Ultrarunning: Difference between Marathons and 50 Milers

July 11, 2011

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Difference between Marathons and 50 Milers”, please leave it below in the comments section…

On the surface it may seem like the only notable difference between a standard marathon and a 50 Miler is distance. But those extra miles can inflict significant consequences on your body both during training and the race itself. If you happen to be at a crossroads and don’t know which of the two types of races to pursue this year, or if you actually plan to do both, it might be helpful to first step back and examine the factors involved.

Mileage base

Whether you’re going for a standard road marathon like Boston or looking to do your first 50, building up your weekly mileage base is fundamental. Various methods have been proposed on how to effectively achieve this. What seems to be the common denominator among them is that increasing the weekly mileage should be done gradually and in small increments. How far you can push this naturally depends on your current condition and state of mind. The number varies with each runner.

The focus of your mileage build-up depends on which of the two types of races you plan to enter. Long running is definitely the core training activity for ultras while improving time is probably the bigger issue for marathons. It’s been said by some veterans of both marathons and ultras that there is an upper limit in each runner’s weekly mileage base beyond which there is little beneficial effect on performance times during the actual race. What actually improves is endurance and subsequently, post-race recovery times.


You probably already know how important this aspect is in training for a race. Even the most conditioned athletes need to taper. This is a major consideration if you plan to do a marathon and an ultra in the same year. You need to put enough time between the events for your body to recover. Of course how much that is going to be entirely depends on how well your body heals. As mentioned above, a high weekly mileage base can toughen you up. For some it takes no more than three weeks while for others it could be longer.

Dissimilar goals

Some runners who try to do both races, plan on using one event as a sort of training platform for the other. Usually the 50 miler is done first and serves as the training for the standard marathon. This could be a viable strategy and some veterans actually propose this approach. But you have to remember that you’re going to be running differently for each type of race.

If it’s your first 50 miler, you’re likely to do more combinations of slow running and fast walking. While for the standard marathon, you’re probably going to be more concerned about your speed. Running a 50 miler can certainly improve your endurance and make the 26 plus miles of a marathon seem so much easier. However it could also shift your conditioning away from your time and distance goals for the marathon. Don’t be surprised if you actually find yourself running slower once you get to that race.

There are runners who are talented or experienced enough to actually pursue these dissimilar goals inherent in the difference between marathons and 50 milers. Still, chances for success are always higher when you give everything you have to a single objective.


Do you have questions about marathon and 50 miler differences, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

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