Reflections on training for my first 50-mile race

What I learnt during a recent (and almost) 16-week training block, and what I'll change next time around

In May, I completed my first 50k ultra marathon in just over five hours. The conditions were awful – during one of the wettest ever Mays – the course was lumpy and I spent ages at aid stations. So I was happy with the result.

Buoyed by ultra debut, I soon set my sights on my A-race of 2021 – the Chiltern Wonderland 50 in September. A 50-mile loop in the (you guessed it) Chilterns, the CW50 is on my doorstep and covers familiar ground. It would have been rude not to do it.

Focusing on it so quickly, however, was a big mistake.

Not enough time between training cycles

Even though I felt physically fine after the 50k race, I should have allowed myself more time to recover. The gap between training blocks was only three weeks and in hindsight, that wasn’t enough time.

I was running again, albeit gingerly, just three days after the race. I didn’t want to wait too long, fearing I might lose some fitness and the hard-earned muscle adaptations I gained following four months of successful training.

That is, of course, absolute nonsense. Any losses would have been negligible, but that’s runners’ logic for you.

Strava training log following 50k race
Training log after 50k in early May

Even though I have been running for a while, I still need to grasp that it’s silly to expect to be able to train progressively, all year round. It’s like thinking a field should be able to produce corn in spring, summer, autumn and winter.

In the end, both body and mind capitulated in spectacular fashion.

A pain in the bum

A couple of niggles and fatigue aside, I clung on to my training plan and the long-awaited taper was on the horizon. Unfortunately, my butt cheek decided to check out as I entered the home straight.

On my final long run, and just three weeks from race day, I felt a terrible pain in my left glute. It happened early on, but I decided to grind through it, thinking I would be able to call upon the experience during the race if things got bad.

The issue returned during every run after that and usually only after an hour or so, which was frustrating as it would give me a false sense of hope.

It’s my gluteus medius muscle that’s giving me grief. Perhaps it’s a tendinopathy issue. Who knows? I’ve seen three people about it and nobody has got to the cause or diagnosed what it is. The fact it gets worse the less active I am makes me think it’s tendon-related.

Fortunately, other activities don’t aggravate the issue, so I’ve decided to recover through September and come back with a full deck of cards. I’m not going to run to the best of my ability if I keep trying to push through issues and just half-way recover.

I’m sure I could have necked some ibuprofen and ground my way through the CW50, but it would’ve been a miserable experience and the potential set back wouldn’t have been with it. There will always be other races.

Speaking of which…

A new plan of attack

My next main race is the South Downs Way 50 in April, 2022. Yep, it’s another 50-miler.

Having been successful in the 50k race while following an ‘advanced’ training plan from Higher Running – by top ultra runner Sage Canaday and coach Sandi Nypaver – it seemed natural to use their 50-mile plan for CW50, too.

I now know this wasn’t a good idea. Through a combination of over estimating my ability and the few (proper) recovery weeks on the schedule, I ended up overtrained, burnt out and ultimately injured.

In fairness, the High Running plans do give you a daily window of distance to aim for. So I would always go out the door with the goal to do somewhere between the minimum and average amount of kilometres.

Below gives you some idea of the average weekly distance and how it steadily progresses. I haven’t included the race week (16) because it’s irrelevant.

Weekly average training mileage
Average weekly mileage

The chart highlights the lack of any real recovery weeks. The average distance in the first week is about 80km and reaches 102km by week five, before cutting the distance in week six to 95km.

After this, it’s seven continuous weeks of hitting the rev limiter and doing between 109-125km with only the smallest of recovery weeks on week 11. The drop off here is only 7km compared to the previous week – 109km in comparison to 116km.

Conventional wisdom says a recovery week should be every 3-4 weeks to allow the body to absorb the recent training load. Constantly going at it with no real break seems illogical to me and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both my body and mind gave in at the same time – at the end of a succession of high mileage weeks.

I also found some of the weekday workouts quite difficult as well. At times I wondered if I was following a Boston qualifying plan by mistake.

Examples:

The tempo workout below is the day after running 16-21km, with a 42-45km run scheduled just three days later.

  • 3km warm up
  • 11-13km tempo progression
  • 3-6km cool down

And below is an all-out interval session, which I had no hesitation in binning because the following day was meant to be 11-16km, followed by a 37-42km long run the day after that.

  • 3km warm up
  • 4 to 5 x 1.6km (3 mins recovery jog)
  • 5-8km cool down

So you’re probably thinking, why didn’t I choose their beginner 50-mile plan instead?

Firstly, because there is no way of seeing what an example week looks like on the Higher Running website for me to make an informed decision. Secondly, because I believed having followed their advanced 50km plan, I would be fine with the 50-mile equivalent.

Also, they suggest that I should have “been running 64-80km per week for a couple of weeks” (check) and that I should also have “previously peaked at at least 105-120km per week or more while training for past races,” (double check).

So for next time, I will follow a simpler training plan and one which places more emphasis on time on feet, with fewer anaerobic workouts, and sufficient recovery weeks.

Any suggestions would be welcome, but I am currently leaning towards the Hal Koerner way of things: fewer weekday miles, more back-to-back long runs, and mostly at an easy-to-moderate pace.

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