Want to get faster at ultras? Train for a 5km

It’s been said that if you took all the runners at an ultra and had them run a 1mi race, the finishing order would look pretty much the same for both races. It’s not just that Nick, Ian, Rory and Ellie are fast in ultras, they are fast runners. If you watch them run, they look different, smoother and more efficient.

In 2004, I was able to watch Matt Carpenter (CR at Leadville, 15:42) run up the back side of Hope Pass as I was running down. His stride was light and quick as he seemed to float, almost effortlessly, up the incredibly steep climb.

Far too many ultra runners spend far too much time doing long, slow, plodding miles. While you may become somewhat better at the highly inefficient ultra shuffle at 15, 20 min/mi pace, you need to include some fast running to become more efficient and stronger, which will make you faster in ultras. Fast ultra runners learn how to run fast short before they learn how to run fast long.

Benefits of Speed Training

Training for speed will make your stride more biomechanically efficient, increase your cardiac output, and increase your leg strength. These improvements will carry over to ultra running.

Stride: When you run fast (properly), your stride rate is faster. Namely, your foot spends less time on the ground with each stride. That means that more of your momentum from each stride is carried forward to the next one. More momentum means less energy is needed to generate and maintain speed.

The ultra shuffle – where your feet barely get off the ground, your foot slides forward when it hits the trail, making that sandpaper sound, and spends a long time on the ground – is very inefficient. First, when your foot hits the ground sliding forward, much of your forward momentum is lost. This actually puts the brakes on your forward momentum. If your foot hits the ground pulling back (paw back), it’s much easier to propel yourself forward. Also, when you strike pulling back, your foot spends less time on the ground, thus losing less forward momentum. Second, it takes more energy to swing a low foot forward than a high one, one that’s closer to the pivot point. You should be lifting your foot using muscles in your hip area, rather than driving it up from below. These lifting muscles are much less prone to fatigue than the leg muscles. Paw back, leg lift, and time on the ground work together to make an efficient your stride.

Cardiac output: When you stress your body (within limits), your body responds by getting stronger to adapt to that stress. When you stress your cardio system, your heart responds by getting stronger, allowing it to pump more blood volume with each stroke; your lung capacity increases, allowing your blood to capture more oxygen; and your blood vessels adapt, allowing the blood to pass through more easily. Short, high effort, VO2Max (zone 5) type intervals (in measured amounts) give a greater stimulus to increase cardio efficiency than long, slow, ultra miles.

Leg strength: A determining factor in how long your stride is, is how strong and how much of your muscle fibers you use with each stride. A stronger stride will help you power along the trail faster. Like with cardio, faster running provides a greater stimulus to increase leg strength than long, slow, ultra miles. The VO2Max type intervals as well as hill sprints are good for leg strength.

Speed before Distance

Isn’t that contrary to everything you’ve ever heard about training? No. I don’t mean you should do your speed work before you build your base. What I mean is that you should develop speed at shorter distances before you increase the distances you are running and racing.

When you first start running, you should run slow and easy. Develop a base level of aerobic fitness and muscle conditioning before you work on speed. Your heart, lungs and muscles need to be able to handle easy running before you increase the stress.

Once you develop a basic level of fitness, a base, you can start to work on speed. The first step in that is working on form; i.e., teaching your body how to run fast. That means doing drills and striders before doing hard intervals. Then start doing some hard speed training, such as intervals, specific to the distances you are running and racing. Take some time to build your speed at shorter distances before moving up.

As you move up, from 5km, to 10km, to ½-marathon, to full marathon, to beyond, repeat the process of building a base at the longer distance, then adding speed. As you build a bigger base, back off on doing speed training, the hard speed work, but continue to do drills and striders to maintain that fast running stride. Then, as you add speed training specific for the longer distances, maintain an element of 5km speed training.

If you’ve already been doing ultras, this might seem like starting over from the beginning. It is to an extent. However, since you already have a big endurance base, you can compress the time it takes to step up through the distances. I do recommend taking time off from ultra training for a while. Take an entire year off from ultra racing and training if you are able (that’s largely a psychological question that you need to answer for yourself). At the very least, take a good part of the off and early season to focus on speed. A 2-hour run is OK, but longer, slower runs plodding up and down the sides of mountains are likely to hinder your progress. Do some 5km races (I hate them too, but sometimes you need to do what you hate to get better), or a little longer.

