Last updated: 20-Oct-20
By Justin Bateman
Finding the perfect ultra training plan is a little like finding the Holy Grail … difficult and sometimes bloody. We commissioned ultra runner and coach, Justin Bateman, to give us his ideal plan for a 50km ultra.
This 50km training plan makes a few assumptions. The first is that you have already run at least a marathon. It is possible to train for a 50km without having done a marathon but I wouldn’t advise it, at least not over 16 weeks. You need time for the body to adapt to the longer runs and doing too much too soon is a recipe for burn-out and injury. The more marathons you’ve done, the easier you’ll find this training plan. If in doubt, do less mileage and build up gradually.
The second assumption is that you can run five times a week. If this isn’t possible, drop a short, easy run. The long and hard sessions are more important; prioritise quality over quantity.
The third assumption is that you run mainly on roads and not trails. If this isn’t the case, lucky you! It’s most likely that your 50km race will be on trail and the more time you can spend on similar terrain the better (see recommendations). This is why there are sessions marked specifically for trail running.
In terms of fitness levels, one of the great things about ultra marathons is that you’re not expected to be quick. Of course, if you want to race them as fast as possible there’s nothing stopping you, but often ultra runners are happy to take their time and enjoy the journey. So in that sense, you can be a ‘slow’ runner and still complete a 50km. The speed elements of the training schedule are based on your own pace, so it doesn’t matter whether your 5km pace is six minutes per mile or nine minutes per mile.
About the plan
The plan is written to cater for runners of all speeds. Without knowing your running history and how you respond to the plan, it’s impossible to create something that’s perfect for everyone. Remember that this plan is an outline and adjust accordingly. Or, get a coach (like me) to provide regular feedback to and have the plan fully personalised for you.
This is essentially a marathon training plan but with added specificity – trail running, hills and longer long runs to get you used to spending lots of time on your feet. It includes a trail marathon which is probably the best way to bridge the gap between a marathon and an ultra. I followed a plan very similar to this for my first 50km and because I took it easy (and got lost), I was on my feet for many hours. But as I was fitter than I’d ever been before, it never felt like hard work and I recovered quickly.
How the plan works
The 16-week plan begins with some base building and very little speed work, bringing more in as time goes by. Mileage in general also increases over time, but there are lower intensity and lower mileage weeks at regular intervals to allow the body to recover and adapt.
As with many training programmes, it uses periodisation as its structure. Periodisation is the systematic planning of training – has been used widely in athletics training since the 1950s. Legendary New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard was a proponent of periodisation.
In this case, roughly every four weeks there is a week where either the volume or intensity of mileage is lower to enable the body to recover. If you constantly ask the body to cope with high mileage or high intensity you’ll get exhausted or injured or both. The plan also progresses through distinct phases, beginning with lower mileage and very little speed work to enable you to ease into the training load. In the middle, there’s more of an emphasis on speed work to get you as fit as possible. Towards the end of the plan, there is more slower trail running suggested, so that by the time the race comes around you’re used to doing that kind of running.
The trail marathon race included in the plan isn’t essential but is a good way to prepare physically and mentally for the 50k race. If there’s no race suitable that you can fit into the plan, try to run the distance without taking too much out of yourself, and using the kit and fueling strategies you intend to use on race day.
The plan will work for anyone who can follow it, including ultra beginners! The more experience at running long distances the better, but if you’re willing to push through the tough long runs, you’ll end up a happy runner.
How to make sure you reach your goal
As with any long distance running, you need to be committed to the process. Think about why you want to do it, and whether you’re willing to put in the hours. It’s an obvious point but an important one so consider it carefully. The only people who shouldn’t attempt this plan are those who think it will be easy, as you’re likely to be in for a shock. Likewise, if you’re injured, see a specialist before you start the plan. They will be able to advise you on the best way to recover, be it through treatment, stretching, strength work, rest or a combination of these. Running through injuries might seem like the tough thing to do but in the long term it’s never worth it.
There will be times when you miss a session or are ill or have a niggling injury. The best advice I can give here is to be sensible. Can you really run today or are you running when you’ve got the flu to ensure you hit your mileage for the week? Skipping that session is probably wise. Not going running just because it looks a bit cold and wet outside isn’t going to help you in the long run (pun intended).
Think about your ultimate goal. If you find yourself missing more sessions than you’re running, you might need to do a better job of time management or reassess your expectations for the race. Maybe forget about your goal time and simply focus on finishing. You can always enter another race in the future when you have more time to commit to training.
Life has a habit of getting in the way of any training plan and sticking to it will be difficult at times. As far as possible, don’t look too far ahead if the enormity of the plan is getting to you. As with an ultra race itself, break your tasks down into manageable chunks, be that the week’s training or even an individual session. Anything is possible. You just have to want it.
Download Justin Bateman’s training plan*:
*This is a pdf document. If you do not have a pdf reader on your device you can download one for free from the Adobe website.
If you already incorporate additional activities such as yoga, pilates or cross training into your weekly schedule, you can still do so. Just be aware of the impact they may have on your running. For example, a leg strengthening session could leave you lethargic on your run the following day. It might take some experimenting but you are best placed to figure out how to fit it all together.
Please note that the distances for training are in miles. Races may be referenced in km.
With each of these ‘hard’ sessions, always make sure you warm up with some light running and/or dynamic stretching before getting stuck into the session. The best way to get injured is to go from static and cold to fast and explosive without a warm-up so don’t skip it! (Skipping itself is an acceptable warm-up activity, however.)
Run up hard, jog down, rest if necessary, repeat. 5-15 reps for 30-90 seconds, depending on fitness and experience.
Choose a middle section of this session to run at 10k or half marathon pace. It can be 5x1km or 5 miles in a row, just make sure it’s a pace you can maintain.
Gradually increase your pace during the run, either mile by mile or in timed sections, e.g. 15 minutes.
There are almost endless variations here and a good place to work on basic speed, which in turn will help your form. Popular sessions include multiples of 400m and 800m with static or active recovery between reps, and pyramid sessions: 400, 800, 1200, 1600, 1200, 800, 400.
- Get to know the course the race is on.
- Run on similar terrain as much as possible.
- Listen to your body. If you’re sick or exhausted, rest. Don’t follow the plan blindly.
- Run your easy runs easy so you can put your effort into the harder sessions.
- Practice eating and drinking on your long runs.
About the author
What began as a way to supplement my fitness for football has become a way of life. For years, I ran 5kms and 10kms and as I approached my 40th birthday I decided that if I didn’t run a marathon then, I probably never would. I completed the Belfast marathon in 2013 and later that year my first trail ultramarathon, the Gatliff 50k. I’ve now run seven ultras and trained up as a coach to pass on my wisdom and enthusiasm for the sport. I have a marathon PB of 3:34 and the furthest I’ve run is 95 miles – injury prevented me from finishing the Thames Path 100 an agonising five miles from the end. Next time! www.justinbatemanrunning.com
Now that you are on the training programme, why not get signed up for that ultra? Here are some of our recommendations: Top 10 Ultras for Beginners