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  • Writer's pictureCoach Jacob Puzey

Speed Work for Ultrarunners

Most of us look forward to racing as a means of testing our limits. When we pin on a bib number we hope to do more than merely endure the experience – we want to endure it well. So what can we do in preparation for an upcoming endurance event to improve our performance?

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, the need to increase stamina and strength are paramount in distance running. But what role, if any, does speed work play?

The value of speed work for distance runners has long been disputed. Even today when many of the more competitive ultras are won by those who implement speed work in one form or another into their training routine, some naysayers insist that there is absolutely no need for speed work in ultra training. This age-old debate can be attributed, in part, to semantics and, in part, to culture.

Speed work, when defined as ‘anything shorter and faster than goal race pace/distance is quite broad. When we are talking about marathon or ultra pace and distances this could include most if not all running done in training. If this definition of speed work is too broad, we can narrow it to ‘any effort in training designed to increase efficiency or the athlete’s ability to cover ground at a faster rate.’

It is doubtful that anyone training for a 100 mile race never trains faster than his/her goal race pace. It is rarer that anyone training for a 100 mile race does not do shorter races at a quicker clip than goal 100 mile pace to practice racing without going to the well. According to the aforementioned definitions, these shorter, faster races qualify as speed work. They are shorter and faster than goal race pace and distance and they are run as a means of preparing the mind and body to ultimately cover the goal race distance at a faster pace than what one could do without such race simulations.

Ironically, it is not uncommon that some of the same people who regularly run shorter, faster races insist that there is no benefit to including speed work in a training plan in preparation for an ultra distance race. Yet, based on the definitions above that is exactly what they are practicing.

Perhaps, by speed work those who claim to oppose it mean ‘fast repeats on a track.’ But if the definition of speed work is contingent upon being run on a track it doesn’t take long to find very fast people who do plenty of quick training designed to increase speed off of a standard 400m track.

Cross country, and its close cousin, mountain running, consist of competitive, fast, relatively short competitions. Many of the world’s best cross country and mountain runners train at high intensities entirely off road and off a synthetic 400m track. However, you would be hard pressed to find one of them who does not implement ‘speed work’ in some form into their training.

Many of those who excelled at the shorter cross country, track, road and mountain races have made the transition to ultra racing in recent years – Sage Canaday, Rob Krar, Max King, Jim Wamsley, and Cody Reed – to name a few. While their speed isn’t always their most valuable asset, it doesn’t seem to hurt them when they get to the last quarter of a race and it is time to shift gears.

Fartlek workout with some of the high schoolers I coached. Photo by the Hermiston Herald.

Another argument against ‘speed work’ comes from cultural purists who believe that ‘structured training’ diminishes the organic nature of trail and ultra running by tarnishing it with the record setting mentality of track or road running. Yet, that argument does not diminish the fact that with or without a structured training program, each of us feels better on some days than others and naturally do some runs faster and harder than others.

Whether we consciously or unconsciously surge up a hill or feel inspired as we run along a new stream of snow runoff or get spooked by critters along the trail we vary our pace and intensity – ultimately preparing our bodies to run faster.

If the definition of speed work is contingent upon being ‘structured’ it doesn’t take long to find very fast people who do plenty of training designed to increase speed off road without being tied to a monolithic training plan. The Swedish term, fartlek, is not just an awkward word to utter in mixed company. It is at the essence of what it means to run by feel – by integrating speed as play into your general aerobic work.

If one were to pole the most competitive 50K finishers one would likely find that they all employ at least some combination of speed work (whether formally or informally) into their training. The argument still holds true for top 50 milers and 100 milers. While the surfaces, paces, and distances may change and the structure of the workouts may differ, every competitive runner pushes their body to improve.

One of the most accomplished North American ultra runners of a generation, Geoff Roes, discussed his philosophies about speed work in Bryon Powell’s, Relentless Forward Progress: A guide to Running Ultramarathons (2011, 40-46) in an article entitled “The Need for Speed?: Why Speed Training is Unnecessary for Ultramarathons.”

In his article, Roes contends that the ability to run a fast marathon does not translate to fast 50 and 100 mile performances due to the fact that the vast majority of road marathoners “get caught up thinking that training for a 50- or 100-miler is quite similar to training for a marathon . . . Running 50 or 100 miles is about strength and endurance. It’s about nutrition and hydration. It’s about patience, stubbornness, and determination. It’s about a lot of things, but it’s really not much about leg speed” (Powell, 41-42).

I agree with most of what Roes said above. However, I disagree with regard to the role of leg speed. Competing in ultras requires far more stamina and strength than a marathon or other shorter distances. However, in the same article, Roes admits to doing tempo runs as he lowers his mileage and increases the intensity toward a goal race. He also states that while his own foot speed is greater than that of Anton Krupicka, Anton does so much stamina and strength work that foot speed never even comes into play.

History has a way of correcting our assumptions. Unbreakable: The Western States 100 chronicles the historic showdown between 100 mile champions Hal Koerner, Geoff Roes, Anton Krupicka, and Kilian Jornet in 2010. As a foreshadowing of things to come, Roes - the former NCAA DI harrier - ran down and defeated the two-time Leadville champion, Krupicka. While Roes may believe that his foot speed did not contribute to his eventual win, any onlooker could see that Geoff was simply the more efficient runner over the final miles. Certainly, nutrition, stamina, strength, patience, and fortitude played HUGE roles, but none of us should be surprised that the eventual champion was also a former NCAA Division 1 cross country runner.

