Moving Up in Race Distances
I think desire is the best place to start. Do you want to run a half? Marathon? 50 mile? If your spirit is willing then build your body up slowly and methodically to handle the distance. You may never “feel” ready but if your heart is in it you can run farther than you think!
“Ready” is an elusive term. I never feel ready. When trying to see through the cloud of self-doubt, I ignore my feelings and try to look to the numbers. It feels less scary to simply gather data. I look at the races I have run (Did I do more than survive?). I look at other adventure runs I may have done that might be closer to the new race-distance I am considering (Did I have fun?). I peruse training plans and assess the time that the training requires (How much time can I devote to training each week?). If the data tells me I could be ready, and I am willing to make the commitment (and my family is willing to support me in my commitment), I close my eyes and ears to the screaming lack of confidence and find a race to sign up for. I try to remember when I commit to a new race distance that the question is not whether I can run the distance right now; it is whether I can train my way to being ready. I am not an impulsive racer. I have friends who run their first marathon and hundred miler in the same year. That is not me. I always need the numbers to guide me to the next level, helping me leap over any obstacles my mind chooses to put in front of me.
This is a tough question, I think it’s “easier” to get your body prepared than your mind. The best way to know if you are ready is understanding the commitment actually needed in training and to get to the finish line. Typically, you don’t ever go out and duplicate ultra race distances and then make a decision to race based on how it went. For example, I have never run any distance above a 1/2 marathon on the road. I didn’t have anything to gauge or feel once I started getting into trail races. My first ultra was a 50K. That sucked! Then I tried a 28 miler. That was a little bit better. Then I jumped to the 100 miler. Which turned out to be crazy hard, but a completely different type of racing than the other distances. So, the best way to know if you’re ready is to TRY IT!
More so than your body ask yourself is your mind ready? If you’re curious, then you’re probably ready! There’s no rule about how you should progress from one distance to the next. I know people, like myself, who graduated from one distance before trying the next, and others who jumped from a half-marathon straight to a 100 miler! That’s the beauty of this sport: anything is possible!
Sometimes I feel like runners overthink this. My suggestion, from personal experience, would be too sign up, follow a training plan, and go for it. For me, racing at longer distances was a lot about my body figuring out what I wanted it to do. For both the 50k and 100k, my second race went much better than the first because of what I learned from the first race. We’ll see if that holds true for the 100 miler as well. I say go after the next distance and have faith in yourself and your training.
For me, this isn’t about my body so much as it is about my brain. I can train my body to take on more miles, what I really need is my brain to be on board. I need the motivation to train, the time to dedicate to trail miles + a reason to make the leap. This is coming from someone who went from a half marathon distance right into a 50K with a few weeks notice…because it worked with my schedule, it was low-key + I wanted to prove I could do it once the challenge was on the table. While I definitely didn’t win that race + hated stairs the following week, my body wasn’t what kept me back or kept me moving…it was my brain.
The quick and easy answer to this is the cliche “you’ll never know until you try”, and I mostly agree with that! Your body can do amazing things when it is challenged, and thus it’s important and okay to push outside of your comfort zone. That all being said, there is a certainly a base level of fitness and comfort that you should have when choosing what distance you challenge yourself with.The transition from a half to a full marathon can occur over a three month time period with careful training. When transitioning to an ultra distance, your training window needs to be longer (16-20 weeks at least). Having a good base of 500 miles under your belt will help you prepare for an ultra distance. This doesn’t have to occur over a specific time period, but should happen within a consistent running routine over a couple of years. Logging miles like that over a multi year time period allows your body to adapt to loading better (minimize injury risk) and transitions you from novice to intermediate or even advanced. This means you know your body well enough to know what you can and cannot do.If you’ve been running for several years and have your base, then the next question is what level do you feel comfortable with? Okay, now move one distance up from that, master it, and build each year to something slightly outside of your wheel house. Set yourself up for success, not failure!
There is always anxiety around making a jump in racing distance, and the honest truth is, you never really know until you do it. The most important thing, is to make sure you give yourself enough time to train properly. Instead of picking a race and trying to cram your training in, look at the distance you are currently running and draw up a schedule, or find one that is already made that increases your mileage slowly over time (I personally used Krissy Moehl’s plans in her “Running Your First Ultra” book to make my jump from 50k-50mile in 2016). Once you see how many weeks it should take you to responsibly work up to the distance you want to run, then find races that fall in line with that timing. This will give you the greatest chance of being ready to crush whatever distance you decide to run. Good luck, and happy trails!
OK, so there is something funny about trail running culture, whereby people seem to tackle really big distances really soon after getting into running. I have lots of friends who have done this, and it has seemed to go ok for them. I lean more toward the cautious, “slow build” approach, and didn’t run a 50k until I had run a bunch of marathons (to be fair, ultras were not even on my radar for years). Half marathon to 50k is a pretty big jump – not impossible, for sure! – but a completely different ball game. Now that I’ve waffled around your question a bit…my answer to this completely depends on what your running background is: if you’re an experienced runner, have lots of miles “in the bank” and are used to consistent training, you could definitely make the transition to ultra distances, or from 50k to 50 miles. But how do YOU know if your body is ready? I think maybe it’s more important to know if your mind is ready. If you want it, make it happen! Just be smart about it 🙂
You will know you are ready by how you feel. Jumping from the ½ marathon distance to a 50k is a big step in mileage and time on your feet. Having the confidence of partaking in the marathon distance before a 50k would be best, but trailracing offers more 50k distance opportunities. So, as usual, it is all about the training. It takes practice in training to tune in to your body and listen and feel for the signals that tell you when it’s time to pull back on mileage, or when your body can handle more. Once you have set the intention in your mind and heart that you are ready to step up to a challenge, the motivation will usually kick in preparing you to take on a more advanced training plan which should include at least one or two longer trail runs each week. Spending more hours out on the trail will also give you the opportunity to try out different hydration packs, electrolyte drinks and various chews, gus and bars which are essential parts of having a positive first 50k experience.
The concept of upping training mileage as well as racing mileage is very interesting and differs woman to woman. In a sense, if you have some good mileage under your belt (i.e. some good training blocks, maybe a handful of 10Ks and/or half marathons), and are mentally up for the change, I say ‘go for it’! It really is all mental. If you’re ready to mentally take on more detailed, planned out training, ready to do some longer days on the trails- I think you’re ready! A good girlfriend of mine completed her first 50K a few summers ago, her first 50 mile last summer, and this summer is tackling a 100K and then her first 100 mile in September. It is inspiring to see her progress! It’s all about what you think you can handle.
Trail Sisters contributors are a group of inspirational, educational and empowering Women who share a love for the outdoors and trail running. We come from all over and share a bond through our love of the sport.
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