Preparing to complete a 50 mile run is a big deal. Even driving 50 miles can be a big deal. A daily commute of 50 miles? No, thank you. And yet, here you are, looking for advice on running 50 miles. In one day. All at once.
I can only assume that means you’re a little different from most people, but I’ve got some good news for you. Being a little different is the first step to running a 50 miler. While the peons out there are acting like their marathon training is the most extreme thing in the world, you want to casually drop, “oh yeah, 26.2 miles? I did 27 on my long run last weekend.”
You want to see the look of awe on people’s faces when you tell them you ran for 6+ hours on Saturday morning. You want to earn the title of ultrarunner with your unbounded badassery. Ok, ok, I get, you’ve made up your mind! Now let’s make sure you’re as ready as you can be.
How hard is it to run 50 miles?
There’s an old saying in the ultra running community: “Ultrarunning is 90% mental and the rest is in your head.” It’s easy to roll your eyes at this (I mean, obviously there’s some level of physical fitness needed too), but it does highlight the fact that physical fitness alone is not going to get you to the finish line of an ultra.
Mental toughness is a huge factor in how your first 50-mile run will go and how hard it feels. If you’re used to pushing your physical and mental boundaries, the pain cave of ultrarunning will be familiar territory for you. If the idea of voluntarily entering a ‘pain cave’ just made you recoil in fear, you might have a harder time adapting to the mental demands of ultrarunning.
Thankfully, you can develop your mental toughness like any other muscle, it just takes practice. Here are some of my favorite ways to developing mental toughness while training: Go for a run when you REALLY don’t want to. Are you totally exhausted after being up all night with your toddler and it’s pouring rain? Perfect. As my favorite comic book dad says, “Go do something you hate. It builds character.”
Have bad runs. I don’t mean on purpose, but when you have a bad run look at it as something to learn from. How did you feel? What kept you going? What kind of things did you tell yourself at that moment? You’re going to have lows at some point during a 50 mile run so every bad training run is an opportunity to practice getting through those lows.
Give 5% more at the end of every run. Do one more lap. Pick up the pace by 5 secs per mile. Go an extra 50 feet. Train yourself to always believe you’ve got another ounce of fuel in the tank and it’ll be there when you need it most.
Running 50 miles is going to be hard, but building your mental toughness will make sure you get through, no matter what race day throws at you.
How long does it take to prepare for a 50-mile run?
Most 50-mile training plans are either 16 or 20 weeks long but don’t go thinking you can jump up off the couch with no base fitness, train for 20 weeks, and be good to go. Pushing too hard too soon is a recipe for injury. There are few general rules floating around that coaches often use to judge whether someone is ready to start training for a 50 miler.
Have you run a marathon recently? If you’ve already experienced the discipline of training for a marathon, chances are you have the physical and mental fitness required to jump right into your 16 or 20-week 50-mile training plan.
Do you already run 20ish miles a week regularly? If you’re already in the habit of a few runs a week and have been pretty consistently running 20+ miles each week for a few months, you’re likely ready to start on that training plan. If you answered no to both of these questions, don’t worry!
You don’t have to ditch the idea of running 50 miles, you might just need to allow yourself an extra 8-12 weeks to build up a base fitness. Try this half-marathon training plan to get started.
Ready to go? Let’s do this.
Preparing for a 50 Mile Run (16 Week Training Plan)
This plan is designed for an intermediate mileage runner who has a solid base of fitness, as outlined above. Below is some advice on how to modify this plan to make it more appropriate for lower mileage runners or for more advanced, higher mileage runners. Go ahead and print out the below training plan and put it where you can see it every day.
Modifying for lower mileage:
If this is your first 50 miler, or you are happy running lower mileage and simply aiming to finish, you might want to consider some changes to the plan above.
- Swap out Thursday’s easy run with a strength or cross-training session
- Shorten the Sunday runs by 1-2 miles
- Take Tuesday or Thursday as an additional rest day if needed
Whatever you do, DON’T SKIP YOUR LONG RUNS.
