new ultrarunner expectations

What Can New Ultrarunners Expect to Accomplish in Their First 1-2 Years?

As the sport of ultrarunning continues to grow, we’re welcoming quite a few new runners to ultradistance events each year. If that’s you, glad you’re here! Establishing reasonable objectives for your first ultramarathon season is a challenge we hear from many runners making the transition from marathon distance or from sports like triathlon or cycling. How do you decide what are reasonable achievements to shoot for this year? What distance should you target, how will you know if you’re training too much or not enough? There are no universal answers, but we have some guidelines to help steer you toward a successful, fun, and injury-free season.

Who should be considered ‘new’ to ultrarunning?

This is a key question because many athletes who come to ultra and trail running have an extensive running or endurance sport background. That typically means you have a robust foundation of cardiovascular fitness. As a result, you can transition into ultramarathon training more seamlessly. In this article, we’ll focus more on athletes who may be newer to endurance sports in general and who’s fitness is in a developmental stage. Specifically, athletes who may have 1-2 years or less of experience training for endurance sports, and who may have completed zero or very few ultradistance events (yet!)

Priority 1: What Can You Do Within Your Available Training Time?

Before you decide what race(s) you want to target, be realistic about the time you have available for training and recovery. It’s also important to consider the relative stress level of your life, including your occupation, relationships, travel and other considerations that can and will affect your training outcomes.

Minimum Training Time Required to Race 50K

For athletes who juggle demanding jobs, have about 6-8 hours-per-week available for training, and who have family dynamics to navigate, it’s reasonable to train for one to three events in a calendar year. This scenario is well suited to events 4 to 6 hours long. Often this equates to a 50k distance. You may have more or fewer hours on some weeks to dedicate to training, but your life requires you to be on the go so recovery opportunities are not as restful compared to an athlete that can truly relax outside of training.

Minimum Training Time Required to Race 50 Miles or 100K

If you have a more flexible schedule, about 8-12 weekly hours available for training, and light overall lifestyle stress, you may be able to build up to an 8–16-hour event successfully within this calendar year. This is loosely equivalent to a 50 miler or a 100-kilometer event. Of course, this is a general approximation. The amount of elevation gain/loss, trail surface and technical features, and weather conditions, will affect the duration and difficulty of a race.

Recommendations for Running 100 Miles

Is the 100-mile distance reasonable for athletes in their first 1-2 years training and participating in ultramarathons? It’s not impossible. Plenty of athletes have competed in a 100-miler within their first 1-2 years of ultramarathon training. Completing the distance in a single go requires most new ultrarunners to stay in motion for at least 24 hours. The potential trouble is that some of the adaptations required for success (i.e. musculoskeletal adaptations, gut tolerance, running economy, etc.) may be underdeveloped. As a result, one or more of these aspects can become a failure point that leads to a DNF. Usually that failure point comes during training, but sometimes it’s revealed on race day. Regardless, even if you have almost infinite time for training and recovering, within the first 1-2 years of ultramarathon training, completing events that will take 24 hours or longer to complete will be a stretch. You may be better served by doing a few shorter events, while gathering knowledge that you can apply to longer duration events down the road.

Be consistent and give yourself a long runway

Consistency over a long period of time is the best gift you can give yourself. Try to avoid prolonged periods of missed training. Remember, even though you are preparing for an ultramarathon, short training runs are better than not running at all. It doesn’t take much stimulus to at least keep the fitness you already have.

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Whether you have a lot or a little time available for training, on a few or several days per week, your training should move from less event specific to more event specific as it gets closer. This is the best way to develop your fitness and also for your health and injury prevention. In turn, you’ll be able to continue a regular training routine. This isn’t to say every single week will be as consistent as prior blocks of training. If you get off track, ease back in, set realistic short-term goals and regain your consistency as soon as possible.

Keep track of your training and plot recovery periods

You can’t effectively manage what you’re not measuring. Whether you keep a hand-written journal or store your training activities digitally, maintain a record from the start. And be sure to include subjective feedback as well as numerical data. You may not realize now insightful this may be down the road. An historical document that you can refer to for insight into what worked, what may not have gone well and how to adjust the training load (intensity, elevation gain/loss, etc) is tremendously valuable for you and your coach.

In addition to tracking your training accurately, be sure to build dedicated recovery periods into the plan. There isn’t a magical duration for each recovery period. It should be related to the demands of the training block you completed. Recovery periods are typically between 3-8 days. (This is different than an extended “transition period” after the racing season.) Ideally you begin each training block rested and ready to do more work, but don’t extend your recovery period so long that you begin to detrain.

Decide what the goals of your goals really are

Lastly, create a concrete picture of your outcome goals and your process goals. Often, in the journey you travel to reach the starting line, you’ll develop much more as an athlete and probably, as a person, than you will during your race(s). If you’re unclear about your reasons for racing, it will be impossible to know if you’ve achieved your objectives. Finishing the race is an obvious outcome goal, but there should be some targets beyond finishing. In fact, there are nearly limitless accomplishments new ultrarunners can achieve in a calendar year that are completely independent of races. Setting out realistic achievement markers along the way is a way to all but ensure you achieve success.

As you develop as an ultrarunner, forge relationships within the community, celebrate the many adventures you experience, and appreciate the knowledge and fitness you can gain along the way. There really isn’t a true end point or any event distance or duration that’s better than any other. Honor where you are, continue to make strides forward to see what you can accomplish in the future. Be smart as you proceed, especially in the early stages, and you’ll create miles of great trail memories.

By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach

Comments 1

  1. Thank you for the specific, practical time frame to realistically prepare for my first long race. I’m planning to attempt a 50K in Dinosaur Valley this year and this article confirmed that my training time availability will work for this distance (assuming all goes well).

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