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Making a Road Marathoner out of a Trail Ultra-marathoner

“After several months of big mountain climbs and descents, runs in remote woods, and racing trail ultras of 50 km to 100 miles, it was now time to train for a road marathon. Yikes.”

~Me, a few months ago

Mark after finishing the Philadelphia Marathon. Mark transitioned to road training after a heavy Summer on the trails.

At Golden Endurance, we coach athletes of all surfaces and distances in running. But there is often some unease with transitioning back and forth between road and trail racing (speaking for myself here too). Have no fear. Transitioning from racing trail ultras to racing a road marathon takes a few adjustments and can be a lot of fun. Let’s look at the differences between the requirements of each, and how these differences might affect training.

1. The Marathon Cadence vs. The Ultra Shuffle

A runner’s speed consists of their stride length and stride cadence. During marathons, runners use a much more consistent and usually higher running cadence than during the undulating or slower paces of ultras.

Training Considerations:

  • Short (30 secs -1 min) high intensity fast intervals at the start of marathon training helps to readjust to quicker leg turnover and higher cadence.

  • Strides (or very short and fast 20-30 sec intervals) throughout training help to make the increase in cadence feel more natural.

2. Marathon Intensity vs. Ultramarathon Intensity

During a marathon, a typical runner will run at around 70-80% of their Vo2Max (a runner’s maximum rate of oxygen consumption attainable). During an ultra, runners might only reach this level of intensity for small bouts of time.

Training Considerations:

  • Ultramarathoners often have underdeveloped top end capacity (Vo2Max). Coming out of ultramarathon season, runners may not have trained this area of focus for quite some time.

  • A couple blocks of Vo2Max focused training towards the beginning of marathon training develops and increases this capacity. These workouts are high intensity intervals of 2- 4 minutes.

3. Speed Maintenance vs. Variable Speed

During a marathon, a runner’s ideal pacing is as close to uniform as possible throughout the race. During a trail ultra, a runner speed varies due to a number of factors: non-uniform terrain, the fatigue of the longer distance, aid station stops, equipment changes, etc.

Training Considerations:

  • Longer intervals at marathon pace or a bit below should be the focus in the block leading up to race day.

  • Tempo runs (sometimes known as threshold runs), are another key area of focus for marathon training. These runs include 20-40 minutes at a consistent high effort, a bit below marathon pace.

  • Closer to race day, long runs incorporate miles at marathon pace, so that a runner is building their capacity to maintain a uniform race specific pace.

4. Race Specific Considerations

Training should include adjustments that are specific to the unique demands of the race. Coming off a season of ultras, there are a few specific environmental and nutritional demands of a road marathon to keep in mind.

Training Considerations:

  • A road marathon is…SURPRISE…on roads. This might be a much harder surface than a trail ultramarathoner is used to. Much more or most of the training should be done on similar harder surfaces.

  • Nutrition should focus almost exclusively on carbohydrates. Marathons require a higher level of intensity than ultras, which means runners will utilize a higher proportion of carbohydrates (compared to fats) as fuel during races.

Trail runners sometimes have a strong opinion of road running, as if you have to pick a side. But don't forget about the other non-obvious benefits of the transition:

  • There tends to be more road running groups and runners in general to run with. New friends!

  • Road running tends to be a bit easier to fit into life. Your family, friends, spouse, partner, boss, etc. might even thank you for the transition. .

  • Roads give a chance to explore new neighborhoods, and to start and end runs at wonderful places like your own front door.

  • Marathons give an excuse to finally buy one of those pairs of goofy looking road super shoes.

  • It’s socially acceptable to run a marathon. Running 50km or more is kind of…weird.

Change can be rejuvenating. Don’t shy away from exploring the roads if you’re a trail runner that hears the call. Happy running, wherever it is!

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