So you’ve run one, a few, maybe even a dozen road marathons. Awesome! You’ve joined the ranks of the top 0.25 percent of people in the world (more or less; that might not be a real statistic) who are able to run 26.2 and actually make it to the finish line.
I remember those days, when nothing in the world seemed so glorious as to begin a test of endurance right around the time – or even before – most people have rolled out of bed and started a pot of coffee to nurse their hangover. No, not you; crazies like us know that Fridays are for carb-loading, laying off the booze and going to bed early because we’ll be running long on Saturday! And even more glorious was being done with the marathon just in time for a huge lunch at the finish line or at a nearby restaurant and knowing that we’d spent the morning, and every Saturday morning for at least three months, earning it!
And with those notches on your belt, you are ready to go forth where road runners fear to tread, into the wild blue yonder of ultra running. Go you, and the ultramarathon community welcomes you!
Before you get yourself all decked out in fancy new trail shoes, a Camelbak and those things that some trail runners wear to keep rocks and dirt out of their shoes, heed a few words of advice about how to train for a 50k and just how different it’s going to feel the first time out.
It’s not just a “marathon plus 5”
Not that there’s anything “just” about a 26-mile run, but the mistake that some new ultramarathoners make is assuming that everything will pretty much be the same except the location (trail versus road) and the distance. While the distance part is true, the location makes a world of difference and will affect other aspects of your training and your 50K experience come race day.
The pace on trails is a lot slower.
If you run a four-hour marathon, expect your 50K to be six hours or longer. Why? Because you’re running on very uneven surfaces with lots of exposed rocks and roots and zigzagging, narrow trails instead of straight and wide city streets. Expect to spend a lot of time and energy concentrating on the ground a few feet ahead if you don’t want to constantly trip and fall, and pick those feet up! You can’t keep them as close to the ground as you might while road running and expect to clear every rock and root.
You’re going to be out there a lot longer.
(Seriously, plan for a six- or seven-hour 50K.)
And more time out on the trails means that there will be more time in which to dehydrate. A hand-held water bottle, hydration belt or a Camelbak is a given on any ultramarathon course, but the other thing to consider is the need for electrolyte replenishment. If you consume enough water but not enough sodium as you go along, all that water’s just going to run through (for lack of sodium that would signal your kidneys to hang onto it), and cramping and that whole-body dehydration feeling are soon to follow. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Head this problem off at the pass by trying out products like Nuun and Gu Brew during your long training runs. Either of these will give you more electrolytes than Gatorade or coconut water and, at only 10 calories per tab (because they’re sweetened with stevia), you can afford to enjoy light noshes at the aid stations, take Gu (or your preferred energy gel) and whatever else you would normally consume throughout the race without any extra sugar to turn your stomach. If your 50K is allowing runners to have drop bags at an aid station along the course, or if the course swings back to the start/finish in the middle of the race and you can leave a bag there, leave a bottle or two (premixed and chilled the night before) in your bag, gulp some down at the aid station, eat whatever, top off your water and then head back out. This way, it won’t get hot from the heat of your hand or body from running with it for several miles.
You need to actually train on trails.
Not necessarily the trails, where your 50K will take place, but some trails. Hillier and zigzaggier trails are tougher, obviously, but by training on them at least some of the time, you will find any “easier” segments of your 50K trail that much more tolerable – even, dare I say, enjoyable?
If you have an easy Saturday 10-miler planned at some point after you’ve been training for a while, then it won’t matter as much if you run it in the road, but when you’re just starting out, you really do want to do all your weekend long runs on the trails. Start with as few as four, six or seven miles just so you can experience the difference – and you will! After that, build to 10 miles, 13 miles, 17 miles…basically, you can scale up your long-run distances slightly so that you’ve logged the miles come race day, and ladder the distances up and then taper back down 3-4 weeks out, but get as much practice running on actual trails as you can because when you first start out:
You’re going to trip and fall. More than a few times.
You’ll probably roll an ankle.
Your heart rate will likely shoot through the roof.
Your calves will be feeling worse for wear until you get your trail legs. (More on this last point in an upcoming post.)
So don’t be the noob who shows up for the 50K after training almost exclusively on paved surfaces and then starts feeling miserable enough 10 miles in to drop out at the second aid station because they weren’t ready for the continuous balance challenge (remember, uneven surfaces) presented by the trails.
If this all sounds like I’m trying to run you off (no pun intended), I assure you I’m not. Just think of it as a set of reality checks that you will be much better off going through while you’re training – appropriately, for the conditions – than on your big day. Follow these tips, and you should be good to go for all 31 miles of your first ultramarathon!
And stay tuned for the flip side of this post, where I will talk about all the things I frickin’ LOVE about trail running and ultras – and that you will, too, once you’re over the hurdle of running your first 50K!
Seasoned ultramarathoners: got anything to add? If so, leave your words of wisdom in the comments below!