Hal Koerner's Training Advice for 50Ks and Beyond
An exclusive excerpt from Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning on running the right pace, hill technique, incorporating tempo runs, tapering and 8 weeks of Hal’s recommended 16-Week 50K Training Plan
Just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, your ultra race begins with solid training. To do it right, you'll want to be sure that you approach your training plan with attention to the pace of each session and to integrate runs that allow you to focus on ascending and descending technique so that you feel strong and confident going into the hills. You'll need to know when and how to use speed work, when to ease off, when to go long and how long to go, and when and how to cross train or hit the weight room. Whether or not you need a coach is a personal decision. Regardless, you'll need to know how to integrate tempo runs, rest days, core training, how to mix in road and trail runs and the appropriate mileage progressions, how to stretch, and how to use prep races to peak for your A race. Training for an ultra is a rather involved recipe, but you are the chef, and hopefully a gourmet one at that.
Pacing is important in running any distance, but in ultra races it is a different animal altogether. Let’s get that clear right from the start. Road marathon courses allow you to figure your splits, with a relatively predictable terrain across a relatively short time frame. Even trail marathons, which can certainly involve climbing and other terrestrial unpredictability, are held across a relatively manageable time frame and distance, allowing more margin for error in a pacing strategy.
To adopt that same pacing strategy as you would for shorter distances and attempt to apply it to the ultra is to set yourself up for disappointment or failure. It is just unrealistic. The majority of 50- or 100-mile courses range up, down, and across wilderness trails and are similar to one another only in their sheer variety. As has often been said of the trail, no two steps are alike. Put it this way: A finishing time in a 100-miler can range anywhere from 13 hours to 3 days.
So if pacing an ultra is not mainly about numbers or splits, what is it about? Pacing in an ultra is about leaving enough in the bank to last you to the end. There is a golden rule of ultra pacing, or at least an old adage: If you think you are starting the race slow, then slow down even more. Adrenaline at the beginning of a race will hype you up, other people around you will hype you up, and you are likely to go out too fast. Crew and family members will build you up at an aid station and release you back into the wild, but that energy rush will fade a few miles later as your pace and energy plummet. You may still feel great at the halfway point, but remember you may have another 12 hours or so to go, depending on the distance you are racing. A big part of completing a successful ultra is learning to discipline yourself to start steady and stick to your plan. That is pacing. Believe me, no matter how slow your pace is, you won’t finish a 50- or 100-miler with energy in reserve. And no one will accuse you of not pushing hard enough!
This is a good time to rethink pacing. Understand that it is not so much about cadence but, rather, about understanding your body. It is about recognizing your breathing patterns, feeling your body out, and trying to maintain a certain level of comfort across the miles. It is not about numbers alone but about keeping a realistic expectation of what you can do. Staying strong, staying well, staying even, such that at any given moment you have another gear or something in reserve for the long haul: These are the foci during a race.
In an ultra, pacing is certainly a mental game, too. There are going to be more footsteps than you have ever encountered, and it will seem like they will never end. If you can adjust your mental outlook to accept that, you will be in the right headspace. When things got tough, I used to remind myself that I was just so happy not to be sitting in a classroom all day (during my days at college) or behind the wall of a cubicle in a stuffy office (a former job).
Practically speaking, through training, you will learn what is a comfortable pace, and discovering that should be among your central goals in training. Comfortable is a good thing. Comfortable preserves your endurance—both physically and mentally—thus allowing you to focus on other key elements that contribute mightily to your success: breathing, hydrating, and nutrition.
The practice of negative splitting does have its place in competitive ultrarunning. Some of the best ultrarunning performances for folks I know came when the runner managed a negative split, running the second half of the race faster than the first half. The practice of negative splitting is something that you can incorporate into your training. Instead of doing a 30-mile long run where you drag yourself home the last 6 miles, hold back a little during the first half of the run and pace yourself carefully so that you are able to charge those final 6 miles, running them as the fastest part of the whole run. You may even throw in a progression run up to 20 miles where you steadily step up your pace in 5-mile increments. You not only will realize physiological benefits from this practice but also will gain a tremendous psychological advantage, knowing you are capable of pushing hard, even after putting so many miles on your legs.