Speed for Ultras

You’re training for an ultra, 50 or 100 miles. Are you doing speed training? You may wonder why you should. After all, you’ll be running pretty slow, even walking. How can speed training help?

Speed training can improve:

  • ·        Cardiovascular efficiency;
  • ·        Muscle strength;
  • ·        Stride efficiency.

Cardio: The bigger the size of your engine – volume of blood your heart pumps with each stroke – the more oxygen and fuel you can deliver to your body more easily. This is true at any effort level. A stronger heart will allow you to go faster and use less energy at a lower, ultra effort level.

Strength: Faster running engages muscle fibers you don’t normally use when running slower, and builds general muscle strength. That’s important for two reasons. First, when running an ultra, your muscles preferentially start by using the efficient slow twitch fibers. As they become fatigued, you will begin to use the less efficient oxidative, and then non-oxidative fast twitch muscles. When you run that long, you are going to need a lot more of your muscle fibers than in shorter races. Make them stronger now, and they will be strong for you when you need them in an ultra.

Second, a big factor in how fast you run is the percentage of muscle fibers you engage with each stride. At slow speeds, a small percentage of your fibers are working. Go faster, and more of your fibers have to engage. Train more to work, and you will have a stronger stride (i.e., faster pace) even at lower effort levels.

Efficiency: The less time your foot is on the ground, the more efficient your stride is. The longer your foot is on the ground, the more energy/inertia you lose, and the more energy it takes to generate forward momentum. You need just enough to let your muscles coil like a spring and then spring back, returning as much energy as possible to your motion. Far too many ultra runners, spend far too much time, using nothing but a slow, ultra-shuffle in training. At the 2004 Leadville 100 Run, I was able to witness Matt Carpenter running up the back side of Hope Pass (yes running) as I was heading down. His stride was short and very quick, almost like he was springing up the trail; very efficient. Train to have a faster turnover at faster speeds, and you will have a faster turnover at ultra paces.

Getting started

If you haven’t been doing any fast running, then first start with some drills.

Striders: Striders are short sprints where you step as quickly as you can. It’s about stride speed, not absolute speed; i.e., don’t try to run fast, try to step fast. Think of it like running on hot coals; pick your foot off the ground as quickly as you can after it lands. Make your stride rate quicker than is comfortable.

Build your speed for the first half, then carry it through to the end. Jog easy for about the same distance, or about twice the time in between; close to a full recovery. On the track, sprint the straights and jog the curves. Off track, do ~20-30 sec hard, 40-60 sec easy. You shouldn’t be struggling to maintain your speed or breathing during this.

DON’T REACH! Keep your stride short and make sure your foot lands under your body, not in front of it. It might help to keep your stride short by doing striders on a slight grade, but it shouldn’t be a hard run. It should be easy on the muscles.

Always do striders (and all speed training or racing) after a good warm-up, such as towards the middle or end of an easy, short-medium length run. Striders are also great to do before intervals (or a race), after your warm-up and drills, and just before you run hard.

Starting out, you may want to start with just 6 striders/workout, 2x/week. You can increase them to 10-12 or more over time. Striders should be continued throughout your training, including during tapering.

Hill Sprints: Hill sprints are short, hard sprints, up steep hills. They are designed to build strength, engage fast twitch muscles, and promote stride efficiency. Hills increase the workload on the muscles, while reducing the stress on joints, bones and connective tissues.

Use a powerful stride, driving your knees up and forward, parallel to the slope, keeping your stride quick and short. Drive your arms back hard, like you’re elbowing someone in the gut behind you, to help drive your knees.

Start with 6-10 sec sprints. You need them that short to really focus the work on the non-oxidative fast twitch muscle fibers. Keeping them short also allows you to stride at a very fast rate. Take a full recovery (~1 minute) between sprints. This is not about breathing hard.

These are generally done early in the season, after a few weeks of easy, base building. Start with 6 sprints/workout, 2x/week. If you’re well into your training already, and aren’t sore, you can move to the linger hill sprints after a couple of weeks. Otherwise, and especially if you’ve never done any speed training, continue doing these for 4-6 weeks, or longer if they make you sore.

Use the steepest, run-able hill, perhaps 10%+. By run-able, I mean not so steep that you aren’t able to run, and not rocky that you have to alter your strides; the smoother the better (how it feels is more important than the precise grade). The hill should be steeper with the shortest sprints, and slightly less so as you go longer. If you don’t live near hills, be creative by using things like parking garage ramps, overpasses, stairs, or a treadmill.