If you have to miss a run through the week, don’t panic, but do your best to always get your long run in. If carving out a single chunk of time is tough on a Saturday you can split it into 2 runs, a morning and an evening one, to get the mileage in.
Modifying for higher mileage:
If you’ve run ultras before and have your sights set higher than just crossing the finish line, you might want to up the volume to be competitive. In that case, consider the following changes:
- Add another speed/hills session every 2-3 weeks.
- Add an easy run on Fridays.
Pushing your training harder can be really exciting but don’t forget to prioritize rest and recovery as well. Your body won’t get the benefits of the hard work your putting in without proper recovery. And if you’re feeling running down, don’t be afraid of dialing it back for a few days.
Types of Running in the 50-mile Training Plan
Here’s a quick rundown of the types of workouts included in the plan.
Just like it says, these are easy. Also called base-building runs, this is what the majority of your miles will look like. Cruisy, conversational pace that you can keep up for the long haul.
Hills & speedwork:
These can be any one of a number of workouts. Intervals, hill repeats, fartleks, etc. Usually, some form of high intensity mixed with low intensity, these runs get your body used to moving quickly. This is a chance to personalize your plan for your course. Is the race pretty hilly? Focus more on hill repeats. Pretty flat? Prioritize speedwork.
Long runs & back-to-backs:
These are your weekend runs. They are at an easy pace and are generally thought of as race practice. They are opportunities to practice your nutrition (both before and during) and test your gear. Back-to-back means you run again the day after your long run. This gets you doing more miles through the weekend but with some rest in between to minimize the risk of injury.
This plan doesn’t include specific strength/cross-training workouts but it is highly recommended. Lifting weights, cycling, rock climbing, basically any other physical activity that’s not running will help complement your running and keep you injury-free. This is also a good chance to work on any specific areas of weaknesses you might have.
Cross-training sessions could fit into this plan on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in addition to your easy runs. Just be careful to not wreck yourself at the gym before having to do speedwork on Wednesday!
Rest & recovery:
Rest is where the magic happens. But rest isn’t just lying on the couch. It can be, but it can also be gentle yoga, hiking with friends, or walking the dog. Try to find a balance between keeping yourself moving, and letting your body rest.
What should I eat during a 50-mile race?
Nutrition during a race is a highly contested issue, with more opinions than you can shake a stick at. But suffice to say, the #1 rule for eating during a race is – NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY!
Part of your training is training your body to eat while running. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and while some people can happily trot along all day on gels and electrolytes. But some of us have more complicated digestion that requires more real food (I love me some salted, boiled baby potatoes!). The only way you’re going to find out what works for you is to test it out.
If keeping food down on your runs is hard for you, or you’re struggling with your day-to-day nutrition, it’s a good idea to deal with any issues as soon as possible. Under-fuelling during training increases your chance of injury and over-fuelling might see you adding on lbs and getting sluggish on your runs.
Do your own research and experiments to see what works or talk to a nutritionist who specializes in working with endurance athletes. You don’t want to show up to the start line with no idea which foods are going to work for you or which are going to have you doubled over on the side of the trail.
What should my longest training run for a 50 miler be?
If you’re new to training for longer distances, not seeing 50 miles in your training plan as a long run might scare you a bit. The exact number isn’t universally agreed upon and can be very personal. This plan has your longest long run at 31 miles.
I can almost hear you now… “How am I supposed to know if I can race 50 miles if I’ve never run 50 miles?!?”
This is a common concern but if you look at training plans for any distance, they rarely have you running the full distance before race day. This is especially true with ultra distance races as running longer distances is very hard on the body and puts you at risk for injuries.
The whole point of your training is to prepare your body to avoid injury for that one day when you will push it to the limit. And then you will likely rest up for 2-3 weeks afterward to make sure you properly recover.
This is totally impractical during training. You don’t have 2 weeks to rest up after a long run when you’re in the middle of a training block and you want to limit your risk of injury as much as possible.
