Over the last 40 years or so, long-distance running has become an increasingly popular pastime. Undertakings such as the marathon, which used to be reserved for the fittest of the fit, are now common bucket list items for the everyday runner.
We’ve advanced in our understanding of what it means, and what it takes, to tackle great feats of endurance. Runners of all types are now routinely crushing their goals of running 10ks, then half-marathons, then full marathons.
There was a time when it was assumed that the marathon was the ultimate test of human endurance. But, humans being humans, someone at some point just had to ask: what if I went even further?
And so was born the ultramarathon. This class of race is anything longer than the 26.2 miles of a standard marathon. If you’ve run half and full marathons and wonder how to keep pushing yourself, you might be interested in the hip new race distance: the 50k.
It’s just slightly longer than a marathon—about five miles—but it’s definitely a beast that you need to train for.
Below, we’ll get you started with preparing and training for a 50k race. We’ll cover how much time you need to train, what kind of training runs you need to do, how to avoid injuries, and how to best prepare for a 50k – plus a lot more.
And we’re even including a training plan at the end so you you’ll have a roadmap to your race. By the end of the article, you’ll know exactly how to make your first ultra-marathon a success!
Why Should I Run a 50k Race?
The tale of Phiddipides is well-known. He was the Greek messenger who ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens – about 25 miles – to deliver the news of victory. Upon completing his run and delivering the news, he promptly died. Some (about 600,000 per year, these days) have taken this as motivation to run the same distance but do better with recovery.
A little known backstory on this tale is that, as a messenger, Phiddipides was probably running about 75 miles per day. In fact, he is thought to have covered about 150 miles the prior two days. So don’t think of our ill-fated hero as the first marathoner. Think of him as one of many people running ultra distances as a matter of course. All of sudden, that mystical 26.2 distance (which wasn’t even the standard distance until the 1921 London Olympics) doesn’t seem like so much of a barrier to human endurance.
Non-runners already have a hard time wrapping their minds around running a marathon. You’ve probably heard the standard zingers: “I don’t even like to drive that far!” and so forth. People already think you’re crazy enough to run a marathon.
As runners, we’re always looking for the next big goal, and so we can’t let the crazy meter top out at 26.2 An ultra like a 50k is beyond crazy for most people, and it might seem a little insane to you too. So it’s important to know why you want to run a 50k.
If you want to try running an ultra, the 50k is the ideal starter length because it’s just five miles longer than a marathon. As any long-distance runner can tell you, that’s a reasonable increase that you can handle mentally!
You might also want to run a 50k for a race goal, to see some great scenery, or to create a once-in-a-lifetime memory (especially if you’re only planning to do it just once. Remember the first time you said that about marathons?).
Be careful, though. You might catch the bug of running ultras!
Who Can Run a 50k Race?
The ultra running world is an inherently supportive community. They want you to be a part of them. That can be seen in a common ultra running addage: If you can run a half marathon, you can run an ultra.
So if you’re physically fit and in good shape, you should have no problem training for and running a 50k race.
That being said, it’s not the same as training for a 5k ten times. It’s going to require significantly more time and effort, so you have to be serious about it.
If you’re a beginner, training for a 50k will require a big change in your lifestyle. You’ll have to be willing to commit a lot of time and energy into training for the race. But if you are already running marathons, the changes will be slight.
For anyone who runs regularly and has done some 15-20 mile runs and distance races, you have a base to start from. You’ll still need to invest similar time into training for a 50k, but you’re starting with a solid foundation of running.
Finally, if you’re an experienced runner, it should be pretty straightforward and simple for you to train for a 50k. If you’re always trying to improve and push yourself harder, it’s good to set new goals after every race.
How Much Time Do I Need to Train for a 50k Race?
The time that you’ll need to train for a 50k race can vary widely depending on where you’re starting from and how much time you’re able to devote to training.
At the end of this article, you’ll find two training plans, which you can adjust to fit your lifestyle. They will give you a good idea of how much time you’ll need for training.
There are 12-week and 16-week options that will require you to run 3-5 times a week. Each has three different weekly mileage totals. Make sure that you pick something that will work with your obligations and can fit your lifestyle.
If you pick something that requires you to run much more frequently than you are able to, training for the 50k is going to be something that you dread, and you might just tap out entirely.
What Race Should I Sign Up For?
Now that you are convinced that you want to run a 50k, your next question might be what race you should select. This is when it’s important to know yourself to think about what you would enjoy.
Ultra distances are far more common on trails than on roads, and they very often feature small fields. You can certainly seek out a large road ultra, but there are significantly fewer options. Some people love larger races, while others prefer smaller numbers. It’s up to you. Typically, 50ks are in scenic locations, so pick one that you’d like to visit.