Then progress to 20-40 sec sprints. These slightly longer sprints add more strength, and promote a faster stride over longer distances.

Use a slightly less steep hill, perhaps 6%-8%. Run a little less hard than the 6-10 sec sprints. Focus as much on leg turnover and form as on power. Run hard until your legs start to tighten up and your stride starts to slow – this usually happens around 20-30 sec – then just a few more strides (3-5). Your last few strides should take a lot of focus to maintain your form and rate, but you shouldn’t feel dead at the end. If your stride breaks down, you’ve gone too far.

As you transition form the shorter sprints, first substitute one of these per week, then both. Over time, you should be able to maintain your stride longer and extend the sprints to 40+ sec.

For cardio strength, I prefer VO2Max intervals (zone 5 for those playing the hr game). VO2Max intervals are typically 3-5 min hard (more fit runners can extend this to 6 min, less fit can go as short as 2 min), at a 15-20min race effort, with ~50% recovery time. Stressing the heart and lungs, as well as the oxygen delivery system (down to the smallest blood vessels reaching the muscles) at higher effort levels gives the greatest returns to increasing stroke volume. 3-5 min gives you enough time at the level without over stressing; relatively short recovery allows you to repeat the stress, and get the effort level into the target zone quickly.

I’m not a big fan of tempo runs, or lactate threshold (zone 4, LT) training for ultras. While LT training does stress the heart/lungs, the main focus of LT training (as opposed to other speed training) is that it  works on lactate tolerance. Lactate is a fuel source as well as a byproduct, and your ability to process lactate is important at high effort levels. Since you shouldn’t be anywhere close to that level in an ultra, LT training isn’t necessary for ultras (except, perhaps, for elite runners at 50km distance). It’s not that it’s bad, but the higher, shorter VO2Max efforts promote greater capacity improvements.

Speed training is not without risks. Running fast puts greater strain on the muscles, and can lead to pulls and strains. So, follow these guidelines:

  • Start with striders and hill sprints to condition your legs to speed before doing VO2Max intervals. If you haven’t done any fast running, you may need a 1-2 months of conditioning.
  • Warm-up well. Muscles need to be warm literally, loose, and the blood vessels expanded before they can handle demands of high intensity running. Warming up means starting with a slow jog, and gradually increasing the pace, allowing the blood vessels to expand, blood to flow through the muscles, and the fibers to warm up. The colder it is, the earlier in the morning it is, or the longer you’ve been sitting, the more warm-up you will need. I usually warm-up for at least 10 minutes in the summer, and as much as 15-20 min when it’s cold. I start from as slow as I can go jogging, and gradually increase to my long run pace/effort. Then I do some striders, to get my legs moving fast and expand my lungs and blood vessels. Then, I hold back a little on the first interval.
  • Keep your stride short and quick. Don’t reach with your legs. Speed really comes from leg turnover, not from reaching. It may take thinking about shortening your stride – I think of running on hot coals – but as you stride and go faster, your stride length will actually increase, and your legs will still strike under your body.
  • If you feel any sudden pains or twinges in your muscles or joints, immediately slow down or stop. That may mean that you’re over-extending your stride, that you didn’t warm up enough for the conditions, that your muscles are tired and over-stressed from too much training and/or not enough rest, or that you’re muscles aren’t ready for intervals quite yet. Back off, and try again another day.

If all you do is long, slow, plodding, ultra miles, then all you learn to run is a long, slow, plodding pace & stride. Add some speed to your training and watch your power, efficiency, and speed increase.

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2 thoughts on “Speed for Ultras

  1. Very well put. I would comment that for myself, tempo runs do make me more efficient after months of LSD (faster at the same heartrate), and helps me safely segway into riskier intervals. Also, resistance training can be done in early base training to give you stronger fibers than hill work alone (but weight work is not a substitute for running).

    • I don’t disagree with you. Tempo can be a good transition into harder stuff. However, you can, and probably should (especially for experienced runners) do some of the sprints during your LSD phase. You certainly can be doing striders almost from the beginning; you need some fast leg turnover stuff. Then, towards the middle of that phase, you can start adding the hill sprints. This would eliminate, at least greatly reduce the need for using tempo as a transition.

      The main reason I really made the no tempo comment is that for the few (my perception is that most don’t) ultra runners who actually do any speed work, many of them are doing tempo because that’s what they know from 1/2 & full marathon training. Few even think about the benefit from harder VO2Max stuff.

      Resistance and cycling can help, but they’re not substitutes for the sport specific muscle development from running.

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