Training for a 50k Trail Run

Forest Park Trail Panorama
(Click to make me big)

For those who don’t know me personally, let me fill you in: I’m too busy these days.  I’m applying to medical school this summer, which means working 20 hours a week in one hospital, volunteering one day in another, studying organic chemistry, studying for the MCAT entrance exam, preparing application materials, and generally just taking on too much.  It’s a passing fad that will start to wind down in June once applications are in and school is done, but for now, I have to suck it up and do less of all of the things that I love to do, like climbing and skiing. It’s sad to say, but they’re just more involved sports that require weather coordination and advanced planning, which makes them hard to fit into an ever-morphing schedule.

LaSportiva Crosslite 1.0

This mind and body though, they rest for no schedule.  I’ve written before about the need to get outside and move.  It’s primal, and necessary, and I’d implode without an outlet.  Moreover, I like to dream big and I like to have trips and such to look forward to so that even in the darkest, busiest days of city gloom, I know that escape is looming. When I ruminated on my schedule with these needs in mind, an idea came to the fore: running.

BORING.  I can hear you say it.  But there’s something undeniably satisfying in the ability to cover run long distances.  Most people think that you’re crazy to run 13 miles, or that this is some superhuman feat.  Thankfully, we’re not most people. With a plan, I think that it’s reasonable for any athletic person to train for and run a 50k.  So that’s what I’m doing.

The Trail Factor 50k takes place on my favorite trails in Portland’s Forest Park.  With some research, I’ve put together a training plan that I can weave into my otherwise chaotic schedule.  And best of all, when summer comes, I’ll be in great cardiovascular shape and ready to knock out some of the bigger human-powered days floating around in my imagination. What follows is a 13-week training schedule for zero-to-hero trail-ultra status.

This schedule makes a few assumptions:

[list_checkgrey] [li]This assumes that you already run at least a little bit.  What’s a little bit?  Probably enough that you don’t balk at the idea of running 5 miles, three times a week.  That would be a good starting point, especially if you have some time running on trail as well.[/li][li]You can stick to the schedule.  The mid-week runs are important to teach your body how to be a runner, even if the mileage looks trivial next to the weekend runs. You can’t skimp on the Sunday runs either.  More on this below.[/li] [/list_checkgrey]

Now, on to the goods.[divider_line]

[h3]The Ultra Schedule[/h3]

This schedule relies on commitment, but even for a whacked-out pre-med student like me, it’s not too hard to stick to. The meat of the schedule relies on back-to-back long runs, well-planned recovery, and periodic tapers.  Click on the schedule to make it big:

13-week 50k run schedule
Thirteen attainable weeks to a 31-mile trail race. (Click for bigger image)


This schedule was constructed with the help of several internet resources, which you can find with a quick Google search, but I’ve distilled it into a beautifully simple program.  The critical elements, in order of their importance are:

[list_ordered] [li]Rest days:  With such a load being placed on your body during these weeks of training, rest is of paramount importance.  Two days of rest per week are mandatory, and these aren’t for cross training or going to hit the weights.  The greatest level of activity should be akin to light yoga, or a gentle walk.  If you don’t recover, then you won’t make any gains. Weeks 8 and 12 are also tapered weeks that allow for longer-term recovery, so that you don’t wear down your body by increasing your mileage for 13 straight weeks. [/li] [li]Weekend long runs:  These train your body for the prolonged distances required in an Ultra, and they also train your mind to run when tired.  I’m always surprised by how much better I feel on Sundays than I had expected.  I think that this is because the anticipation of a second long run makes me focus on resting, stretching, and self-massage during the intervening evening. These runs are also the time to sort out fueling needs, shoes, clothing systems, packs, etc, so that you’re ready on race day.[/li] [li]Frequent shorter runs:  These populate the week days to allow your body to become used to running frequently.  They’re shorter, and easier to work into a busy schedule. The longest of these, a 10 mile run, won’t take longer than 2.5 hrs including the shower afterwards.  Frequent running also boosts your energy fo the rest of the day and forces you to get outside 5 days each week.[/li] [/list_ordered]

Want to take it on yourself?  Now is a good time to start.  If you don’t go all the way, that’s ok.  Every time that you run your new longest-run-ever, you’ll discover something about yourself as an athlete, and you’ll gain the confidence that only such endurance can bring.

Sign up for an event! It’s the best way to stay motivated, and the more that you train during the cool of the spring, the more you’ll thank yourself. If you have any training ideas, other plans, or questions, write them in the comments below.  I’ll share more about my experience tackling this as the process continues (I’m on Week 4). Need more motivation?  Check this out:

[divider_line]Support Mountain Lessons and get off on the right foot with a good pair of shoes for distance trail running.  The LaSportiva Wildcat is a great starting point, with good traction, cushion, and sensitivity. Click here to buy now.

Category: Running



  1. Just want to thank you for the training schedule for a 50k trail race. I have been hooked on the endurance runs and training now for the Ontario run in July. I thought I would lift weights twice weekly and swim three times weekly and biking. Yes I do not have a life work and train etc and repeat. I heard there should be some burst training . For example 800 meter sprints for 3000 meters and work up to a 10000 meter work out. Again Patrick good luck. Also your schedule of premed I have lived then I found my love in being a sports chiropractor. All the Best John

    1. Hi John!
      You’re welcome!
      If at all possible, I would run rather than lifting, swimming or biking. There are two reasons for this:

      1) specificity is what you’re looking for in training for an event, and there is nothing more specific to running than running. In Swimming or biking, you may increase your aerobic capacity, but that is such a small component of being a good runner that you can’t use those sports to replace running.

      2) I think THE biggest thing you’re really training when trying to run further than 15-20 miles is your physical ability to take a pounding. Swimming and biking are very gentle sports on the body, hard at times, yes, but they don’t subject your legs to the same repetitive pounding. I think that pretty much everyone who can walk can train their legs to run 40-50 miles, but the hard part is to not get hurt doing it. Spending 4-5 days per week running is the only way to encourage your body to adapt to that kind of load.

      As to the idea of including what you call “burst” training, I disagree. The training load that you’re undertaking is designed to build your endurance capacity. Running threshold efforts at 800m poorly mimics your effort during a race, doesn’t train the energy systems that you want to engage, increases your risk of injury, and will also induce a prolonged recovery time after these workouts. I included hill workouts in my training for running around Mt Hood, but it was slower efforts up longer hills to mimic the stresses that I expected on that run. It was as much psychological trailing as it was physical.

      This is just a long way of saying that you want to run a lot in a way that mimics your race of choice, and you want to be thorough about recovering. If you really want to lift 1 day a week, go for it, but use those workouts to focus on stability and injury prevention (squats on unstable surfaces/jump squats, glut medius/hip abductors, hip mobility exercises, core strengthening).

      Best of luck!

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  3. Hi Patrick,
    Thanks for the article and training schedule. Right now I am on wk. 3. I just noticed that wk. 13 mileage totals don’t seem to add up.

    1. You’re right!
      I never noticed that. I’d ignore the total for that week. It’s your final taper for the race. I wouldn’t add in the missing 38 miles.

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