For your first race, you might want to pick a race that a friend has recommended, or one that is nearby. Alternatively, you could pick a race that is close to friends or family you can stay with. You don’t want to make race day super stressful for your first 50k.
You might also consider combining the race with a short vacation or a long weekend to give you the opportunity to not only run your first 50k but also discover a new area—maybe one that you’ve wanted to visit for a while.
Obviously, the longer the race, the more expensive it’s going to be, so don’t be expecting 5k prices. You’re likely going to spend around $100 for a 50k race.
Figure out what your budget is for the race (including race fee, travel, hotel/Airbnb) and look into different 50k races. If you register during the early bird time period, usually the race is a little bit less expensive.
You’ll also want to check a race’s website before committing to it. It can tell you a lot about a race. Because ultras often are run on trails, they can particularly challenging. Often, course descriptions mention both distance and vertical gain. Some will be flat as a pancake, but others will be categorized as “mountain races” and “sky races.” Expect to head uphill an awful lot in these options (and downhill, too, which is actually harder on the legs). While road runners might be attracted to course descriptions like “flat and fast,” trail runners are very often the opposite – they embrace the difficult courses. But if this is your first 50k, a flatter option might make better sense.
What’s Next After I Signed Up For a Race?
First, give yourself a pat on the back because you just committed to bettering yourself as a runner and a person. Congratulations!
Feel free to tell family and friends so that they can support you during your training journey.
Make Sure You Have the Gear You Need
Next, you’ll need to check out your gear. Depending on when you’re planning on training for and running the race, do you have enough good running attire to get you through the season?
You’ll want to have good long-distance running shoes and socks. If you’re doing a trail ultra, make sure you have good solid trail shoes to handle the terrain.
You will also need several short or long-sleeved shirts and shorts or tights. It’s important to factor in that you’ll be running at least three days a week and potentially up to five, so make sure that you have the necessary gear.
If you haven’t purchased one yet, you might also consider looking into a GPS watch. You’ll get lots of data after your runs, which is especially useful for trail runs. Most importantly, you’ll learn what your pace and mile time is, so you can know what finishing time to expect. Higher-end models like the Garmin fenix line also provide navigational aid, which can be an important safety feature when heading way, way into the woods on unfamiliar trails.
Find a Running Partner
While it’s always great to run with a friend, it’s a particularly good idea if you’re training for a longer race like a 50k. Whether you’re training with a running friend, your significant other, or a running group, companionship is always great!
You might even want to plan some weekend getaways to focus on your training and to relax and get away from all the stresses of your daily life. If you’re able, training on the course itself is very useful. You’ll learn the ups and downs, where the stream crossings are, how rooty or rocky the single track is, and just how challenging that big final hill really is.
Figure Out Your Diet
Finally, you’ll need to be more serious about your diet. You need to make sure that you’re getting rid of the junk food and stuff that’s bad for you and eating and drinking things that are healthy for you.
Make sure that when you go to the grocery store, you’re getting food that is good for you. Your body is going to need lots of nutrition and energy to handle training for a 50k. Healthy food will be better for you in the long run.
Where Can I Train for the Race?
The good news is that you can train literally anywhere! However, as with other races, you’ll want to find terrain that’s similar to what you’ll be running at the race itself.
If it’s a hilly trail race, run on hilly trails. Flat road course – train on flat roads.
If you to live in an area that is different from the terrain you’ll find at the race, do your best. For example, if you live by the beach, but you’re going to run a mountain race, consider running on the walking path that’s on the high rise bridge.
It’s obviously not the same as running on hilly trails because it’s very even and consistent, but the high rise bridge will help you get some elevation. And whenever you can, take weekend getaways to the mountains to train.
What Type of Runs Will I Do to Train For the Race?
Training for a 50k is not substantially different than training for a 26.2 The same four basic types of runs will get you to your goal.
Your most important run will be your long run, which you’ll complete to get used to longer distances.
You’ll want to run these longer runs at a slower than normal pace. The idea is to go for distance, not necessarily speed.
Mid-Distance Tempo Runs
These mid-distance runs will be within 10% of your race pace, either faster or slower.
These runs will help you get used to your race pace. For example, if you’re planning to keep a 9:00 minute mile pace, you need to know what that feels like!
Intervals or Hill Runs
Interval and hill runs will help you build strength and speed in your legs.
Hilly ultras will require you to do hill intervals. Even if your ultra is not hilly, it’s always a good workout that will make you faster on flat ground.
After you get used to incorporating intervals into your running routine, your slower runs will start to feel a lot easier. Plus, it’s great to have plenty of variety in your workouts so that it never gets boring.
Recovery Runs And/Or Cross-Training
Finally, you’ll need short to mid-distance recovery runs that you’ll run at a nice easy and slow pace. Crossing training at a low intensity will also meet this need.
In order to build your muscles back up again after you’ve broken them down, you need to give your body time to rest and relax.
Now that you have an idea of what a 50k might look like and what you’ll need to do to train for it, we have a lot of tips for you to make the most out of your training!
Build Up Mileage and Then Cut Back
In our 50k training program, the mileage will build up week by week, but you’ll cut back for a week every fourth week.
The reason is so your body can recover and adapt to your training.
In that fourth week, you’ll still be running, but you will have lower mileage and the runs will be slower than usual. Take time to relax and enjoy these slower-paced weeks!
Add Some Variety
Whether you should do flat intervals or hill runs depends on the race profile.
However, even if you have a flat course, you still might want to consider hill training because it will make you a stronger runner. Plus it will mix things up and give you some variety!
Our interval program is written for a flat surface like a track. If you need to use it for hill intervals, simply shorten the distance by 30-50% depending on the steepness of the hills and how hard you want to train.
Include Some Cross-Training
While more running will obviously make you a better runner, so will cross-training, which is particularly easy for people who already do another sport or physical activity on the side like lifting weights, playing soccer, or swimming.
Make sure, though, that your main focus is running and that the sport fits into your running program. Additionally, your cross-training should be low to mid-intensity and should not last for longer than 90 minutes.
It’s a good idea to give your body a break from working the muscles you use in running and start training different muscle groups. In fact, if you don’t want to run as much to train, you can implement cross-training instead of your fourth or fifth run for the week.
Incorporate Some Strength Workouts
Make sure that you’re getting in some strength workouts. Strength training will make your body stronger and improve your running efficiency.
This is especially important if your leg muscles – like your calves, hip flexors, etc.- are weak. You need them to be nice and strong as a runner.
Like cross-training, you can implement strength training instead of your fourth or fifth run during the week.
Be Sure to Stretch
Stretching is something that everyone knows they should do, but it doesn’t mean that they always do.
That being said, we can’t stress enough how important stretching is. After each run, your muscles are all tense and stiff, and you need to stretch them out.
Handling Missed Workouts
Although we don’t ever want to miss a workout, sometimes it just happens, and that’s okay.
If you’re sore, sick, or injured, it’s good to adjust your training plan. For example, it’s fine to shift runs within the week. Just try to get the designated number of runs in if possible.
Typically, your long run takes place on Saturday (likely in the morning), but if you’re not able to do it then, try Sunday or another day during the week that you’ll be sure to get it in. Remember the training plan works for you, not the other way around.
If you usually run three times and find you miss one, just shift your third run into the upcoming week and do four runs that week. The same principle also works with four runs. You’ll still be on track! The only thing to be careful about when moving runs around is NOT to do hard runs back-to-back. For example, maybe you have to bump your long run from Sunday to Monday. But Monday is usually your rest day before hill repeats on Tuesday. Doing hills the day after the long run is not ideal; think about whether you can modify your whole week to make sure you are getting your recovery in, too.
If you typically run five times a week and you miss a run every two or three weeks, don’t sweat it. You are already running a lot and don’t really need to make up. Just make sure that you always get your long runs in.
Obviously, it’s important that you keep your body in tip-top shape to make sure that you’ll be able to complete the race.
Make sure that you schedule in rest days and actually make them rest days. Your body needs time to recover. You might even need to sleep half an hour or an hour more at night because you’re training more and your body needs more rest.
If you’re able to, getting in some naps is always a good idea, but don’t make them too long. Aim for a 15-30 minute power nap.
Continue to stretch after every run and anytime that you feel sore. Also, be sure that you’re giving your body the nutrients that it needs. If you eat well, your body will perform well.
Remember that when you eat sugary and junk food, you’re spiking your blood sugar and insulin, and your stomach and other organs are working harder.
Think of it this way: each time that you eat healthy, that’s getting an additional training run in.
Thinking About Training Pace, Cadence, and Heart Rate
Honestly, you don’t need to worry too much about heart rate.
Because everyone is different, heart rate can vary a lot. Just make sure that your heart rate is staying at something that’s reasonable for you.
Figuring out a good training pace may take some time. As a start, take into account the fact that your pace on trails will be 25-50% slower than it is on the road. Use this knowledge to set your expectations for training on trails. Some days are faster while other days are slower. Try to run something that’s comfortable for you and adjust as needed for later runs in the training program.
For example, maybe when you first start training, you get winded quickly and end up slowing down soon into your runs. You need to cut the pace a little bit because it’s too fast for you right now. Or perhaps you don’t feel tired at all after runs. You might need to do the opposite and pick up the pace.
There is an 80/20 rule in running: 80% of your training miles should be at an easy pace. Only 20% really needs to be above that level. And easy pace is easier than you might think. If you have a HR monitor on your watch, watch your heart rate more than your pace. Keep your beats-per-minute near the Zone 2/Zone 3 border for the most effective use of easy miles.
Preparing for the Race
As race day approaches, you should start planning early. We’ve got some tips to keep you on track.
Figuring Out a Goal for the Race
Like most things in running, this depends on the person.
Perhaps you don’t want to stress too much and you just want to finish the race. That’s a great goal! But if you want to add a little bit more competition, you could try some other goals.
Try a time goal, which you can calculate from your race pace at 15.5 miles and multiplying that number by 2.1 (best case scenario), 2.2 (realistic), or 3.4 (worse case). Remember to keep in mind terrain and altitude.
Trail runs usually have cut-off times – the maximum allowed time to get to a certain check point. If you don’t make it to the checkpoint in time, you are pulled from the race. Some ultra runners choose a strategy of “chasing the cut-offs” – that is, basing your pacing on getting to each check point by the allotted time, rather than trying to crush it up front. You’ll find that many trail races allow for hiking paces (in the range of 20:00 per mile), so even if you are a run-walker, this is a viable strategy.
You could also try to finish within a certain number of runners. Take a look at last year’s results and see what it takes to be in the Top 100, or the Top 50 females. This can be tricky to figure out, but you can see what the results were like for the previous year.
Approaching Race Day
As you get closer to race day (maybe about a month out), assess where you stand with your training and preparation.
Are you on schedule with all your runs? Have you had any struggles? How has your diet been? Are you getting enough sleep and rest? Are there any changes you need to make? Do you feel any niggling injuries?
Tapering Before the Race
Start tapering about two weeks before your race so that you’re fresh come race day.
You’ll do this slowly and cut back on your mileage so that you’ll be at your full power when race day comes.
Preparing To Run Before and On Race Day
Make sure that you eat plenty of carbs and drink lots of water the day before the race.
You’ll want plenty of carbohydrates stored in your body to draw from the next day. You’ll also need hydration, so aim to drink about ½ gallon more than usual the day before the race.
On the morning of the race, make sure that you have a light breakfast. It should be food that is easy for your body to digest.
Take one energy gel before the race and take some with you to take during the water stops or whenever you might need them during the race. There will also be food – real food – at the aid stations. Top yourself up, but don’t go over the top. Fueling is a major part of race strategy – 50ks are long, and you will need to consume substantial calories to get through one. The glories of ultra race aid station food is an insider secret, so you’ll just have to run your 50k to find out what we’re talking about. You will not be disappointed.
A hydration pack can be considered essential gear. At the very least, get a high-capacity handheld bottle with a pouch for carrying gels. Aid stations in trail races can be many miles apart, and since trail mile are slower than road miles, you might have to go an hour or more without a stop. Even if you don’t sweat much, or even if the weather will be cool and crisp, you need water more regularly than that, and you have to carry it yourself. Get a pack.
You also might want to consider anti-chafing products, which are especially important for longer races. And not just for the usual bits. If you are going to be doing a creek crossing during your run, consider that you will be running at least some of the race with very wet feet. Treat your feet with BodyGlide or something similar before the race to reduce the risk of blisters. Whether it’s from skin on skin rubbing, or skin on fabric rubbing, blisters can become excruciating over ultra distances.
If you’ve spent adequate time preparing, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running with your race pace. Make sure that you check your pace every half-mile for the first 3-5 miles to make sure that you’re not starting too fast because of excitement.
If you’re over your race pace, then adjust immediately and slow down. Otherwise, you will burn out. If you’re going too slow, don’t panic, but just slowly pick up your pace. Your body just might need more time to start today.
If you’re able to, try to run with others because it’s always easier to do something hard when you have someone there to support you. Just make sure that you’re running at a pace that is sustainable for you.
Try to stay positive and happy for as long as you can. Typically, the real “race” begins in the second half or last third because that’s when it gets really hard. Remember why you run in the first place, and trust yourself and your training.
It’s okay if you have a slower mile or other small errors in the race. They are bound to come, and it’s not going to be useful to worry about them. If you hit a wall, try to figure out why. Do you need some electrolytes? Do you need to drink some water? Are you going too fast?
Try to adjust as needed during the race and keep moving. Even if it’s a slow jog or a brief walk after the water stops, that might be all you need to push through and get to the finish line. Even the best ultra runners sometimes hike the hills.
Crossing the Finish Line
If you’re able, push as hard as you can when you see the finish line and finish strong. Smile as you cross the finish line because you probably have friends and family who came to watch you!
Make sure that you congratulate yourself for finishing your first 50k (and probably your first ultra!) and celebrate your accomplishment! You have definitely earned it!
At the end of the day, congratulations on planning to run a 50k race!
It’s definitely going to take a lot of time – and perhaps lifestyle changes – to train. But you’re sure to discover that it’s worth it once you cross the finish line.