How to train for your first 50-mile race
Beyond the physical training, be sure to train your mind, lock in your nutrition and adhere to good recovery methods.
As the participation in marathon running continues to grow, the popularity of ultra marathons also is increasing.
Last year, I completed my first and second ultras, both 50Ks. As I planned out my race calendar for 2017, I set a goal to finish my first 50-miler and found the American River 50, a beautiful, well-organized race in California.
Registering for the 50-mile race on www.ultrasignup.com was the easy part. As I looked ahead to this challenge, Marathon Training Academy Coach Angie Spencer and I set out to craft a solid plan to get my body, mind, nutrition and recovery in prime shape.
Going from a 50K to a 50-miler is similar to transitioning from a half to a full marathon. The distance is significantly higher and, as a result, one will need to train to run longer — and slower.
Another major challenge I faced was training for hills while living in an area that is pretty flat. Coach Angie and I worked together on a plan that included races as “training” runs. Up first was a winter trail marathon race, then a 50K (technically a 55K) with decent elevation gains.
Once those races were set on the calendar, Coach Angie put together a plan that included hill work, speed work and back-to-back long runs on weekends. When training for long endurance events, it’s important to have significant “time on feet” and learn how to run on tired legs.
After recovering from the winter trail marathon in mid-January, my training plan called for the back-to-back runs. Here is what I ended up running each weekend through the first ultra marathon:
Date Saturday run Sunday run
Feb. 11-12 16 miles 6 miles
Feb. 18-19 20 miles 8 miles
Feb. 25-26 10 miles 6 miles
Feb. 27-March 5 6 miles 5 miles
March 11-12 34 miles (55K race) 10 miles
As you can see, there was a buildup after the mid-January trail marathon that peaked three weeks before the 55K race, which was my last long run before the 50-miler. (I continued to do shorter back-to-back runs during the taper before the 50-miler.) It seemed to work as I finished 10th overall at the Bel Monte Endurance Run and recovered well for my 50-mile debut.
The key in the back-to-back runs was to focus on the miles, not the minutes. That 10-mile treadmill run the day after the ultra was a difficult, brutal slog on tired legs. But that paid off later as I met my goal of the 50-miler three weeks later.
The Bel Monte race featured some serious hill work — nearly 5,000 feet of elevation change. That was necessary as the 50-mile race included a significant uphill climb during the final three miles, as well as an elevation change of 3,800 feet uphill and 800 feet downhill.
As a flatlander, I had to be creative in performing hill work. For example, during my long trail runs, I included a series of hill repeats on one of the few hills I had access to. Additionally, I would crank up the treadmill and power hike for 15-20 minutes at increasing elevations after a midweek run.
Beyond running, Coach Angie also outlined some core routines that were specifically aimed at preparing my body for rigors of hill work. Some specific exercises that she prescribed included various planks, swimming Superman, chair hold, crunches, weighted lunges and squats.
Practicing with race-day gear
The training got my body in shape to handle what would be a little over 10 hours of running, power hiking and walking. At the same time, I needed to practice with the gear and nutrition I planned to use during race day. Remember, nothing new on race day.
Among the gear I practiced with and used during the 50-miler:
• Orange Mud backpack: The HydraQuiver Double Barrel Hydration Pack fits two large water bottles easily accessible on the runner’s back, plus plenty of storage for nutrition, cell phone, keys and more. I put in plenty of training miles with this pack to know how much I could take with me (a lot!) and how to get it to fit securely and comfortably.
However, I made the mistake of not testing it out the night before the 50-miler with what I would be wearing. The pack was looser because I did not account for the difference between the multiple layers I wore during my training and the one short-sleeved tech shirt I wore during the American River 50. It took a few minutes at an aid station to get the pack better secured.
That aside, I highly recommend the Orange Mud pack for long-distance training or racing. I’ve tried other packs but the HydraQuiver stands out for comfort, ease of use and storage.
• Xx2i sunglasses: I picked up some xx2i Optics sunglasses for running the Honolulu Marathon last year but did not need them because the race started two hours before sunup.
However, I knew that I would need them for the nine or so hours of daylight I would experience during the AR50. I wore my xx2i shades during nearly every trail run during my training and found them to be excellent in not only protecting my eyes but giving me clear vision, regardless of the sun’s angle, shade on the trail — basically any possible variation of sun glare. This was helpful as I was completely comfortable in wearing these during my race, where I encountered direct sunlight, deeply shaded trails and rapidly changing sunlight during various sections of trail.
The xx2i sunglasses will be as vital to my training this summer as are my running shoes.
• Garmin: I was unsure of whether my Forerunner 235 would have enough battery life to make it throughout the entire race so I wore it, as well as my Forerunnner 10. I used one watch to time the first half of the race and the other watch to do the second half. Both worked out well, even though a good part of the race was in remote areas.