5km Training

5km training includes both drills and workouts designed to teach you how to run fast. While this is not about how to train for a 5km, here are examples of the types of training to include.

Drills:

  • High Knees – With a quick stride, while moving forward slowly to moderately, exaggerate your knee lift, like in a marching band. It’s the stepping that’s quick, not the forward movement. Exaggerate the pumping of your arms (back) to help drive the knees up. A variation of this is skipping. High knees will help with leg lift, and skipping will help with quick feet.
  • Stairs. Run up stairs, and walk down. Keep your stride short and quick, taking only one stair step per stride, even if you can take more.
  • Butt Kickers – With a quick stride, while moving forward slowly to moderately, exaggerate your heel lift in back bringing it up to literally kick your butt.
  • Striders – Gradually build your speed for 20-30 strides, then maintain the speed for another 20-30 strides. Jog slowly to recover for a minute or so. Often this is done on the track, striding the straight, then jogging the curve. However, by counting strides, it can be done anywhere. Very important – DO NOT REACH OUT WITH YOUR STRIDE! Keep your stride under you (it should feel like you’re falling forward), a bit uncomfortably short and quick. Imagine that you’re running on hot coals. Striders are about how fast you step, not how fast you run.
  • Embedded Striders – On your longer runs, embed series of striders to help keep you from falling into the ultra shuffle. After a good warm-up, every 30 min, do 5 sets of 30 sec striders, 1 min jog.

Speed & Power:

  • VO2Max (zone 5) – Approx. 2.5-5 min long, at ~10 sec/mi faster than 5km pace/effort, with rest/jog ~50% of the hard effort time. For example, if you run a 5km at 8:00/mi, do 800m or ½mi hard intervals in 3:55, with ~2min rest. You want to keep the rest fairly short so that you can get back up into the zone more quickly and spend more time there. I prefer rest by time rather than distance because it keeps you honest; it’s too easy to get lazy and rest too long if by distance.
  • Uphill Striders – Do your striders uphill, on a grade that’s moderately steep (hard, but not so hard that simply running is a struggle), and on a road or not that technical trail. Focus on a quick stride and good uphill form.
  • Hill Sprints – If you haven’t done these before, start by doing uphill striders. For hill sprints, use a steep, but still run-able hill. Take several strides to build speed, sometimes I skip into them (don’t go hard from a standstill), then go hard for 5-10 seconds. Take a full recovery in between. Start with 5 or 6, at the end or middle of an easy to moderate effort, short to medium length run 2-3 times/week. 5-6 may seem easy, but if you haven’t done them before, you’re likely to be sore the first few times, or at least need some time for your muscles to adapt. Gradually increase to 10-12 sprints over several weeks. After a few weeks at 10-12 sets, change to sprinting for 20-40 seconds, on a slightly less steep hill. After a build up to full speed, run hard until your stride rate starts to slow and your legs tighten up

A few notes of caution about speed training. First, if you haven’t done speed work before, or not for a long time, ease into such workouts slowly, just one short interval workout per week. No matter how good you feel and how easy the first workout may feel, the soreness may come a day or two later. It takes time to adapt to something new. Too much, too soon, risks injury. Second, always make sure you are well warmed up before starting the intervals. Third, keep your stride short and quick, like with striders. DON’T REACH! Fourth, higher efforts put greater stress on your endochrine and immune systems. Thus, limit how much and how often you do speed training.

Running fast and efficiently is a learned skill. You need to practice to develop and maintain that ability. This takes time, especially if you haven’t done speed work (or not for a long time). Take a good part of the off and early season, to learn how to run fast. I’d even recommend taking a whole season away from ultra running to work on speed and do shorter races. Then, watch how your ultra running becomes more efficient and faster.

Have fun. Train smart. See you on the trails.

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One thought on “Want to get faster at ultras? Train for a 5km

  1. It was good to read this again. When I first started ultras, I had come off of several years of road racing from 5km to marathon. I had done a lot of speed work, in season two times a week. It showed in my first ultras. I had much faster turnover and felt much stronger and was happy with my times. I drifted away to do tris and I lost the workouts. Now returning to ultras, I avoided the speed. I believe part of my struggle is just that. Thanks for the reminder. My training plan for next year is now coming together and will include some speed work.

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