Fitness Versus Race Management

At what point are you just mismanaging your race?

I will start this post by saying that I am not a doctor.  I have zero medical or scientific qualifications.  I only have experience, and that is what all of these opinions are based on.

This thought process began after a friend asked for my opinions on how to train for his first 100 Miler in the spring of next year.  His basic question was how different a training plan would look for a 50 Miler compared to a 100 Miler.  Is training for one that different than training for the other?  If he trained for a 50 Miler and was able to run a solid 50 then would he also be prepared for a 100 Miler?  

Spoiler Alert: I don’t have the answer.

It’s something interesting to the think about, and my basic response to my good buddy was:  at some point you are fit enough to run either distance and the big issue is how you manage your race.

What is the difference in fitness?

I have intentionally done very little research for this blog post as I want to speak to you as a runner.  I want to speak to you based on my own experience.  I also want to share my own opinions.  Therefore, I’m going to probably use terms like “fitness” in a way that will make medical professionals roll their eyes.  I also make a lot of statements below that sound like declarative facts, but please remember that I am speaking in terms of my own opinions.  If you disagree, please comment or share this blog on social media.  Let’s keep the conversation going!

But what really is the difference in fitness requirements between a 50-mile race and a 100-mile race?

Training Plans

Let’s look first at how a runner trains for the two distances in question.  I’ve personally never run a proper 50 Miler or a 100 Miler.  I have completed several races of the 40-ish mile distance and one 72 mile race.  So, I do have that context of running well past 50-miles even if I am completely ignorant of what goes on past mile 72.  

Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning has become somewhat of a religious text for many in the church of ultrarunning in the past few years.  In browsing the pages of the good book I noticed something about the training plans for 50 Milers and 100 Milers:  they aren’t all that different.  For example, Hal suggests a maximum long run of 35 miles in training for a hundo.  For 50-mile training, he suggests a max long run of 30 miles.  5 miles training difference for a 50-mile difference in race distance.  

That book also recommends a peak weekly mileage of about 76 miles per week for BOTH training plans.  Zero difference in peak weekly mileage despite one race being double the distance of the other.  The main difference I saw in the two training plans was the length of time of the overall plans themselves.  Koerner’s 100-mile training plan is recommended to cover 20 weeks as opposed to 16 weeks for a 50 Miler.  So a difference of a full month is significant, but I can’t help but think, “Geez, these training plans look nigh identical.”

That is just one example of some training plans from one individual.  There are many more out there, and a deeper dive would certainly be interesting and perhaps worthwhile in a future post.  In fact, if anyone is a numbers geek and wants to GUEST POST hit us up!

The Long Run

Those who know me know that I’m not a big fan of the long run.  It is my personal opinion that many of us in the ultra trail community put way to much focus on simply covering ground.  We go out to the woods at 5am on Saturday and slog out a 25 miler at a slow pace only so we can share our sweet Strava data that afternoon and pat ourselves on the back for reaching that ever impressive mileage total.

But what was gained by that run?  What did we learn from the Saturday slog?  If you’ve been in the ultrarunning game for a few years you know what works as far as gear and nutrition, so there were probably no new revelations there.  For me (and let me reiterate that I’m ONLY speaking my personal opinions here), the long runs over 20 miles cause more damage than reward.  I need way more recovery time after those runs, and I don’t feel like those runs really teach me anything.  I certainly will throw in one or two of those long runs of 25 miles or so if I’m training for a big ultra, but I certainly wouldn’t try to go LONGER just because I’m training for a race.  In my opinion, there is point on a run where you begin to cause your body more harm than benefit.  For me that point is right around 20 miles.  

Some of the training plans I’ve seen, such as the Hal Koerner plan referenced above, substantiate this to some extent by recommending nearly identical long runs for 50-mile training and 100-mile training.

My conclusion on the long run: if you can throw down a solid 25-35 mile training effort and still feel good the next day then you are probably in a good position for any race distance above 50-miles.  

Nutrition

From what I’ve witnessed in my years as a runner, most of us can run for a few hours without the need for any hardcore nutrition.  We all need to drink, but most of us can run for at least two to three hours without food just burning what is stored in our bodies.  I’ve seen some fast runners at some of our races complete a 50K without eating a crumb.  When you are finishing that 50K in just barely four hours you can get by with that I guess!  Once we get past that 4, 5, or 6-hour mark we all inevitably need to take in some form of caloric substance.  Water and even liquid nutrition like electrolyte drink will not be enough for most runners although some bodies do in fact function just fine in a race on primarily liquid nutrition.  Must be nice!

For me, that mark is right around 4 hours.  If I’m doing a long run in the morning and I ate a nice fatty breakfast (like an avocado and a couple eggs) prior to the run then I can usually go for 3-4 hours without eating anything.  So, I think it is important for all runners to find that mark.  I’m not saying you need to take yourself into the deep end of the pool on a training run where you are depleted and exhausted as you might be in a race.  But find out where the water starts to get deeper.  When do you start getting hungry?  When do you start feeling fatigued due to lack of energy from food?  What does that feel like, and what are your steps to pull yourself out of that space?  What tastes good to you early in a run that turns your stomach after a few hours?  Are there food items you can stomach better on warm days versus cold days or vice versa?  These are all things that need to be addressed in training.  As I said in the previous section, however, this is not necessary in EVERY training plan.  If you’ve already figured this stuff out over years of training, it may not be necessary anymore for every single training plan.  

Race Management

The big difference I see in a 50-mile race versus a 100-mile race is how the two races must be managed differently.  Most of us can do a 50 Miler solo: no crew, no pacer.  Depending on the start time, difficulty, and time of year a 50 Miler will have a few hours of headlight time at most.  100 Milers, on the other hand, are much tougher to manage.  There are a lot of details to work out.  Unless you are truly elite you can expect to run a 100 Miler in the dark for a long time.  Maybe even all night.  100s are also much tougher to do without a crew.  Though it can be done, running a 100 Miler without crew leaves you totally dependent on the preparations you make prior to the race and gives you very little room for adapting your plan should things go off the rails.  

Nutrition and hydration need to be handled very differently as well when comparing the two distances.  A 100-mile race is a longer, slower, more grueling affair that forces the runner to think in much longer terms about when they eat/drink, what they eat/drink, and how they access it.  Let’s try an example.  Let’s say you are a gel person.  That’s what you primarily use as your fuel during a race.  You are having one of those weird race days when the gels just aren’t staying down and by mile 40 you just can’t stomach them anymore.  Well in a 50 Miler - as long as you are not pushing cut-offs - you can probably just muscle through the next 10 miles and cross the finish line.  If that happens in a 100 Miler, then what do you do?  You aren’t even halfway done yet.  Worse yet, what if you are doing it solo and all you have along the course ahead of you are drop bags full of gels?  Those problems have nothing to do with your training or physical fitness.  Those problems are solely addressed by your race management and logistical preparations.

What Do You Think?

I started this article by stating pretty clearly that this is all OPINION.  I have no real credentials other than experience to suggest anything regarding physical fitness.  So, I would love to hear what you think!  Is training for a 50 Miler that different than training for a 100 Miler in terms of your physical fitness?  Of course there are many other factors to consider when stepping up to a hundo, but if you can handle 50 physically can you handle 100?  Tell me your opinions!

Michael Whisman4 Comments