Trail running is growing in popularity and many running are making the transition from roads to
trails. In this article, we will focus on the transition from road marathons to trail ultras.
If you have already run a road marathon, you are in a great spot to take on your first trail 50K. If
you haven’t run a road marathon yet but want to make the transition to trails, you are in a good
spot, too. You don’t need to run a marathon before you run an ultra. Trail running can be quite
different from road running, but at the end of the day, it is still running!

The structure of training for an ultra is very similar to training for a marathon. Each week, you
need to do a long run. Doing speedwork or a high-intensity workout each week is also
important. If you are running 6 or 7 days per week, you may do a second longer run or a
second hard workout. The rest of your training should be easy runs.


Hill training is essential for switching from road to trails.


One key difference is that to get ready for an ultra; you will want to do your long run on the trails.
Doing your long run on the trails will get you ready for the conditions that you will see on race
day. Trail ultras often have much steeper and longer hills than road marathons so it is important
to practice running this type of terrain before the race. Uphills are challenging, but downhills
can be equally difficult. This can feel counterintuitive to many runners as downhills are
aerobically much easier. However, downhill can be very taxing on your quads, especially if you
are running a long way.

After your first long run, your quads will likely be sore, especially if you do a lot of hills. Don’t
worry, this is normal. It may take a few weeks for your legs to adjust to the hills, but your body
will adapt. You will also find that some uphills may be extremely difficult to run. Don’t waste
your energy trying to run every uphill. Hike! Hiking is a key skill for trail ultras. Even the best
runners in the world are hiking some of the hills! It’s important to remember that just because
you can run an uphill doesn’t mean you should. Hiking up a hill can often be nearly as fast and
much more efficient. It is easy to waste a lot of energy trying to run uphill, then be forced to run
slower or walk on easy terrain later because you spent too much energy early on. Practice
hiking in training when you come to steep uphills. Practice will make you a much stronger hiker, and that will pay off on race day!


Most trail runners still run roads to prepare for races.


Eating and drinking during a trail ultra pose another challenge. At road marathons, there are
frequent aid stations, and runners often do not need to carry anything. A 50K usually has 4 or 5
aid stations, leaving 5 or 6 miles between aid stations. This can take well over an hour for many
runners so it is important that you carry enough food and water to get you between the aid
stations. Practicing carrying food and water during your long runs is important so you are ready
to carry your nutrition on race day. Additionally, you will need to carry a lot of food and water
just to get through your training runs. Water intake can vary significantly depending on the
weather conditions, but aiming for 0.5 – 1 Liter per hour is a good place to start. Aiming to eat
200 calories per hour is another good metric, but many runners will need to eat more than this.


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Not all your training needs to be on the trails. In fact, if you only do your long run on the trails,
you will be adequately prepared for a trail ultra. Running on the trails is not as convenient as running the roads out your front door, so many trail runners primarily run roads during the work
week and only hit the trails on the weekend. While spending more time on the trails will be
beneficial, it is certainly not essential to being a good trailrunner. In fact, including some road
running in your training can be beneficial. Trail running forces runners to run at a slower pace
due to the more challenging footing and significantly steeper hills. While you will get the same
aerobic workout, if you run exclusively on trails, you will lose some of the speed that you would
have developed from running roads.

While road running and trail running can seem quite different, it is easy to make the transition
from marathon running to ultra running. The trails pose different challenges, but if you practice
those challenges in training (primarily on your long run), you will be ready to go on race day.
The bottom line is that running is running. If you can run well on the roads, you are not far away
from running well on the trails.


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