How to Prepare for Your First Trail 50k

For those who want to break into the ultra marathon world a 50k is a good distance to start with. If you’ve run a marathon and are currently injury free then a 50k is very do-able. In fact, we have a beginner 50k plan over on our website that’s 20 weeks in length and based on 4 running days per week (and cross training of course).

If you’ve recently completed a marathon and are looking to do a 50k you likely won’t need to start from scratch with your training and can simply jump into a training plan the appropriate number of weeks out from your race.

In some ways, training for a 50k is very similar to training for a marathon. The aim is to build on your endurance base and support structures through easy runs, hills, long runs, and core/strength training. It can also be beneficial to sign up for a marathon three weeks out from your 50k to use as a final long training run before you go into the tapering period.

How to Prepare for Your First 50k

Make sure you start with a solid endurance base and are healthy. Anytime you’re looking to go a longer distance you want to make sure that you’re not currently dealing with injuries or starting from scratch with your fitness.

Choose the race wisely

Ultra-marathons will vary widely in the level of difficulty depending on a number of factors. These may include:

  • Altitude: Look at the starting and overall elevation. Races at altitude will be significantly more difficult if you don’t live or train at altitude.
  • Elevation gain: Elevation gain and loss can range from fairly flat to thousands of feet in changes.
  • Course: A rocky single track course will be a lot more technically challenging than a groomed trail or road. Gentle loops make logistics a lot easier versus point to point courses.
  • Temperature: The time of year can make a big difference in your experience. Any extremes in temperature will make the race more challenging.
  • Size: Look back at past years to gauge the approximate number of participants. If you’re nervous about being out on the course on your own you may want to choose a larger race.
  • Support: The amount of support offered at the race. Some ultras have aid stations every couple of miles while others may have you going 7 miles or more between. Also be aware of how much support is offered at each aid station. This can vary from a full array of fluids, food, electrolytes, bathrooms, and medical to a few jugs of water in the middle of nowhere.

Train for the course you’ll be running

The more you can run in conditions similar to your race the better you’ll be prepared. This doesn’t mean that you have to do 100% of your runs on trails if you’re training for a trail 50k. But if you’re exclusively a road runner then it is vital that you start to experiment on a variety of trail conditions.

Trail running can feel like a new skill set when it comes to pacing, concentration, gear/preparation, and navigation. I recommend that you do at least 50% of your long runs on trails if you’re training for a trail ultra. My first ultra was a 40 mile road race which was a very different experience from a trail ultra.

Modify your long run expectations

Trail long runs can be a very different experience from road long runs. Pacing becomes so much more important and you need to learn to work with the terrain and manage your energy levels. This means making peace with walking/hiking sections of the course and realizing that you’ll be on your feet a lot longer than normal.

Walking is often the best strategy for navigating sections of an ultra and is much better than pushing your heart rate too high. Don’t set pace expectations for yourself when you’re training for your first ultra.

Take a map

Trail running takes a whole new level of preparation and awareness. It’s important to map out where you’ll be running (and let someone know where you’ll be and an estimate of when you’ll be done). If it’s a new area take a map with you or take a picture of the map on your phone. There can be times when you get out in the woods and it all starts looking the same or the trails are not well marked. Don’t count on a cell signal or access to GPS navigation at all times either.

Get some trail gear

My gear for the Black Hills 50k

Don’t go out on the trails without being prepared with the right gear. This is going to include a hydration system and fuel. Bring more fluids than you think you’ll need just in case it ends up taking you longer than you expected. And remember that there won’t always be cell reception out on the trails. This means that you need to be dressed for the weather, have a headlamp if you’ll be running in low-light conditions, and have proper shoes.

For some groomed trails you can often just wear road shoes but if you’ll get getting into single track (narrow), gnarly, or rocky trails it’s best to invest in some trail shoes and start breaking them in pre-race. Your long runs are also the perfect time to test out other gear like hydration packs, what you need for anti-chaffing, gaiters, socks, and light layers (maybe a thin rain jacket you can stuff in your pack). I also like to carry toilet paper in a baggie in case of necessary bathroom stops.

Practice with “real” food

You’ll also need to practice eating and hydrating regularly to keep your energy levels steady. Aid stations during ultras often have an awesome variety of food. So, practicing with more “real” food options is wise before you load up during the race.

Be sure to know the distance between aid stations during your race so you can plan on how much fluid/fuel to carry. Even if you’re planning on utilizing the aid stations it’s never a wise policy to plan on them exclusively for your needs (as Trevor experienced at the last bare aid station).

Leave no trace

Be respectful of nature and other people when out on the trails. Try to stay on the trail as much as possible (which may save you from a case of Poison Ivy or Oak). Be sure to pack out any garbage you produce and don’t add to any graffiti you may find. When you approach your trails runs correctly you’ll gain a sense of adventure, wonder, and gratitude for the beauty around you and the capability of your body.

Check out our 50k podcast episode here:

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