Training for an ultra marathon like a 50K can be a bit overwhelming. Especially if this will be your first attempt at the distance. You want to go into a race like this being fully confident that you have put in the training and are prepared!
So, just how long should you train for a 50k?
Properly training for a 50k will take 4 to 6 months. Researching dozens of training plans, I have found this is the ideal amount of time to budget.
Five months ago, I got the running bug. I had always wanted to be a runner, but I couldn’t last more than ten or fifteen minutes before I felt completely depleted, and could barely feel my legs. I had trained in martial arts competitively throughout my teens and was convinced that I had a “bad” knee, so I never dared to run without knee support.
It was only when I drove out for a trail run one day and forgot to bring my knee support that I realised that it was actually fine. Without the tight brace around my knee, I could actually run! I had been causing the issue all along by restricting the blood flow to my lower leg.
That day, I ran my first 5k. And three weeks later I was running a 15km trail race along the beautiful, cliff lined beaches of the south coast of Australia.
The energy of the trail running community, the breathtaking scenery, and the huge sense of accomplishment from completing my longest run had me sold. I wanted to run. I wanted to run long, and run wild.
A few days later I was madly researching all the running events happening near me. What should I be pushing for next? Should I do a half-marathon? Do I dare to consider training for a 100k? What can I afford? What gear would I need to pack for a 50k run? I had a lot of questions.
Eventually I stumbled across a running event that would take place in 6 months time. There was a 50k run option, and it took place in a beautiful national park just a couple of hours drive from Melbourne where I live. I had no idea whether I would be able to complete it. But, I signed up. I gave myself the opportunity to try.
Before I even ran a 15k, I assumed it took years to train to run a marathon, that is just not the case.
Sure, if you want to run it fast you will need years of consistent and informed training. But, in my opinion, a good goal for how long it will take you to run a 50k is to simply finish before the cut-off time (9 hours in my case). If you are already a runner, you’ve done some 5k runs and maybe a 10k, you can run a 50k in 3-6 months if you train for it. The trick is to do it without getting injured!
50K Training – Build your aerobic engine
My first focus was to work on my consistency and build my base mileage. At this point, I was feeling sore the day after a run of any length, and I was only running once or twice a week. My first goal was to go for a run every other day. I didn’t focus on speed or pace, I just ran at a comfortable rhythm where my heart wasn’t beating out of my chest.
I started listening to lots of running podcasts such as the Billy Yang Podcast, Science of Ultra, Extramilest, and Ginger Runner Live, just to name a few. Listening to how elite ultra runners approach their training is fascinating. Everyone has their own approach and so many different things work for different people.
Related article: What Is The Best Running Podcast? (16 Top-Rated Shows)
The one non-negotiable factor in all training methods though was consistency and rest. I also looked at YouTube videos on running form and the do’s and don’ts, to make sure I wasn’t setting myself up to fail or to get injured. Then, I got to work. I started running 3 to 4 times a week. During the week my runs would be between 3 to 6 miles. I focused on landing on my mid-foot and not over-striding.
I kept my pace slow and steady. On the weekend I would plan a long run and drive out to a trail, usually somewhere I hadn’t been before. My long runs were between 10 to 12 miles, which at the time felt like my absolute limit. After my long runs I would be drained of energy and usually needed a long nap in the afternoon.
After a few weeks of consistency, I was amazed at how my body was adapting, running felt so much easier than it had just a month before. This motivated me to keep training in the same way and simply build on that. I started to run slightly longer and added some back-to-back days here and there. I was worried that perhaps I should be incorporating more speed work and tempo runs in my training.
I did some more research into different types of running workouts and came across a really interesting podcast episode of The Extramilest called No Pain All Gain with Amelia Vrabel. In the episode they talk about the benefits of easy training.
This training principle made sense to me and I decided to adopt it for the long term, I wanted to be a runner for years to come and this was a sure way to build strong foundation, or a strong engine so to speak.
One thing that resonated with me in my research was the notion that you can’t run to get strong, you need to be strong to run. I reached out to one of the trainers at my gym to talk cross training and strength-training for runners. Before I started to run, a few months prior, I didn’t have much aerobic fitness, but I did have a good amount of core strength and muscle.
I had started rock-climbing about 8 or 9 months before and usually climbed indoors about 2 or 3 times a week. Climbing is a great full body workout, and is amazing for a strong core. Mixing in some strength work made sense and I enjoyed pushing my body in a new way.
The exercises that I added to my training program included leg-presses, lunges, kettle-bell workouts, squats, planks, and variations of all of the above to keep it interesting.
Find a 50k training plan
Although I follow a rough plan for my strength-training, I haven’t been following a strict plan for my running workouts. I did look around and study different plans to make sure that what I was doing made sense. There are so many plans available either free or custom plans if you work with a trainer or online coach.
A couple that I thought were good and easy to follow are the ultrarunner.com 50k plan (free access if you have a subscription), and the Map my Run plan. I took elements of both of those plans to inform my workouts, such as building on my long run each week, 3 shorter runs, 1 day dedicated to cross-training, and 1 day of rest.
Every few weeks I would dial it back and do a shorter long run, and maybe take an extra rest day.
With consistency of my training at the forefront of my mind, I knew that I needed my training plan to be realistic, to fit in with my life, and to be flexible.
Find a race and put it on the calendar
The best thing to do to get started is to find a race, sign up, and write it on the calendar. This has kept me motivated every week, every run. I knew I had plenty of time to get my body ready, I just needed to put the work in.
One thing to consider once you’ve got your eye on a race, is the terrain and conditions you will be faced with. What is the elevation profile? Is it technical terrain? Will it be hot/humid or cold? Road or trail? All those considerations will need to come into the training.
In my case I’m facing just under 8000 ft of elevation gain, so I’m training as much as possible on hilly terrain, whether it’s finding all the steep roads around my house or hiking up mountains on the weekend.
With less than 2 months until my race now, I still feel a bit scared of the distance. 50k may be the baby of the ultra-distances, but lets not forget that it’s still a huge amount of running. What the distance does allow though, especially compared to a marathon for example, is the time to enjoy it, to experience it, to explore.
During a long run, you get to a point where your body could keep going, but your mind might not want to. I think this is the true difference between running a marathon or half-marathon, and running longer distance ultras, that mental toughness you need.
Resources that helped me prepare for my 50k trail race:
I have found so many great resources online, here are a few links.
Inspiration and motivation:
Training and nutrition for endurance running:
50k specific articles:
How far is 50k in miles?
50k is 31 miles.
Is it possible to run a 50k without training?
If you have a base level of running, it’s possible to do it. But it won’t be without pain and risk. Running 50k without training your body to be able to handle the distance will almost certainly lead to injury. Training for a 50k ensures that not only can you run injury free, but also means that you might even enjoy the experience!
Running shouldn’t be about enduring endless amounts of pain, it should be about having fun and seeing how much our bodies can do when we give it the right tools.
Do ultra runners walk?
Yes! Ultra runners often chose to walk at certain times during a race. Strategic walking has been used by some of the top elite runners to win races. This is especially true for steep terrain. Sometimes walking up a steep hill is more efficient than running, and it will help conserve energy for the rest of the run.
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Tess Gard is a freelance writer and trail runner.