The Appalachian Trail

If you ever find yourself training for a 50+ mile ultramarathon, then you’re bound to notice this one particular long run on your training plan. You will see it just sitting there, tucked between a few reasonable long runs, glaring at you with these evil eyes. The 30 mile training run. The run that all first time ultramarathoners fear the most.

I recently experienced that fear first hand. I was in the midst of training for my first 50-miler, feeling confident about all the upcoming runs except for one. The longest training run I had ever pushed through.

But the good news, and yes, there is good news, is that with the proper preparation, I survived that ultra-training run, and so can you! In fact, I not only survived, I actually enjoyed myself.

Below I have outlined 4 simple steps I took to ensure the 30 mile training run was successful.

Know the Route

It isn’t like me to know exactly where I’ll be running on a long run. I usually take off with a general idea in mind, or a set of trails to explore, but to have something 100% mapped out ahead of time is a pre-run ritual I quit doing on a regular basis in order to run more ‘free’. For this run, I felt it was important to know exactly where I would be going, and when I would be getting there.

This is important for a few big reasons.

  1. You need to know where you can fuel.
  2. You want to make sure you aren’t tacking on extra miles or coming up short.
  3. Getting lost or confused isn’t what you should be concerned about when pushing such a large distance.

I decided the best option for me was to run two 15 mile loops through the local DC park, Rock Creek Park. I mapped out the simplest loop I could find that best mimicked race day conditions. I had the luxury of being able to park my car right smack in the middle, which I knew I would pass by three times throughout the run. This provided for an ‘aid station’ of sorts for the training run.

Fuel for Success

Long training runs are just as much an opportunity for you to learn how your body handles the distance as it is about making your legs stronger. Experimenting with race day like foods and drinks is incredibly important.

Don’t be afraid to eat solid foods. Running for such a long distance at a slower pace allows the body to process the needed calories that solid foods will give you. Most ultras have deluxe aid stations which provide anything from PB&J sandwiches to boiled potatoes. Find out what the aid station menu will be and train with similar foods. In my interview with Mike Wardian, he gave us this advice:

“Make sure you eat, drink, and take salt. No one told me that. If you don’t fuel there is no way you are going to finish. Getting down that nutrition is really important. I think a lot of people get the miles in but then forget about that part, but you need to do both.”

This is also a good opportunity to experiment with new foods you want to try, but don’t know how your body will react. I put my 3 natural alternatives to energy gels to the test again on this past 30 mile training run. I then knew exactly how I want to use the Buddy Fruits, almonds, and sweet potatoes on race day and what combo of other things I needed.

Take it Easy

When training for a traditional 26.2, it is important to mix in miles at ‘race pace’ during your long training runs. With an ultra, that is much less important. For many of us, keeping a pace over 50+ miles is not only not very important, but it isn’t very realistic considering all the things that could happen over so many miles. When running your 30 mile training run, remember to take it easy.

The focus should be on learning how your body handles the time and distance on the trail, not how fast you can do it. Walk the hills if you need to, as you will most certainly walk some hills on race day. Pause at ‘aid stations’ for a rest, as you will most certainly want to pause during race day.

Listen to the body and learn from the experience.

Have Fun

Races are almost always fun. You have the hype of the other runners, the excitement from those who came out to support you, and the satisfaction of seeing all your hard work become a reality. Long training runs usually aren’t nearly as fun. Most of the time you are all alone, and guess what, even if you run 26.2 miles or more, you wont get a medal when you finish.

But they don’t have to be boring, depressing, or lame.

Remember to have a good time and you will not only learn more from the experience, but it will keep you from burning out.

  • Invite a friend to join you for 10 miles at the beginning, or to meet up for your last five. They might have to wait around a little bit, but a good running partner probably wont mind.
  • Mix in a little music. If you are like me, you rarely listen to music while running. I also rarely run 30 miles by myself, so I decided to mix it up a bit. After about an hour on the trail, I turned on some good jams to rally me forward.

30 miles probably seems like a long way to run because it is. But with a little bit of planning, tuning in to the body, and letting loose, you can not only survive the long training run, you can really enjoy it.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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