The mental side of ultra running
While the running, yoga, core exercises and strength training primed my body for race day, I also focused on the mental aspect of running further than ever before. Here are some ways I wrapped my brain around running 50 miles so that I was at peace at the start line:
• Study up: It's important to review and understand the course, logistics, etc. from the race website, previous race reports (future American River participants can check out the the one I did on the AR50) and wherever else you can get information. Knowledge is a powerful thing, especially when educating yourself so that there are no surprises on race morning. It’s helpful for me to know where the aid stations are, the general layout of the course and any nuances (several race reports warned of snakes in the grass).
• Remind myself that the training prepared me for the race. I had a really good training season and had performed well at the 55K three weeks earlier. I went into the 50-miler confident but still respected the distance.
• Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Or, in this case, run it one mile or section at a time. For me, I thought of the race as five 10-mile chunks, not a 50-miler. After completing each 10-mile increment, it helped me focus. After crossing the 30-mile mark, I focused on “there’s just two more sections left” — a lot less daunting than “this is nearly the longest I’ve ever run and I still have 20 miles to go.”
• Start out slow, then slow down. During my training I read some good advice, “If you think you are going too fast, you definitely are. If you think you are going the right speed, slow down anyway. There’s a lot more race left.”
A 50-mile buffet
Among the major differences between road marathons and trail ultras are the aid stations. Road marathons are stocked with water, an electrolyte drink, gels, bananas and/or oranges, and maybe some pretzels for the salt. Ultras have all that food and drink plus soft drinks like Coke, salted potatoes, candies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, watermelon, burritos, gummies, burgers, and whatever else the volunteers can dream up and prepare in a remote location.
It’s wise to know what the aid stations are serving, especially if you have food sensitivities. Even if you don’t have food sensitivities or allergies, it’s best to use training runs to test the food and drinks you will partake in during the ultra. You wouldn’t want to realize that those salted potatoes, for example, don’t work well with your system at mile 20. My nutrition game plan consisted of:
• Pre-race: I start off my long training runs and races with a Ucan drink mix and a gluten-free bagel with peanut butter. I’ve tested this routinely and have never encountered problems. It’s a good combination of protein and carbs that works well for me.
• Carrying during the race: It’s important to test what you take in during the race with what’s already in your stomach from the pre-race meal. I have had success with carrying and consuming Tailwind, M&Ms, bananas and Ucan bars. During races and training runs, I mix Tailwind with water to make sure that I am replenishing as I go. I generally use a half serving of the individual packets for 16 ounces of water. You may prefer more or less, depending on how it meshes with your system. At the AR50, the aid stations offered an electrolyte drink other than Tailwind, so I packed my own TW. I also carried peanut M&Ms, even though they would have some at aid stations, as well as a Ucan bar.
• At aid stations: When I arrive at an aid station, it’s less about what I choose to eat than what my mind gravitates toward. Something takes over — the mind and body just know that I need salt, so I reach for the pretzels or chips. During the American River 50, I found myself reaching for the cold Cokes to get a sugar and caffeine boost, even though I rarely drink that anymore.
The smile that was plastered across my face after the finish was not the only physical change I experienced during the 10-hour, 50-mile run. My quads were burning, calves were screaming and shoulders were throbbing.
As important as practicing was to a good performance on race day, so too was a proper recovery to ensuring a smooth recovery. After eating some of the post-race food, I took advantage of the massage.
That definitely helped my initial recovery but it was a part of the overall plan. I also used the following methods:
• Compression gear: My recovery went better than expected thanks to the Swiftwick compression socks I wore. After running and walking 50 miles, I was more interested in recovery than fashion so I paired the Swiftwicks with Oofos sandals, a moisture-resistant foam that promotes recovery. While there is debate about whether compression gear actually helps recovery, my experiences tell me that it does help. The day after the 50-miler, I was moving around pretty easily and even did some hiking.
• Foam rolling: While the post-race massage and compression gear set my body on the path to recovery, foam rolling was also part of the process. Each night, I spent time rolling my legs and hips, stretching the muscles back out and promoting healing. With every roll, my legs felt better.
• Yoga: During training, I do between 90 and 120 minutes of yoga a week. Running is a very repetitive motion, yoga counters this by stretching those muscles back out. After 50 miles, I had plenty of stretching to do. I started yoga two days after the 50-miler and continued that going forward to heal.
• Slow runs: After taking several days off, I started back with very slow runs, taking it slow to boost recovery. Usually, I set a pace goal before I set out for a run. For the first several runs after the 50-miler, I had no goal. I just wanted to finish a preset number of miles, in whatever time I needed.
Overall, this plan helped me recover in a faster time than I had anticipated. During recovery as the pain and soreness receded, my thoughts turned to what’s next. The immediate next is the Leadville Trail Marathon in Colorado. As for more ultras, I will definitely be back for more — and another 50-miler is not out of the question.
After all, a solid training strategy, nutrition plan and recovery commitment will make it all worthwhile.