, adverse weather conditions, or high altitude, the training timeline might need to be extended beyond 16 weeks. Here’s a little more. on how those differences would work:
What’s Your Running History Like?
Another factor to consider is your training history in the six months leading up to the ultramarathon. Some runners plan their training in longer cycles, not just focusing on 16-week blocks or a few months. They consider a full calendar year or even two years. For instance, when I was a professional road marathon runner, we would plan marathons three times within a two-year cycle. This long-term perspective helps with race logistics, lotteries, and travel arrangements. Your training leading up to the ultramarathon matters, whether you’ve been doing shorter races like an HM and then a marathon, or a marathon followed by an ultramarathon.
If you’ve maintained consistent training over the first six months of the year or during the previous summer and fall, you’ll have a good aerobic base.
If you’ve been running for more than five or ten years and consistently clocking over 50 miles (80K) per week, you have a solid foundation to build upon. In such cases, you can increase your training volume faster with less risk of injury. You could be doing 20-mile (32K) long runs within two to four weeks.
However, it’s important to note that our training plans usually recommend a few weeks of easy mileage and aerobic base running before jumping into specific workouts or long runs. This helps prevent overexertion and injury. Starting from scratch or returning from a long break requires a longer timeline. In these cases, be patient and allocate around 20 to 24 weeks to get in shape for the 50K.
Training Timelines Explained:
Let me also cover the specifics of a 50K ultramarathon and how the training timeline and workouts change compared to a flatter road marathon. As I mentioned earlier, the type of race you signed up for plays a crucial role.
A 50K with 3000 meters of climbing or 10,000 feet of climbing, like the Speedgoat 50K, is more extreme compared to a flat road marathon. Factors like high altitude, technical trails, adverse weather, or humidity can significantly impact your race experience. You’ll need extra time to train specifically for the trail type, terrain, and elevation gain, as it affects your muscle development.
Drawing from my own experiences, I made a mistake when I attempted to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2016. I had completed a few flat road marathons in 2015 and then decided to take on the Comrades Ultramarathon, which is still a road race, followed by UTMB. It turned out to be too rushed, as the transition to running up and down mountains required more time that I anticipated.
If you lack experience in mountainous or longer ultramarathon races and have mostly focused on road marathons, I recommend allocating more than 16 weeks for training.
To conclude, the recommended training period for a first-time 50K ultra depends on several variables, including your experience level, genetics, injury resistance, lifestyle, time availability, and gear. Additionally, the type of course and the specific challenge you’re preparing for will influence the timeline. It’s essential to consider all these factors when planning your training for a successful ultramarathon journey.”