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Check out this introductory guide to ultrarunning and a beginner’s training plan to tackling a 50K.
Crossing the finishing line of a marathon is the completion of a journey well beyond the 26.2 miles of the race.
The successful completion of the marathon brings with it a heady mix of exhilaration, exhaustion and relief. Not to mention trashed hamstrings, quads and calves. Yet inevitably in the wake of the personal victory and after the pain has receded into a distorted memory it’s time to figure out what’s next.
For some, the next goal will be to go faster—to break a time goal or to qualify for Boston. For others the goal will just be to package the love for running with a love for traveling and do that next marathon in Dublin or on the Great Wall of China. For some, one is enough.
But for others, a special breed, the next challenge is about going farther. It’s time to take the journey into what is not just the next distance, but also the next world: ultrarunning. The 50K (roughly 31 miles) is the “shortest” standard distance you’ll find when you push beyond the limits of the marathon. This guide is aimed at training you to go the distance and, perhaps, give you a taste of, one day, going even farther and training for a 50- or 100-mile race.
We asked veteran ultrarunning coach Sean Meissner for the essential advice he would give to a runner wanting to take on the challenge of a first 50K. Meissner, who is based in Spokane, Wash., knows what he’s talking about. Not only does he have more than 100 ultra-distance race finishes to his name—including consecutive victories (2010 and 2011) at the Desert RATS 148-mile stage race between Fruita, Colo., and Moab, Utah—he has also been coaching beginning ultrarunners for more than a decade.
The following plan assumes you have a solid marathon or two (or more) under your belt and the critical experience and base-building that comes with it.
“I think a 16-week build-up would be about perfect for the marathoner looking to complete their first 50K,” Meissner says.
But he’s quick to point out there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a foray into ultrarunning. Adapting to increased mileage, developing the ability to run while fatigued and experimenting with different nutrition and hydration needs are all very individual endeavors. “Ask others for advice, but try things for yourself because everyone is so different in what works best for them,” he says.
Meissner generally believes long runs—which vary between 10 and 26 miles in this plan—should be spaced between six and 10 days apart. He also suggests seeking out hilly trails to bolster strength and refine trail running skills. Since most 50K races are trail races, he says it’s important to recalibrate your expectations of speed (you’re going to go slower than on the roads) and understand that the key goal of the long run is to develop your aerobic capacity and strength to handle the goal race distance.
To prepare his runners for the rigors of the final miles of the 50K, Meissner schedules a tempo-like run the day following the key long runs in the program.
“This will help simulate the fatigue you’ll be dealing with in the latter stages of the race.” Additionally, Meissner is a big believer in incorporating hill running and hill repeats into the overall program to build strength.
“I’m a big fan of hill work,” Meissner says. “For newer ultrarunners, I advocate adding hills into long runs and one other day each week on a shorter run. For a bit more experienced runners, one day every week or two of hill repeats are great, along with a hilly long run. The strength gained from running hills not only makes a runner stronger, but that strength then also turns into speed on the flats without the added pounding of actual speed work.”
Included in the schedule are opportunities to include races to sharpen strength.
“Tune-up races are great,” Meissner says. “They’re fun to run, great for checking to see where you’re at fitness-wise, and are a great chance to test your gear and nutrition for the upcoming ultra. When doing tune-up races, it’s best to keep the eye on the goal and not go too all out.” In other words, be on the cautious side with your pacing.