Last Updated on August 20, 2019 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
I often joke that 50 milers are the “half marathon” of the ultra world. Far, but not too far (you know, relatively speaking). Tough, but still a lot of fun. 50 miles is long enough to give you a feeling of extreme accomplishment (and fatigue!), but short enough that you don’t have to miss an entire nights sleep…and then some…like you would with a 100 mile race. 50 milers have become my favorite ultra distance to race, and I’m happy to share this free 50 mile ultramarathon training plan with you. Let’s get to it.
Am I ready to train for a 50 miler?
If you are looking for a blog post advocating couch – to – 50 miler, this is not it. I’m a rose-colored-glasses wearing, dream encouraging, enthusiastic cheerleader for most things in life…but I don’t like seeing people getting hurt. So that said, I personally recommend aspiring ultrarunners have a few years of shorter distance endurance running/ regular training experience before deciding to tackle a 50 miler. Notice I did not necessarily say racing experience, but rather, years of focused running. Having that physical experience and a solid running base will give you the best chances for success in both completing your race and making it through your training cycle injury free.
Aspiring 50 mile runners should begin their training with a solid running base, feeling comfortable running long runs over 20 miles, and should be regularly running 35-40 mile weeks while remaining injury free. You should also be prepared to run upwards of 50-70 miles per week across five days of workouts. It’s definitely a time commitment, so I always recommend that runners really take an honest look at their day to day life, and make sure that this volume of training will fit without causing unnecessary stress.
Here’s what you need to know about this 50 mile training plan:
Though I am a full time running coach, I wanted to provide a basic, first time 50 mile ultramarathon training plan for those who prefer to be self guided, do not need a detailed plan, or who simply aren’t ready for the commitment of working with a coach. While the benefits of working with a coach are invaluable, believe me, I understand it’s not for everyone, or may simply not be financially feasible.
The beginner 50 mile training plan is pretty basic, I prescribe distances, and will give you a general outline of what you should do during those distances. The exact workout? That’s up to you. This plan also does not address course specifics: is your race flat and beginner friendly? Or is it super technical with a ton of vertical change?
If you need – or want – more specific help, Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching would be more than happy to discuss the possibility of one-on-one coaching to give you a more detailed outline and support to reach your specific ultramarathon goals.
The mileage in this plan slowly and safely builds over 24 weeks, with cutback weeks every 3-4 weeks, to allow your body – and mind – to recover and rebuild. The plan finishes off with a cutback week followed by a 3 week taper, ensuring you are rested, recovered, and ready for race day.
A brief run down of what to expect…
Base building runs:
The majority of your runs should be done at an easy, aerobic pace. I tell my clients that they should run these at a “conversational pace”. In other words, a pace where you could easily carry on a conversation with a running partner, without feeling as though you are gasping for breath or struggling to speak.
Keeping the majority of your runs at this lower intensity will help prevent injury and burnout as you begin to push the larger weekly mileage volumes, and the longer distance long runs, both required of ultramarathon training. The aerobic zone also encourages fat oxidization (using stored fat for fuel), capillary building, and building a solid endurance base. This is essentially where you become better at running slow miles for a long time.
Hill and speedwork
Wednesdays are designed to be a strength building run – either a speed or hill workout. Unless you live in pancake flat coastal South Carolina (like me), chances are you will cover a significant amount of elevation over the course of 50 miles. It’s imperative that you train your legs not just for distance, but for climbing as well.
Your base runs and long runs should include hills on your run route. However, the Wednesday workout should specifically focus on hill climbing AND descending. The mileage prescribed includes warm up and cool down. Again, what you do for that speed or hill workout is up to you. Be creative!
Long runs are truly where your body adapts to running for long periods of time, physically and mentally, and are a cornerstone of ultramarathon training. Further, long runs are the perfect “dress rehearsal” for your race. Long runs give you an opportunity to experiment with – and perfect – nutrition and hydration plans, anti chafing products, new shoes or shorts…you get the idea. Long runs should be done at an easy effort pace.
You’ll notice that the long runs during the base building portion of the plan give a suggested range of mileage. This gives you options, depending upon how you are feeling that day. Struggling to get through, or short on time? Go with the lower end. Feeling amazing, and don’t want to stop running? Hit the higher end of the mileage.
Back to back long runs
Back to back long runs are done to simulate and adapt to running on fatigued legs, which is something you will definitely experience in the later stages of your ultramarathon. It’s also a safer and more efficient way to increase total volume of miles for the week, without putting in extreme long distance runs.
In this training plan, the second long run is prescribed in time, rather than mileage. I find this allows each athlete to truly listen to their body and complete the long run accordingly, rather than pushing to meet an arbitrary number of miles. If you are feeling strong, your body may allow you to push a little further. Feeling beat up from a long week of training? Take it easy, and use the time as a true recovery run.
Important note: weekly mileage totals in the plan are based upon a 10:00/mile pace for the second long run. DO NOT WORRY if your pace is faster or slower, and it changes the overall weekly mileage. Stick with the prescribed time.
A common misconception among many runners is that more running = faster runner, and therefore, many runners loathe rest days for fear that time off will make them lose progress. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Rest days are an integral part of the training process. During rest days, your body recovers from the physical stress of workouts, rebuilds damaged tissue, and becomes stronger.
This program includes two rest days. For more experienced athletes, one of those rest days can be used as a low impact cross training day. One day should be 100% rest. In short: for the love of all things, do not skip your rest days.
During cutback weeks, you will notice active recovery days. These workouts are designed to help promote blood flow, encourage healing, stimulate cardiovascular endurance, but remain low impact. Workouts like: swimming, biking, hiking, yoga, elliptical, etc. are all great options. Keep the effort on the lighter end. If your body is exhausted and you are in need of a rest day, you can substitute the active recovery days with rest instead.
What about strength / cross training?
If you know me, you know I am a huge advocate for strength training and cross training for all runners, but especially for ultrarunners. Strength training is imperative for injury prevention, and building an all around strong, balanced athlete. While I have not included strength and cross training into this training plan, I 100% encourage you to add it in when you can. Again, for more specific and detailed help, please feel free to inquire about our coaching services.
The following training plan is designed for educational purposes, and is not a prescribed training plan for any particular individual. While I am a certified exercise physiologist and RRCA running coach, and have designed this training plan with safety in mind, you should understand that when participating in a 50 mile training program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this training plan you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, and assume all risk of injury to yourself. You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting this or any other fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs.
Training for a 50 mile ultramarathon is a relatively large commitment, and it takes a lot of work. There might be days you truly stop and question your choice of hobbies, or whether you are capable of such a feat. These lows are normal: keep pushing forward. Once you cross the finish line of your first 50 miler, all of those hours of training will make sense.
Speaking of the finish line, be sure to check out the post “Running Your First 50 Miler: Everything you Need to Know About Race Day“:
Have any questions? Leave a comment below!
More helpful resources:
Ultramarathon Racing & Training Tips – a list of numerous educational training posts
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.