Couch to 50k: Training Plan and Complete Guide

You’ve decided to take on an inspiring goal, a couch to 50k ultramarathon!

Now, if you have never run before, this will be a long-term goal as there is nothing more important than taking it step by step. Skipping over crucial building blocks can lead to injury or just plain old burnout.

If done correctly, this process should be exciting, fun, and enjoyable!

In this article, we are going to discuss:

  • How long does it take to go from the couch to 50k? 
  • What should a couch to 50k training plan entail?
  • Tips for training for a couch to 50k.

Ready to take on this awesome adventure? 

Let’s jump in!

man completing a race

What is a 50k ultramarathon?

50k is the first big step into the world of ultramarathons, being any race over 42k or 26.2 miles. The majority of 50ks are trail races, which adds another difficulty level. We don’t just need to knock out the mileage but look at a hefty list of further details specific to trail running.

How long does it take to go from the couch to 50k?

This is a tricky question because it depends on your current lifestyle quite a lot.

If you are a moderately active person, 6 months should be enough time to prepare yourself to finish a 50k. Keep in mind that this length of training time is to complete the 50k, not compete in the 50k. Two very different objectives. 

If you are not active, you should consider taking a month or two before beginning and start with some light physical activity, such as walking. Hence, the transition is not too abrupt. 

As a running coach, I would prefer that a runner dominates each distance first, 5k, 10k, 21k, 42k, before running a 50k.

When I say “dominate,” I refer to finishing well instead of feeling completely burnt out and barely crossing the finish line. Therefore, my ideal training time to feel great running a 50k would be between 12 and 18 months. 

But today, we are focusing on just finishing the 50k. So 6 months it is! We will discuss how to build up your strength and mileage over six months to cross that 50k finish line.

One of my top goals as a coach is that my athletes enjoy their races. In the case of a couch to 50k training plan, that will mean there will be a considerable amount of walking. Mountain terrain and elevation gain, even at minimum in a 50k ultra, will slow down our paces considerably. 

We’ll dig into this more later.

legs running in woods

How To Choose A First 50k Ultramarathon

As you embark on this journey, one of the first steps is choosing and signing up for your 50k. This will make your goal tangible and push you to get training right away. When selecting your race, consider the following aspects: 

  • Total Elevation Gain: Choose a race that does not have an immense total vertical gain. Later on, if you want to become a steep-hill junkie, there are plenty of races out there for you, but to start, choose something more runnable.
  • Weather: Choose a climate that you are accustomed to running in. Extreme heat or cold will affect your experience. If the race has hot and humid conditions, you run the risk of dehydration. On the other hand, shivering throughout the race is also not ideal.

You want to be as comfortable as possible during your first 50k so you can focus on the most important thing, running! Between 8-15 degrees celsius is the ideal running condition for most. 

  • Altitude: If you are not used to running at high altitudes, it’s not the best idea to choose a race at 10,000 feet. For your first 50k, choose an area with an altitude similar to where you live. This way, your body is already accustomed to the conditions, and you won’t run the risk of a headache, dizziness, or shortness of breath, all symptoms of altitude sickness.
a man running on rocks

5 key aspects of a Couch to 50k Training Plan

As a beginner, it’s crucial to take everything step by step. Here are some main aspects to focus on while training for your first 50k and general training plan set up guidelines.

#1: Running Form

Take advantage of the fact that you are a beginner and learn the correct running form and posture from the get-go. This will help you run efficiently and lower your risk of injury during the process.

#2: Mileage

Our goal is to just cross over that finish line; therefore, the main focus in our couch to 50k training plan is volume. This total volume needs to increase ever so slightly as we go, taking necessary taper and rest weeks to avoid overdoing it. 

In a couch to 50k training plan, your focus will be Zone 1 Training: running at a comfortable conversation pace. This means you should be able to speak to someone as you run without getting out of breath. Sometimes we think that “running” should always be fast, so if it helps, think of it as “jogging.” 

