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The "Couch to Trail 50K" Training Plan

Updated: May 23, 2023

Finish Line celebrations

Treeline Endurance athlete Shae Rhinehart recently wrapped up a demanding training cycle leading to her biggest goal to date: finish her first race longer than a marathon. She chose the Daybreak Racing Wy’East Howl 50K in Mount Hood, Oregon-- a race over 31 miles long including 6,000 vertical feet of ascent and descent, all at an already-high altitude.

If the race itself wasn’t challenge enough, she had chosen this as her first major “A” race in the wake of a two-year long knee injury that had sidelined her from running almost entirely. She had big goals on an aggressive timeline, and wasn’t going to be talked into a more approachable first-race-back.

When Shae asked if I could train her for this mountain-sized return to the sport, I was honest with her. “It’ll be a go-big or go-home sort of buildup”.

A shorter event at a distance she had already run-- perhaps a marathon-- would put her at a much lower risk of overtraining or worse, reaggravation of her injury.

“I’ve been waiting to run my first 50K for over two years already”, Shae told me. “This is the only kind of race I’m interested in”.

Six months later, Shae’s a first-time ultra finisher who all but danced across the finish of her 50K. She had a spring in her step and a smile on her face the whole way. Her goal of under-10 hours was eclipsed by her final time of 7 hours and 59 minutes.

“She looks like she could have run 50 miles!” a close friend of Shae told me after the race.

So how did we get there, and what can we all take away from Shae’s incredible Couch-to-50K comeback?

Train General, Train Specific

Shae’s return to sport was gradual. After over a year of trying to battle back from Runner’s Knee, she found herself looking at MRIs and on the cusp of surgery. “They found a slight tear in my meniscus, but not severe enough for them to know if surgery was really the answer”.

She was spared the knife by intensive physiotherapy over the coming year, and had only just begun to run gently two or three times per week when she approached me about training for an ultra. We had just a touch under 6 months to get her trained up. Here is what that ended up looking like:

Building from injury to consistency

Six months is long and short. Most of us are used to the more traditional 3-4 month cycle duration, but when you start to factor in a total rebuild after two years out and an event more strenuous that 99.5% of humans will attempt, 6 months starts to seem a bit less forgiving. This would also be the most demanding event Shae herself had ever attempted, so rebounding fitness from pre-injury would only get us so far.

Periodization for a well-rounded foundation

Ultramarathon Periodization

Especially when returning from a long layoff from running, it’s smart to cover all of your bases. The potential for fitness improvement is high in all areas after time away, and it’s best to make sure you avoid major gaps in general running base fitness. After all, the best sprinters still have long runs, and the best marathoners still run sprint workouts. Our training for Wy’East included a strength and power-focused periods, a high-aerobic period, and a tempo/stamina period.

It’s common to see a high-volume, low intensity aerobic base period in the mix as well, but this was omitted for Wy’East training. More on this next.

Demand-specific training as race day closes in

Our base periodization in preparation for Wy’East was decidedly speed-focused in the early stages. Somewhat counterintuitively, this is normal for a multi-hour, ultra-type event. As we moved closer to race day, we progressed into much more race-specific training. A major component of an event that’s expected to be 8-10 hours long is aerobic base fitness, which is why we didn’t focus on it sooner. Throughout the entire cycle, Shae’s training was tinted with higher volume and lower intensity that was gradually emphasized more as race day approached.

This last period of race-specific training can take on a lot of different looks for reasons the term “race-specific” suggests. We looked at the exact demands of Shae’s event and tailored these weeks and months to really tune her in for those unique strains. Most notably, her event was long (31 miles, 8+ hours) and vertical (over 6,000 feet of climbing and descending in that distance). As Shae’s event approached, her training included some really key workouts in adapting to those features of the race with a reduction in workout intensity so her body could still sustain those training demands.

As supplement to these training pillars, Shae followed a regular strength training routine and maintained an ongoing relationship with her physical therapist. These elements were critical to supporting our aggressive ramp up in training.

Lessons from Shae

Pre-Race Discussions
Photo: @dpmarty_photo

There’s no question that Shae’s first trail ultra was a success well beyond our greatest hopes, and we are already planning for the next one. So what did we learn from her incredible performance?

1. Every athlete has strengths that will soon shine through.

There’s not one type of athlete. There are almost always particular aspects to running that we have a knack for, either due to genetic components, training history, or even psychology. Shae proved to be a high adapter in the aerobic components of training, which works very well for the sort of event she chose, and our training for the next race can be reflective of that realization.

2. Imperfect training can lead to perfect results.

Our training during this past cycle, and in almost any training cycle with any athlete, was not always ideal. The plan needs to change to fit the athlete’s life. There were some late-stage adjustments to our training and some key workouts went missed. At the time, missing these key workouts was unnerving, but we adjusted thoughtfully for these rather than blindly pushing ahead. As a result, Shae still had a very successful race.

3. Elements of trail fitness might be best developed on the road.

It’s my opinion that some aspects of trail fitness can be enhanced by the right road running workouts. It goes back to supporting well-rounded fitness. Trail running will always be a key feature in trail ultra training, but sprinkling some road speed in gave her an edge on race day.

Finally, I’d urge us all to keep Shae’s story in mind for when we hit our own obstacles in sport. She has been an example to me of what is possible just around the corner from major injury. It’s hard to stay positive during the low, but a new personal best could be just a training cycle away.

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