• Coach 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 cont