Let me be clear, Geoff is one of my heroes and a great ambassador of the sport. I love reading his blogs and appreciate his unassuming, humble demeanor. When I met him in only my second ultra ever, he was fresh off his historic win at the Western States 100 yet kind enough to let me try and hang with him despite not even knowing who he was.

Despite Geoff’s affable personality and ultra runner ethic, Geoff has a history of running fast at shorter distances. In his ultra running prime, Geoff was usually the best prepared athlete to toe the line. He spent time in the mountains, alone, under duress, for long periods of time on his feet learning how to survive and thrive. But in addition to his ascetic preparations, Geoff often had the best foot speed out of anyone late in the race. My only point here is that his leg speed didn’t seem to ever be a detriment once he learned that he couldn’t rely on leg speed alone or mere marathon training.

Although if pressed to do so, I would likely define the tempo running which Geoff admits to doing in preparation for a hard effort as ‘stamina work,’ I fear that those who read statements like Geoff’s subtitle – “Why speed training is unnecessary for ultra runners” – will assume that all training should be long slow slogs through the mountains when in reality even Geoff would argue that is absolutely not the case. It was not what led him to be so successful and it is why the sport is seeing such an influx of relatively fast post-collegiate runners who are willing to put in the time and requisite strength and stamina work in order to be there at the end when they will have to call on a kick.

It is why the likes of Dylan Bowman, Dakota Jones, and Chris Vargo who were not collegiate runners have begun working with coaches who prescribe threshold and fartlek runs. It is how Sage Canaday, Max King, and Rob Krar hang on to the super strong stamina guys and then drop sub six minute miles and leave them in their wake. And, yes, it is how the enigmatic Zach Miller burst onto the scene with seemingly no credentials other than a passport, thousands of miles logged at sea, and NCAA DIII running experience. They all incorporate hard running at shorter and faster intervals than goal race distance and pace – also known as speed work.

Speaking from my own experience as an ultra runner who grew into ultras by competing at shorter distances, I can simply attest to the HUGE mental and physical value that knowing your body is able to cover ground at a faster pace has in an ultra event.

A few years ago at the Peterson Ridge Rumble 40 Mile Trail Run I missed a clearly marked turn in the first ten miles of the race and got off course for about 10 minutes. Besides the early leader, twelve to fifteen people who had been behind were now ahead.

A few years ago I would have had to resist the pace driven competitor in me who would have wanted to throw a fit that I had missed the turn and lost so much time, but I’ve grown to accept and embrace such instances in ultras. Rather than freak out about lost time and shut down mentally, I determined to continue fueling well and work my way back into it. I knew that there were another three to four hours left of running. I figured if I had to I could probably run 30 to 60 seconds faster per mile than everyone who had pulled ahead of me when I missed the turn because that is probably how much further ahead of them I was before the turn. I had more than 30 miles to make up the ground which would be plenty of time and distance to do it. By simply returning to my casual early pace I’d gradually real in most of them. By mile 25, when I finally began to see the tail end of the lead pack I felt fresh and ready to pounce. When I got them in my sites I naturally started clipping off sub 6:00 miles for a couple of miles.

How was I able to run that pace so late in the race? Because 1) I hadn’t been killing myself to get to that point in the race – I had been fueling regularly and working my way into it – and 2) 6:00 pace was once considered easy for me when I was training for shorter, faster races. 3) I had the advantage of training with fast high school middle distance runners as their coach. When I regularly do strides, fartleks, and tempo workouts with them my speed and confidence increase. When the time comes to shift gears in ultras, if I have been fueling consistently I know that I can increase my speed to a quicker clip.

Now, I don’t share my own experience because I consider myself fast. I simply share it to relate the value of speed work in ultra training for a guy who currently isn't able to log HUGE miles, but is still able to compete in ultras. If we want to talk about someone who is really fast, imagine what it would be like to be Rob Krar. (I know most of us suffer from beard envy, but if I knew how to help you with that I'd have a better beard myself). What would it feel like to be a sub 4:00 miler cruising along at 7:00 pace in an ultra? When he has to drop a few sub 6:00 miles to run down an accomplished ultrarunner, that is still 2:00 per mile off of his maximal effort, so relatively speaking, it is still not that fast (for him).

Six minute mile pace was the pace Sage ran day after day after day on easy runs in Michigan when training with the Hansons Distance Project. It is the pace that most collegiate distance running guys do their easy runs at even when they aren’t supposed to. When these guys come out of college with some running background and they decide to cut their teeth on an ultra it is rarely the pace that kills them. It is usually the distance, or the altitude, or the terrain, or the nutrition. It is all of the things that Roes mentioned in his article. But when these same people address these other issues and train their bodies for stamina, strength, and skill, it is their leg speed and efficiency - a by-product of speed work - that ultimately get them to the podium.

Whether your goal is a podium finish at your next ultra or simply to finish, add some "speed work" to your training to increase running economy and make the experience more manageable.

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