We make up for this by running back to backs. This means you’ll run your long run on Saturday, but you’ll also run on Sunday to simulate the feeling of running on tired legs. Having some time in between to rest and sleep limits your risk of injury but learning to run even when you’re legs are heavy and tired means you’ll be able to push past that feeling for longer on race day.
Plus there is something to be said for the excitement of race day carrying you through those last miles. You will be able to run 50 miles on race day, even if you’ve never gone the distance before. Trust the process.
Our other free training plans:
Do I need a crew for a 50-mile race?
Having a crew for a 50 miler is not 100% necessary but it will make your life a lot easier on the day of your race. Depending on the type of race, your crew will either help you set up a personalized, home-base aid station (lap races) or drive around to predesignated spots to meet you on the trail with supplies (point to point or single loop races).
They will help you put lube between your toes, make sure you’re still eating, and most importantly, kick you back out onto the trail.
Having people available to help you do basic things is more important than you might think when you hit mile 39 and your overtired brain decides it’s a great idea to stop eating. Your crew will tell you to eat anyways and that might just be the difference between finishing or not.
If you’re able to have a crew, I highly recommend it. And if you can get someone who’s already run an ultra on your team, even better. They’ll have the best idea of what to expect and what you’ll be going through.
Keep in mind, you’re going to get pretty up close and personal with your crew. So make sure you’re comfortable with them seeing all the nitty-gritty details of race day.
Do I REALLY need to taper for a 50-mile race?
Yes. Tapering should be a non-negotiable before a big race. It can feel a bit strange if you’re new to the concept. I can almost hear you crying, “but I’ll lose my fitness!”
But you won’t. By the time you’re 3-4 weeks out from a big event, you’re generally as trained as you can be, and slowing down to prioritize rest will be more beneficial than continuing to push hard. It will make sure your body is not only as trained as possible, but as rested as possible for the big day.
It’s common to get a little restless during your taper, but treat it as more mental training. You’ve got this. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve clearly already committed to running 50 miles, so what are you waiting for? Just to make sure you stop humming and hawing about it, here’s your step-by-step action plan:
- Grab a notebook or open the notes on your phone and write down 3 reasons you’re training for a 50-mile race.
- Print the training plan above and stick it on the front of the fridge where you can’t miss it.
- Open up your calendar for the next 2 weeks and plug in your runs and workouts. Yes, all of them.
What is a good time for a 50-mile run?
What’s considered a “good” time for a 50-mile run greatly depends on the route as terrain plays a big role in how fast you can go.
If you’re running an official race or a really popular route, check out the winning and average times. Most races will have all of the finishing times listed for the last several years available on their website or ultrasignup.com. This should give you an idea of what would be considered a good time for a particular race.
If you’re trying to determine what a good time might be for a particular route, there are some factors you can look at to make a more educated guess.
The gain of a race refers to the total amount of elevation (feet) you’ll climb over the total distance of the race. 50 miles with 2,500 feet of gain is going to be a very different race than 50 miles with 9,000 feet of gain. No matter how strong of a hill-climber you are, the more gain there is, the slower your overall time.
Pavement? Singletrack? No track? How technical a trail is will also impact your idea of a good time.
Are you starting in the dark? Or is the sun going to go down before you’re done? Running in the dark slows most people down at least a little.
Level of Support/Required Gear:
That little vest you have to carry some food and water might seem like nothing on your training runs, but depending on the availability of aid stations and the location of the race you might need to pack it full of required gear and extra food. Extra weight = slower.
For example, at Dead Horse Ultra last year, the winning female time was 7:22:04. At the Zane Grey 50 Miler, the winning female time was 9:14:24. That’s almost 2 hours difference for the same distance!
Good or bad times vary across races. Make sure you don’t get caught up comparing times from your super technical race through a mountain pass to that race on a gravel road following a river.
You’ve done the prep, you’ve made the decision, all you have to do now is commit and trust the process. Remember, even when you feeling like crap, and you just don’t want to do a workout or stick to the plan, it’s just an opportunity for mental toughness training. Good days and bad days will happen, but each one, added up, are what’s going to get you to the finish line on race day.
Go get ‘em!
Up Next In Trail Running: