Hello and welcome to my ULTIMATE guide on how to train for a trail marathon or 50k ultra marathon. This trail marathon / 50k training plan and race guide covers EVERYTHING you need to know about trail marathon training and racing tactics. I have chosen to bundle this post as a marathon and 50k training guide because I use a very similar training schedule and race tactics for both distances, and let’s face it there’s “only” 8km difference between the two.
This free training and racing guide is packed full of trail running advice, including how to choose your target trail marathon / 50k race for your first trail marathon or ultramarathon, create a personalized trail marathon / 50k training plan based on your chosen race, how to train for your chosen race, the best trail running gear for said race, how to fuel while ultra marathon training and racing, how to avoid overtraining injuries, secret race tactics and more.
This isn’t your regular marathon / 50k training plan, this is my ULTIMATE guide to smashing your first trail marathon / 50k trail race – and I’m sharing some secrets you definitely won’t have read before!
I have been planning to craft this mega article on how to train for a trail marathon (and 50k ultra marathon) for such a long time, and as I started writing it, I realized that it is going to be a rather long post, so get comfortable for this one, and BOOKMARK IT ready for when you need to dive back into it, during the relevant times in your trail marathon / 50k training plan detailed in this post.
I have also done my best to make the trail marathon / 50k advice in this guide just as helpful for those of you who are looking to run your first marathon, as for those more experienced trail runners who are looking to run their next trail ultra marathon faster, or with less time spent in the pain cave. If you prefer your trail marathon / 50k training plan advice in video form, then click here to visit the full ‘trail marathon / 50k training plan & racing guide’ playlist on our YouTube Channel, or watch the videos embedded below.
PLEASE NOTE that although I may be referring to trail marathon training specifically in this video series, all the advice and information is highly relevant to 50k ultra marathon training too as I employ the exact same training and racing methods.
The Ultimate Trail Marathon / 50k Training Plan: Table of Contents
- How to choose your first (or next) trail marathon or 50k
- Creating a personalized marathon / 50k training plan
- Choosing the best running gear for your trail marathon or 50k ultra marathon
- How to fuel your body while ultra marathon training and during your trail marathon / 50k
- How to avoid overtraining running injuries
- Race tactics to help you outsmart your competition
- My proven ultra marathon recovery routine: Recovery is just as important as training
- Preparing for race day and managing startline nerves
- Finish your race feeling strong and don’t forget to smile! 🙂
1. How to Choose A Trail Marathon (or 50k Race) And How Your Choice Will Dictate Your Training Plan
If you want to work out how to put together a trail marathon or 50k training plan and execute it like an absolute boss, performing to the best of your ability when race day arrives, it’s important to know the specifics of the trail race you’re training for.
Race metrics like elevation gain, elevation loss, altitude, terrain, climate/weather, and even the amount of people who will be in the race are all key performance indicators that can have a significant bearing on how you should be training for your first, or next trail marathon / 50k, and will therefore dictate what your marathon / 50k training plan should look like in terms of priorities and focus areas.
This phase of your trail marathon or 50k planning should be seen as a fun moment where you have the opportunity to commit yourself to something truly epic, fun, beautiful, unique, or all of the above rolled into one.
For more expert trail running (and ultrarunning) advice, subscribe to our YouTube Channel via the button below:
Choosing a Trail Marathon vs. 50k Ultra Marathon
Most ultra runners, if asked, ‘What is an ultra marathon’ may give you the response that ‘an ultra marathon is any distance longer than a marathon distance – so anything longer than 26.2 miles (42k)’. This is the technical definition of an ‘ultra marathon’. However, once you get into long distance trail and ultra running you realize that shorter ultra marathons, and even trail marathons, can be more ‘ultra’ than longer ultra marathon distances.
Running a 50k distance is not significantly longer than running a marathon distance, but earns a prize for being the shortest ultra marathon you can run, and is therefore a very popular distance for people wanting to run their first ultra marathon, because distance is so often the most obvious metric to focus on when you’re setting your goals as a runner.
However, consider whether you want to run the longer distance, or face the bigger challenge. I have run trail marathons and even 30k races in the mountains that are technically SIGNIFICANTLY more challenging than 50k ultra marathons I have run. That has been due to the other elements mentioned above, including being raced at altitude, having more significant elevation gain and loss to overcome, and being on more technical terrain that takes longer or requires more effort to run on. It’s worth thinking about!
Here are some helpful resources for choosing a trail marathon or 50k trail race
On trailandkale.com we have created a database of some of our favorite trail marathons and 50k’s around the world (this is by no means all of them and our database is constantly growing. These lists of our favorite trail marathons and 50k ultra marathons is a great place to start if you’re thinking about doing one of the big International trail marathons, and our events database homepage shares all our favorite trail races including shorter distance races and ultramarathons too.
Here are some excellent external resources that make it easy to find local trail running races:
- ultrasignup.com – For races in the USA
- runningintheusa.com – For races in the USA
- active.com/running/trail-running – For races in the UK, Europe, and also USA.
2. Trail Marathon / 50k Training Plan: How to Train for a Trail Marathon
The techniques and types of training runs in this trail marathon / 50k training plan should, in some ways, also apply to shorter 10km, 21km (half marathons), 30km races too – the main differences will be the distances and ‘time-on-feet’ for each training run.
Ok, so as I mentioned above, your chosen trail marathon / 50k ultra marathon is going to determine your specific marathon or 50k training plan but there are some key ultra marathon training runs and goals that you need to think about hitting. Before I go on, allow me to quickly answer a burning question for many runners taking on their first 50k ultra marathon.
How Far is 50k in Miles?
Yes, a surprisingly popular question how “far is 50k in miles?”. If you’re used to training in miles then it’s helpful to know how long a 50k distance is in miles: Converting 50k to miles is around 31 miles. If you’re used to converting 5k race distances to miles (which is 3.1 miles) then this is ‘just’ ten times that!
It’s important to note that some trail marathon / 50k race distances will not be exactly the distance listed in the race title, and it’s fairly common that the distance can be longer. Trail and ultra marathon races are not like road races where you can be more precise in measuring distances, and this adds to the overall ‘charm’ and mental challenge of running a trail race.
I’ve had ultra marathon races that have been nearly 2 miles longer than the stated race distance; not what you want when you see your GPS watch reach the last few meters of your race yet there’s no finish line in sight, haha – unless you’ve done some research beforehand and know what to expect.
Be prepared for these scenarios by researching “actual” race lengths for your 50k race – you can get ahold of the previous year’s race GPX files from participants on Strava to check the distance for yourself, or sometimes these are also shared on the race organizer’s website – this way you can learn in advance whether your 50k race is actually 56k, or nearly 35 miles long.
As many races (and pretty much all races in Europe) will be measured in km rather than miles, it helps to not only know what 50k is in miles, but also to be able to roughly convert kilometers to miles in your head so you know what those distance markers mean when you pass them, or when you consult the race profile and maps. You could even take things a step further, and learn to train using kilometers as your primary distance measurement, instead of miles.
I have always trained and prepared for trail races using kilometers, but also have learned how to convert common distances such as 50k to miles in my head. If you’re new to this, you can always write the conversions down on your arm for quick reference while racing!
Distance & Elevation Gain – How to overcome them on race day
I like to simplify my ultra marathon training wherever possible and approach it from a logical standpoint. There are 2 hard facts that we know about your chosen trail marathon / 50k race based on the race profile: distance and elevation gain -> here’s how to ensure you are prepared to overcome them both:
1. DISTANCE – You know how far you need to run, 26.2 miles (42.2 km) / 31 miles (50k)
Make sure you can physically run close to 26.2 miles or 31 miles come race day. You don’t need to do a training run of 26.2 miles or 31 miles (for a 50k ultra marathon) before your race but I’d strongly advise running at least 22 miles (35km) in one go for a marathon, and 26 miles or so for a 50k ultra marathon. Knowing what it feels like running for this long will give your body & mind the essential muscle memory and mental fortitude you need to make it easier the next time you reach the same milestone.
You can ALWAYS find an extra 4 or so miles on race day because you are going to be pumped up on adrenaline and super determined to finish and let’s be honest, probably willing to hit the pain cave more than you would during a training run. Remember that making it to the start line is half the battle of finishing a race, meaning you don’t want to overdo it in ultra marathon training and risk an overuse injury.
My gloriously oversimplified golden rule for knowing I can easily run the distance on race day is to make sure that my weekly mileage is roughly 1.5x to 2x the distance of my upcoming race. So, if you can be running 50 miles (80km) a week of similar terrain and elevation gain as your chosen race (injury-free and comfortably), then you’ve got your trail marathon race in the bag already. Apply this same method to your 50k training plan.
2. ELEVATION GAIN, AND LOSS – You can get this information from your race profile
Similar to my wonderfully oversimplified rule above regarding distance, make sure you can handle 1-2x race elevation-gain in training each week. Do not underestimate the additional strength and energy required to run up and down hills during a marathon / 50k ultra marathon. This is why it’s essential to build them into your marathon / 50k training plan.
So, once a week do hill-repeats, and that includes downhill-repeats. I’m assuming your other ultra marathon training runs will include a little bit of elevation gain so don’t feel like you need to get all your weekly elevation in one hill rep session each week. Note: If you don’t live near hills, consider using a treadmill with an incline function for your hill repeats, or finding some long flights of stairs.
The number of repeats is really dependent on the elevation of the hills you have available to you – what you don’t want is a hill with a small incline which forces you to run in excess of your required distance before you hit your elevation gain target. When it comes to running downhill-repeats – you want to be running up slowly and running back down at 90% of your capacity. You’ll be amazed at how much your flat running speed increases after a few of these sessions.
To summarize the process of uphill and downhill repeats:
- Run uphill at 80-90% capacity
- Jog down the same hill at 20-40% capacity to catch your breath
- Jog back uphill at 20-40% capacity being careful not to go anaerobic and take yourself out of the game
- Sprint back down the hill at 80-90% capacity
- Take a break for a couple of minutes to catch your breath
Doing hill repeats is also very mentally challenging because you’re literally going back and forth over an over which some people may find boring (I personally see a challenge in the struggle, which is what motivates me to keep going). On race day you’re going to be running for hours so it’s imperative to make sure you’re mentally comfortable in your own head during this time because you’ll likely be entering the pain cave at some point. Knowing what the pain cave feels like, and knowing that you can always get out of it will give you extra confidence on race day. Train hard, race easy!
Additional ultra marathon training advice and required weekly runs
Double long runs on the weekend
Do double long runs on the weekend if you can, for example, 15 miles (25km) on Saturday and 12 miles (20km) on Sunday. You’ll recover faster than just bashing out 22 miles (35k) on a Saturday. Plus you’ll be less likely to injure yourself due to running ‘too much too soon’. That being said you should try to do at least one long run of around 22 miles, or 26 miles when training for a 50 utra marathon.
Do 1 tempo run each week
Tempo runs will help you get comfortable running at a fast pace for sustained periods of time. If you’re unfamiliar with tempo runs – they are run at a relatively fast pace you can keep running at for around 60 mins before feeling like you may want to collapse. You shouldn’t ever get to that point of exhaustion during tempo training though, so make sure you run at this pace for around 45-50 minutes. This is likely to be around 6 miles (10km) for many people.
Do 1 easy recovery run each week
Don’t forget to do 1 easy run each week, this is literally a run of around 6-9 miles (10-15km) that is done at 30-40% your maximum intensity, it needs to feel REALLY easy and it’s important as it helps with your recovery phase.
Compliment your trail running with cross-training sessions
Try to do at least 2 cross-training gym sessions a week to work on your core strength and other important running muscle groups like your glutes, quads, and shoulders. If you have a bicycle or static trainer and enjoy cycling then throwing in some cycling sessions will really benefit your running. If you’re not sure where to start with a gym routine for runners, I put together this YouTube video which has my favorite exercises for improving trail running strength. No equipment is required and the whole workout can be done from the comfort of your own home.
Take a day off to rest your legs and body if you need to (or do some Yoga)
Resting is just as important a part of any trail marathon / 50k training plan as running itself. If your body is feeling drained then it’s possible you have been overtraining. Take a day off and continue with your training the next day. For more information on how to fuel your body while running, avoiding muscle cramping and overtraining injuries, plus my tried & tested recovery routine, keep on reading.
If you’re not sure where to start or have never done yoga before, don’t worry! Simply watch our Yoga for trail runners video on YouTube and follow along for the perfect 10-minute yoga routine for runners.
Summarizing all these training sessions, your marathon /50k training plan should look like this
Many of you may have unusual work hours, or may even work on the weekends so feel free to shift this trail marathon / 50k training plan to best fit your current schedule. As a general rule, if this is your first trail marathon or 50k ultra marathon, give yourself at least 2-3 months to get ready for race day – bearing in mind that you want to be running 1.5-2x the distance of your race each week, comfortably. Please have a read of our “How To Improve Your Running Form and Prevent Overuse Injuries” post before getting stuck into ultra marathon training, it shares excellent advice on running in an efficient way.
3. The Best Trail Running Gear For Your First Trail Marathon / 50k Ultra Marathon
You’ve put in so much hard work training for your trail marathon / 50k ultra marathon, so don’t let inadequate gear fall short of all that effort. There are some essential items of gear that you should definitely have for running a trail marathon race, some items which will help but not entirely necessary gear, and then there’s mandatory gear that some big mountain races require you to take with you for your own safety.
This list of gear doesn’t include nutrition, electrolytes, or water – I talk about that later in this trail marathon / 50k training plan. I’m going to start this list with the gear I believe you absolutely should have to help you smash your ultra marathon race.
7 Essential items of gear for running a trail marathon / 50k race
1. Trail Running Shoes (Comfortable, Durable and High-Performance)
If you’re not 100% sure what type of trails you’re going to be spending most of your time on during your race, then it’s worth having all-mountain trail running shoes suited to marathon running that can perform in every situation. For example, you may have to run on roads for a couple of miles in the middle of your trail marathon or 50k, it happens! Here is a list of our favorite trail running shoes for different types of racing, which is worth reading if you have a specific race terrain that you want the best trail shoes for.
If you don’t have the shoes that will allow you to run across varying terrain, comfortably, then you may lack confidence during certain technical sections of the race, where other runners may glide past you due to their better choice of shoes with a superior outsole and support. If on the other hand, you’re thinking about going for a top 10 finish then trail racing shoes may be more your style.
You may find it helpful to visit our ultimate trail running shoes buyer’s guide via the button below, it will teach you everything you need to know about different types of trail running shoes and ultimately help you choose the best shoes for your trail marathon / 50k race.
2. Hydration Pack (A means to carry water, food, and personal belongings)
Most trail runners nowadays will own at least one hydration pack (also known as a hydration vest, race vest, or running vest), as they are the best, and most efficient way to carry essentials including water, energy food, spare clothing (including your running hat when not being worn), mobile phone, keys, and even trekking poles… the list goes on and is only limited to your requirements or creativity :).
The alternative to a hydration vest is bleak, and that involves stuffing your pockets full of necessities that will bounce up and down during your run, turning what should be a fun experience into a punishing one. I guess if you’re good at running long distances minimally then a running belt may be an option for you – although I wouldn’t recommend it for a trail marathon that may last 5 hours or more.
Mid-capacity hydration packs are the most popular choices for most trail runners running the marathon distance and 50k’s. It’s important to remember that comfort, storage capacity, and durability are the three top features to be most concerned about when choosing a running hydration pack. Some hydration packs have the capability to use a water bladder, while others allow you to store collapsible water bottles; I usually use the latter setup.
3. A Technical Running Hat (Protect your head and face)
It’s worth wearing a hat while running because they wick sweat away from your face/eyes and they keep your head/face/neck shaded from sun damage (and also rain). I’ve done all the research and tested many technical running hats, so if you need a hat, have a read of my ultimate buyer’s guide below.
4. Breathable Running Socks
You’re likely to be running for up to 5 hours on a trail marathon, depending on the amount of climbing, the difficulty of terrain, and also your speed – so you need to make sure your feet are comfortable and as dry as possible throughout the experience. A breathable sock with cushioning and compression support in all the right places will keep your feet energized and raring to go during your race. Read our running socks buyer’s guide below to get the right pair for you.
5. GPS Running Watch
A good GPS watch can be such a great trail running training tool for so many reasons. If you have a wrist-based heart-rate monitor you can train and race while paying close attention to your heart rate zones – this is the best way to train specifically to your individual fitness level at any given point in time. Think of your heart as your engine and the GPS watch with HR sensor as your fuel and efficiency gauge. A GPS running watch needs to have certain features for it to be your perfect ultra marathon training and racing companion. These features are:
- a very long battery life to be able to track your running data over many hours, sometimes even days if you’re an ultrarunner. There’s nothing worse than having your watch die on you in the middle of an ultra race.
- actionable features that help you know when to adjust your effort levels, like a heart rate monitor, for example. Having a barometer allows you to know exactly how much climbing/elevation gain you have accumulated, with an estimate of how much still remains – this data is invaluable for trail and mountain runners.
- navigation features in case you get lost in the mountains and need to find your way back on course or back to safety. Also very important if you want to explore new trail routes, without having to carry a map. This is one of my favorite features of my Garmin Fenix 6 Pro.
- good durability to withstand hours in the mountains during varying weather conditions, from rainstorms to the extreme cold but also environmental changes like river crossings, for example.
- a comfortable fit for usage over many hours, especially important if you have small wrists and don’t want to be carrying a heavy weight around with you for hours on end.
- a barometer to help us know our current elevation and when a potential lightning storm may be on its way so that we can take cover if necessary.
- a good software platform for analyzing activity data and tracking our ultra marathon training performance over time.
- the ability to play music, ready for when you need that pain-cave pick-me-up!
The device I trust most to deliver ALL those features to me while ultra marathon training and racing is the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, it really is a fantastic product. To learn about other great GPS watches that are available, check out our Best GPS Watches for Trail Running and Ultrarunning Buyer’s Guide via the link below.
The Coros Apex is also a great GPS running watch if you’re on a budget.
6. Windproof/Waterproof Running Jacket
If your trail marathon / 50k is in the mountains you should learn to expect the unexpected when it comes to the weather conditions. This is why you should always take a waterproof jacket with you when mountain running or you could find yourself in serious risk of hypothermia from being soaked and exposed to cold winds for extended periods of time. I always carry mine stuffed in the back of my hydration vest when I’m in the mountains.
Read our regularly updated Waterproof Running Jackets Guide for advice on choosing one that’s right for you.
7. A Case to Protect Your Phone
Phone protectors are so important when you consider that your mobile phone:
- could potentially be your lifeline while out running should an unexpected emergency happen in the mountains.
- is probably the most expensive accessory you carry while running, and also the most fragile item that isn’t built for the demands of trail runners.
We recognize the importance of protecting our phones while running in the mountains and as such use the Rokform Crystal case as our phone protector.
5 Trail running items of gear that will help improve performance (not 100% essential)
1. Collapsible Trail Running Poles
Read our Trail Running With Poles: Benefits, Disadvantages, & Advice guide to understanding how poles can really help you through a challenging mountain marathon or ultra marathon, and if you decide you would like to take some collapsible poles with you in your hydration vest on race day please read our Trail Running Poles Buyer’s Guide to find the best ones for you.
2. Wireless Headphones
Nothing motivates me quite like music, please be sure to check your race website before taking your headphones as some events don’t allow them for safety reasons, as they prefer you to be fully aware of your surroundings.
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Running sunglasses offer UV protection for your eyes, keep flies out your eyes, and can help prevent your eyes from watering when running fast in colder conditions.
4. A Lightweight Running Headlamp
When you’re training for a trail marathon / 50k ultra marathon, the chances are you may have to run early in the morning, or late at night to fit your runs in around work hours. Maybe you just like to train during the darker hours. Depending on the time of year and the time your race starts (some big marathons start before sunrise) you may be required to have a headlamp. Headlamps can be expensive, so it’s important to invest in a high-quality one that will stand the test of time and of course, perform as expected without failing on you. A headlamp failure could be drastic if you’re out on the trails alone at night!
Gloves are obviously useful for keeping your hands warm during cold-weather training and racing but can sometimes be useful if your race has a section where you’re required to scramble rocks with your hands. I’ve been there before and I was careful enough to not need gloves.
Mandatory gear for big international mountain races
Check your race website for information on mandatory equipment for your race. Depending on the difficulty of a race, and weather conditions, you may be required to take additional items like crampons, headlamp, waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, your phone, a whistle, and even extra water.
4. How To Fuel For A Trail Marathon /50k Ultra Marathon
What to eat when running a marathon /50k on trails
The next important thing is to practice eating during long training runs because on race-day you’ll be out running longer than you would be for say a road marathon because of the extra challenges that trail running throws at you.
Nutrition can be a very difficult thing to get right, especially for ultra runners who run for hours (sometimes days) at a time, where nausea, gut bombs, and code browns can manifest at any moment (yes those are all real words in the ultrarunning world, haha). If you’re having trouble finding a solution that works for you then I feel your pain. I have made my way through so many different running nutrition products because most just didn’t work for me, or were too sweet and tasted artificial, even though they seemingly work for others.
I’m not a fan of nutrition that’s too sugary as those drinks will cause energy spikes, which is not good for endurance running.
Nausea or gut bombs are a big reason why some people will DNF a race, don’t be one of them. Try something like Tailwind Nutrition as a starting point which is a fuel powder that mixes with water. You’ll be able to take extra sachets to mix with water at aid stations so you don’t run out.
Don’t overlook natural foods when searching for running fuel, just because they’re not branded or marketed to runners, does not mean they don’t work just as well! For example, I’ll always have a banana 1-hour before a race starts because it will fuel me nearly all the way to the first aid station (race dependant), where I can usually find some more banana. Other natural foods that really work for me while running trail marathons/ultra marathons, and are portable and stomachable are dried apricots, olive oil, and hazelnuts.
Take care while eating nuts during a run, they can be dry and easy to choke on! Always make sure you have plenty of water with you during a run.
Natural foods are great but they don’t last very long in your pantry which can make them a little bit impractical for training with. If you need a convenient way to store your nutrition and take it with you on a run then check out my two suggestions: Tailwind Nutrition and Hammer Nutrition.
Susceptible to muscle cramping during long runs?
I used to get leg cramping ALL THE TIME when I first started running long distances, especially in the summer months. My nutrition routine was out of whack and I sweat a lot while running at high intensity. So, of course, I would always cramp up toward the last 30% of my races. I hated having to death march the last part of my race back to the finish line with other runners overtaking me.
IF YOU SUFFER FROM MUSCLE CRAMPS WHILE RUNNING then have a read of this post: How Can I Prevent Muscle Cramps While Running? I hope it helps put a stop to the dreaded muscle cramping.
SaltStick salt capsules are now my way of preventing muscle cramping while running, and I’ll always have some in my hydration vest during long runs and races. If you suffer from muscle cramping while running then you probably know that feeling roughly 5 minutes before it hits. As soon as I get that feeling I will always take a SaltStick capsule which prevents the cramping. The capsules are very fast-acting, so if you miss that 5-minute window and you’re suffering, no worries, just take one capsule and the cramping should pass within 5 or so minutes. FULL REVIEW: SaltStick Caps Review.
Plant-Based Diet For Runners During Ultra Marathon Training
I’m by no means saying you must start living a plant-based diet right now, I’ve learned not to push anything on anyone because it’s important for people to try new things for themselves and form their own opinion on whether it works for them or not. I can only show you the door, you must walk through it yourself. So, this is me saying, “Why don’t you try a plant-based diet, and see how it affects your general every day mood and running performance”.
If you’re not very familiar with what the plant-based diet is all about, here are some awesome Netflix and Amazon Plant-Based Diet Documentaries for you, they’re so inspiring to watch and I’m confident they’ll motivate you to try the plant-based lifestyle!
I’ve written a whole article about the benefits of living a plant-based lifestyle as an athlete HERE – so definitely bookmark that page if you’re interested in it – Summary of the benefits are below. A plant-based diet can:
- make you feel more alert and energized. We found that eating processed foods, too much meat and dairy can affect our energy levels.
- promote weight loss and the ability to maintain your goal weight.
- save you money, buying plant-based food is generally less expensive than buying meat, even when buying organic produce.
- improve sustainability for our environment.
- improve animal welfare.
We have also put together a really easy to follow plant-based diet plan for runners, CLICK HERE to read it.
5. How to Avoid Overtraining Injuries
Bad running form is one of the major contributing factors to picking up running injuries, the other one is not knowing when your mind and body are telling you to take a break. Understanding the latter comes with experience – the longer you’ve been running, the easier it becomes to recognize twinges, sensations, and niggles in your body that could potentially turn into an injury if you don’t listen to your body and take a break for a few days.
Good running form has significantly helped to reduce the likelihood and frequency of me getting running overuse injuries, including ITB pain, low back pain, shin splints, and blisters on the bottom of my feet from a poor running gait.
Improving my running form has made me a much more efficient runner, which is a great benefit, especially when running long distances such as marathons and 50k ultra marathons. Employing a better running form also makes you faster. This is a topic that deserved its own post – so CLICK HERE if you would like to learn how to improve your running form and avoid overtraining injuries.
6. 11 Marathon / 50k Race Tactics to Help You Outsmart Your Competition
Everyone has their sneaky tactics during a race, whether they like to admit it or not. Some do it as a bit of fun to help occupy their mind during a long race, while some runners are just super competitive (you know who you are! :)) – whatever your motivations are, it’s worth knowing some of these tactics in case you ever find yourself needing to jump up through the race rankings.
1. Start Smart – Don’t rush out the gates!
Don’t start too fast when the gun fires, you should be maintaining your predicted race pace and trying to avoid unnecessary spikes your pace and heart-rate. If you go anaerobic too early in a race it’s nearly impossible to properly recover your optimal heart-rate without stopping and losing valuable time later on when running your marathon or 50k race.
For example, don’t sprint down the hills only to feel exhausted while running on flat and uphill sections. It’s the downhill and flat sections that you’ll make up the most time in a race – not the uphill. The goal during your race is to never stop unless at aid stations to refuel your food and water supplies. If you can’t run, then make sure you try your best to walk, just don’t stop because all kinds of bad things happen when you stop.
When you stop, your mind has breathing room to start doubting your abilities, and your body will begin to seize up. The uphills are my time to refuel because I’m speed hiking them. Hiking gives me the flexibility to eat my food without scrambling or losing my breath because of the steady low heart-rate. As you’re not moving fast, doing things like taking off your windproof jacket and stowing it in your hydration pack, for example, will be much easier to manage on the uphills.
“If you can’t run, make sure you try your best to walk – just don’t stop because all kinds of bad things happen when you stop.““
2. Monitor your heart-rate.
Monitor your heart-rate, and make sure it stays within optimal zones – You’re heart knows your capability more than any other organ in your body, and it’s your engine after all. Make sure you have a good GPS watch with an on-wrist HR monitor – and one that can tell you when you drop out of optimal heart rate zones like the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro range.
3. Wear a technical running hat
Take a technical hat with you to help fight sunburn and dehydration. A hat can also keep the rain out of your eyes and face, and also hold the hood of a waterproof jacket in place during high winds. I use the BUFF Pack Run Cap mostly as it’s super packable, lightweight, breathable, and has a flip-up peak which allows me to see uphill on the steep climbs when up, and when the brim is flipped down it keeps the sun out of my eyes when it’s low on the horizon.
4. Don’t run up hills, speed hike instead
One of my biggest mistakes when I started trail racing was running up hill! I used to think I was Kilian Jornet when it came to hills, but that always came back to bite me in the butt near the end of the race when I found myself depleted of all my quad and calf power.
Now I speed-hike up any hills that are so steep that I think hiking would be just as quick as running. You’ll be going just as fast, if not faster than the person running up those hills but you’ll be the one who still has their breath at the top of the climb, which means you’ll be the one running faster after the climb, while the hill runner may need to catch their breath and walk a little. Remember what I said earlier, it’s the flat and downhill sections where time is made up – so focus on maintaining consistent pace on those sections.
If you have trail running poles with you, steep hills are the perfect time to use them – they provide rhythm and also take some of the strain away from your legs to your arms – they’re a true hack for ascending trails fast and efficiently! We use Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles as they’re the best option on the market right now – there are other choices though, read our Trail Running Poles Buyer’s Guide to learn more.
5. Salt tablets and electrolytes to stop cramping
Salt/electrolyte tablets prevent or fix dehydration and muscle cramps. As mentioned above, carrying some SaltStick Caps with you in a watertight plastic bag can be a total lifesaver, literally! I have seen people collapse numerous time during trail races and others hobbling like wounded soldiers due to muscle cramping or dehydration. It’s nice being able to offer some salt tablets to runners in need to help them reach the finish line with a smile on their face.
6. Overtake while looking strong (even if you don’t feel it!)
When you see someone ahead that you’re gaining on, pass them fast and without showing weakness, or heavy breathing. Once you have passed them, make sure you keep running until you are out of their line of sight. When the runner you are passing is tired themselves they won’t bother trying to keep up with you if you appear the stronger opponent. I know I know, I’m mean… but it works!!
7. Avoid overtly sugary foods during your long training runs and marathon / 50k races
Try to avoid foods that spike energy levels like high sugar gels. Stick to natural slow-release energy foods like banana, nuts, olive oil, dried fruits. Tailwind Nutrition is also great to have throughout the race, but remember to have another bottle with just plain water, in case you can’t stomach any more nutrition drink but still need water to stay hydrated.
8. Be efficient when passing through aid stations
It can be tempting to spend time relaxing at aid stations, chatting to the friendly volunteers who are managing them, and getting to know other runners but it’s important to stay focused if you’re goal is to finish in your best time possible. Sometimes, when I’m not chasing PRs and podiums, I just like to enjoy the journey and meet people along the way, and that’s totally fine if your goal is just to go out there and finish your trail marathon /50k feeling good and having met new friends.
If you want to move fast through food and drink stations, then grab your food, fill up your water bottles or bladder, and eat the food while walking out of there. I’m getting all excited about my next race just writing these tactics, haha!! 🙂
9. Wear a hydration pack that conforms and stretches with your body and is easily accessible while running
A lightweight hydration pack that stretches as you move and can carry things like running poles is essential while trail running. But for it to be awesome for racing, it needs to be able to stretch with your torso as you breathe heavily, and it needs to have pockets that are easily accessible while you’re running. You can’t race with a pack that requires you to stop whenever you need something from it or to stow something away.
10. Take collapsible trail running poles in your hydration pack
Trail running poles have so many benefits while running, and if you get a super lightweight collapsible pair, then you really won’t be taking on much extra weight with you, making them a worthwhile addition for your race. The benefits of trail running poles are:
- They make light work of uphill climbs on steep (eg mountainous) trails.
- They save your legs on long, hilly races.
- They allow you to get into a rhythm!
- They help with balance on steep descents by allowing you to probe for stable ground.
- They allow for space (and self) preservation during busy races.
11. Find another runner who runs at your speed
Another tactic is actually just to find someone who runs your speed. You’ll naturally have a few other runners who appear to be running with you throughout most of the race as their ability level is similar to yours. Running and chatting with a new friend is one of the best ways to take your mind off the struggle and it’s also a fun way of helping each other run a personal best. Plus you may just earn a friend for life! 🙂
7. The 6 Steps of My Marathon / Ultra Marathon Recovery Routine
Having a consistent ultra marathon recovery routine after tough runs will help you feel strong and ready for your next session much sooner than if you were to ignore it. Your muscles take a real beating after a long run or a speed workout, so don’t neglect them, instead help them repair quicker.
It’s not easy to get faster and run longer if your muscles don’t get stronger, FACT. Like nutrition, running recovery routines are something that will be very personal to you and your body – what works for some, may not work for others.
To give you a starting point, or even if you just want to try something new, give these tips a go. This routine is what I use during heavy ultra marathon training blocks for races like trail marathons when I absolutely must feel strong and ready to run frequently without injuries. This recovery routine also helps fast track my running performance in time for race day.
1. Stretch before AND after a run
Before your run, do some dynamic stretching to warm up your muscles and reduce the risk of straining them. Recovery starts with prevention. After your run, make sure you do some static stretching as a way to relax and loosen any tight muscles.
2. Drink a protein shake after running to repair/rebuild muscles
Repairing muscles after an intense workout is something that many runners overlook. If you can recover faster then you’ll be able to get back out there putting in smart miles that actually count, rather than running on tired ‘always recovering’ legs. I don’t drink one after every run, that would be hella expensive, just the really intense ones like ‘races’, ‘speedwork’, ‘hill repeats’, ‘long runs’. I have found two protein powders to work especially well for me but there are other good ones available (check out our Protein Powder buyer’s guide to see them), they are also both 100% plant-based proteins.
Plantworks Protein Powder with Super Herbs is my favorite in terms of taste and purity. We first discovered it at the Hood to Coast Pacific City relay event in Oregon when we were given some to try at the finish line. Each serving of Plantworks protein has 20 grams of plant-based protein from Pea, Mushroom, Pumpkin, and Rice proteins. It contains 0g of sugar and 7g of fiber, and there’s No Dairy, Soy, or Gluten. It is also mixed with Adaptogens and Super Herbs to help you speed-up/improve recovery times, Plant Power baby!
Tailwind Nutrition’s Rebuild recovery powder is the other powder I enjoy. It comes in ‘single-serve’ stick packs or in 32 oz packs for $38.99 which provide 15 servings, a better way to reduce packaging waste.
The ‘single-serve’ sticks are a convenient way of taking your recovery drink to work or the gym, and at $3 a stick isn’t too expensive. We especially like the taste of the Vanilla flavor but I wouldn’t say no to chocolate!
