There’s only a few miles between a road marathon and a trail 50K. In my experience, however, they have more differences than similarities.
Training. The training for a road marathon and for a 50K looks similar. Generally speaking, you can get by with a maximum long run of 16-20 miles, and a peak week somewhere between 40 and 50 miles. Unlike marathon training, preparing for an ultra involves running back to back long runs on the weekends to practice running on tired legs. The training also primarily takes place on trails, because most ultras are also on trails. Since trails often involve elevation and technical terrain, you’ll find you spend more time on your feet during ultra training than marathon training.
Nutrition. In a marathon you can, and often will, hit the wall somewhere between mile 18-20. However, at that point you can pretty much drag yourself through the final 10K. That won’t cut it during an ultra, though. The ultra demands more, nutrition-wise. You’re going to be out there for longer, and that means consuming more calories. The good news is that since you’re running at a lower intensity, your GI system is usually able to accept more foods. You also typically end up up eating more ‘real food’ instead of gels. Running an ultra can kind of become an eating contest with a little running thrown in.
Recovery. Road marathons involve more pounding on your body, whereas a trail ultra is going to be more forgiving due to the softer surface. The marathon demands that you run at a certain intensity, and typically uses a certain set of muscle groups the whole time. During an ultra you are running at a lower intensity but you usually use a wider range of muscles. Because of this, I have found that your muscles recover faster from a trail ultra. But when it comes to your body as a whole, I think a road marathon has the faster recovery.
In the end, if you’re choosing between the two it’s totally a personal choice. I don’t think you can say for certain that one is harder than the other. It’s comparing apples and oranges. As for me… my heart lies with the trail 50K. I’ve had a blast at the two road marathons I’ve run, but I don’t see myself running any more of those in the immediate future. However, I do see myself running another 50K in the future.
And by that I mean tomorrow!! I’m nervous and excited and I sure hope I’m ready for this. Here I go again!
If you have run a road marathon and a trail ultra, how would you compare them?