Let’s take a look at a general training outline of each training cycle according to distance. You can find our different training plans by clicking on each distance in the table:

DistanceApproximate Cycle DurationTraining Notes
5k4-6 weeksWalk/Run Method
Approximate total mileage per week: 6-9 miles

2 sessions of strength training
3 sessions of walk/run 
2 rest days

Focus on building up mileage slowly as you increase your running time and decrease your walking time.
10k 6 weeksZone 1 Training: 
Approximate total mileage per week: 9-12 miles

2 sessions of strength training
2 sessions of running at conversation pace 
1 long run at conversation pace
2 rest days (1 could be active recovery)
21k6 weeks Zone 1 Training 
Approximate total mileage per week: 16-24 miles

2 sessions of strength training
3 sessions of running at conversation pace 
1 trail long run at conversation pace
1 rest day 
50k 10 weeks Zone 1 Training 
Approximate total mileage per week: 25-45 miles

2 sessions of strength training
3-4 sessions of running at conversation pace 
1 trail long run at conversation pace
1 rest day (1 day of strength and running together)
When you’re ready, head to the full 24-week (6-month) in-depth 50K training plan, available to download for free.
a lady squatting in running gear

#3: Strength Training

I can’t stress enough how important it is to mix strength training into your running plan, especially for beginners. Muscles and joints need to become stronger to support the new exercise load you are putting on your body. 

You don’t even need a gym as most exercises can be done with your body weight. Take a look at some of the most common strength training exercises for runners here.

#4: Rest Days

Rest days are just as important as training days. You need to give your body the time to recuperate and prepare for the next big training week. Taking one or two recovery weeks after reaching each new distance is also important to lower mileage and not overdo it.

#5: Long Runs

Starting out, you can do your long runs on the road, so you work up your endurance and run consistently for a prolonged period. Later on, you will want to incorporate trail long runs to practice hiking, tricky terrain, and hills. We don’t want too many surprises on race day.

a man and woman walking in a park

6 Tips When training For Your First 50k

#1 Don’t Worry About Speed

Mileage is what you need to focus on for your first 50k. We don’t need to be concerned with running “fast” but running “comfortably.” During your first 50k, your ideal effort level will be zone 1 and 2. This will ensure you don’t burn out and cross the finish line. 

Also, in trail running, there is a lot of walking. We have to hike up hills and across rugged terrain, so don’t worry about walking! It’s completely acceptable in the mountains; even the pros do it. 

The rate of perceived exertion is a standard method of measuring your effort level when running trails. We can’t possibly focus on the pace when the terrain, weather, and hills directly affect how fast we run. Take a look at our RPE chart here to calculate your effort levels.

#2 Learn To Fuel

A crucial aspect of running these distances, especially in the mountains, is that you will need to fuel correctly. Not just hydration, but nutrition as well. Take a look at these articles to help you plan your ultramarathon hydration and nutrition strategy.

a man drinking water from a bottle

#3 Run With Friends

Get a friend or family member to take on this incredible feat with you. It’s much easier to stay motivated and train regularly when you have someone to suffer, I mean have fun with! If you can’t find anyone brave enough for the challenge, you can always look for running clubs in your area to find people to at least share your long runs with.

#4 Take It Step By Step

It’s easy to get overly excited about our running, and we will most likely want to rush the process. It’s important to follow your plan and not overdo it. If we do too much too fast, we risk injury, which is the last thing we want to prepare for our first ultra!

#5 Get Sports Massages

Your body may be mad at you as you stray from your sedentary lifestyle and launch yourself into the running world. Your muscles will tense up, and you will need to get sports massages to release the tension. I recommend 1-2 massages per month, so the load doesn’t become too much and end up causing unnecessary pain.

a leg being massaged

#6 Get The Right Gear

We aren’t talking about a few kilometers anymore; we’re talking about 50! Therefore, it’s important to have the following: 

  • Running-specific clothes and socks
  • A running vest 

Being well-prepared will make the journey easier! 

I know I have wholly pumped you with a ton of information, but isn’t this exciting? To finish off, here is a start-line checklist, so you are sure to bring everything you need to your first big ultra. 

Good luck!

Now you understand everything that’s required to smash your first 50k, head to the 24-week (6-month) in-depth 50K training plan – specifically designed for first-time, non-competitive ultrarunners whose main goal is to cross the finish line!

a man and woman running on a mountain ridge at sunset

Photo of author
Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community, she is known for her ear-to-ear smile, even under the toughest racing conditions. She is a UESCA-certified running coach and loves sharing her knowledge and experience to help people reach their goals and become the best runners they can be. Her biggest passion is to motivate others to hit the trails or road alongside her, have a blast, and run for fun!

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