3. Use a massage gun to work out localized muscle knots
I like to use a massage gun for really hammering out stubborn muscle knots, and tension. It’s a relatively new addition to my running recovery routine but already invaluable! With a massage gun like the Compex Fixx 1.0 Massager it’s much easier for me to massage out localized tense muscles. This particular massage gun has three speeds that you can use to help relieve different levels of soreness and you can also change the tips and rotate the gun head to reach areas that may be awkward otherwise.
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4. Use a muscle stimulator with TENS on sore areas like my achilles
We both use another product from Compex called the Mini Wireless with TENS. A muscle stimulator like this can be used as a way to build muscle via electric pulses but it’s just as effective for giving you a recovery massage after a run too.
I mostly use the TENS setting on my Achilles if I ever get a flare-up of Achilles tendonitis – after a couple of days of easing off running and using this TENS machine, I’m good to go again.
The Compex Mini Wireless Muscle Stimulator with TENS is the obvious choice for a TENS massager because of its size. It’s so tiny that you can easily take it with you for use after an event, or on a run-cation holiday.
5. Foam rolling and stretching my back
The Chirp Wheel is our favorite roller for stretching our backs and relieving back pain.
Back pain can be caused by poor posture when sat at a desk and can be exacerbated by a heavy ultra marathon training load and long runs.
We’re always excited to find new ways to stretch and relieve tension in our backs, especially if they don’t involve going to a Chiropractor, which can get expensive. Enter the Chirp Wheel. To read our review of this great piece of gear CLICK HERE.
A foam roller is another effective way to roll out muscle knots. It’s a lot more low-fi than products like the Compex but they serve a purpose.
Then there are massage balls… The great thing about the massage ball is its tiny size, which means you can take it with you on those longer hiking and running adventures. Massage balls can target all sorts of isolated muscle areas due to their small size.
6. Recovery Balm applied to sore muscles
I have been having so much success with Venga CBD’s Recovery Balm product. I first noticed its power when I was in Europe for Matterhorn Ultraks 30k and the UTMB OCC 56km 5 days later. I wouldn’t normally stack races so close to one another, but when I was offered the opportunity to run both, I couldn’t refuse. I used the Recovery Balm on my leg muscles after Matterhorn Ultraks and felt repaired and ready to run UTMB OCC 5 days later.
That impressed me but what really blew me away was just how good my legs felt the day after UTMB OCC which saw me running 57km, with 3200 meters of positive gain for 10.5 hours. That’s a long time for me to be running on such steep mountain terrain. I can only attribute it to the Venga CBD Recovery Balm I smothered over my legs the night of the race. So when you feel like your muscles have been worked to the max, like after one of your hill-rep sessions, think about using a CBD recovery balm on your muscles. It’s impressive, to say the least.
Venga CBD also makes CBD soft gels designed to be taken daily which help reduce inflammation, speed up recovery times, alleviate pain during long runs, reduce stress & anxiety to help you stay focused and calm during trail marathon / 50k training, and to help you sleep better too.
Read our full review of the Venga CBD product lineup for athletes to learn about all the benefits of CBD for runners.
Another great alternative CBD product that we have been using lately is this CBD Topical Cream from CBDPure. It’s a nice option if you prefer a texture that’s more of a moisturizer-style than a balm.
8. Preparing For Race Day And Ensuring Nerves Don’t Get The Better Of You
If you train consistently, as per my trail marathon and 50k training plan advice and schedule above, and you get used to the gear and nutrition that you plan to wear and eat on race day, then there’s really nothing else to prepare for – you’ve got this race in the bag!
The day before race day though, it’s very important to lay out all your race-day gear on the floor as a way of checking you have all the necessary gear (including nutrition) ready for your race the next morning. Don’t forget to charge your GPS watch too! Trail marathons and ultra marathons often have an early start, so doing this will really give you peace of mind and will help you get good night’s sleep without worrying that you may have forgotten to pack something.
“you’re running a marathon, not a sprint.”
Also, get your breakfast ready the night before too if you can – if you’re traveling for a race and staying in a hotel the night before it’s a good idea to take your favorite pre-run breakfast with you – just in case the hotel’s catering doesn’t open early enough or they don’t provide enough of the right food to fuel the start of your run. My favorite pre-race breakfast includes:
- A banana (roughly 1.5-2 hours before the race starts)
- toast with peanut butter
9. Finishing Your Trail Marathon / 50k Race Feeling Strong
Remember to pace yourself on race day – you’re running a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s the last 20% of a race where true running warriors emerge. Plus when you finish feeling strong, you remember to smile for the finish line photographer, haha! Have an amazing race, and thank you for reading this epic guide on how to plan, train, and race a trail marathon or 50k ultra marathon. If you enjoyed reading it, please share with a friend who may also find it helpful! 🙂
I hope you enjoyed the trail marathon / 50k training plan and advice included here, and it answered many questions that you may have had but if not, please feel free to message me via the comments below, I check them regularly and will usually reply within a day. And don’t forget to share this guide with a friend or group if you think they’ll also find it helpful! -Alastair