How To Use Speed Training To Improve Your Ultrarunning Performance

As an ultrarunner, you are tough. 

You need to be. 

Running fifty, one hundred, and more kilometers at a time, most of the time in harsh environmental conditions, is not for the faint of heart. 

While everyone seems to agree that you need to log a sufficient amount of kilometers during training, the opinions on speed training differ significantly. 

Some people say that a bit of speedwork is nice but not necessary to complete an ultramarathon successfully. 

Then you have those who argue that the injury risk of speedwork outweighs the benefits for an ultradistance athlete. 

And then you have folks like me, who view speedwork as an essential element of ultra-marathon training.

Why Do I Advocate For Speed Training?

Now you may be wondering why you should integrate at least some fast running when preparing for your ultra race. After all, are ultras not run at a relatively slow pace? So slow that you can finish many by power hiking for most of the way? 

Fair question. 

If you simply want to complete an ultra, then yes, neglect speed work. 

However, suppose you want to finish and have a more enjoyable experience and develop your potential as an ultrarunner. In that case, you have to do more than simply logging many miles at a leisurely pace. 

Regularly including speedwork in your training yields benefits that will make you an overall more robust and faster ultrarunner:

1. Speed Training Makes You Faster

This is obvious, isn’t it?

Well… there seems to be a growing trend among runners and running coaches to focus on easy running.

Yes, I get it. And I agree. You should do most of your training at a leisurely pace.

However, many recreational ultra marathoners like to focus almost exclusively on logging long slow mileage. If you want to spend less time on your feet and finish your race in a shorter amount of time though, you need to become an overall faster runner.

And if you want to become faster, you have to include at least some kind of speed work. This might all be well and good, you might say.

But why would you even want to become faster?

With many ultras having generous cut-off times, why go through the physical and mental challenges you will face should you take speed training seriously?

Simple.

When you can run fast, slower running will feel more manageable.

2. Slower Running Will Feel Easier

All running paces are connected.

If you can run a fast 5k, you have better chances of running a fast marathon and ultramarathon.

Suppose your 5k time is 20 minutes. That turns out to be a 04:00 min/km pace. If your fastest 5 k time is 30 minutes, your average pace for that run is 06:00 min/km. Logically, running at an average 06:00 min/km pace for 8 hours or more will feel more manageable if you can run 04:00 min/km than if you already struggle to keep a 06:00 min/km pace.

The best strategy, especially for new ultrarunners, is to start the race at a comfortable pace and avoid slowing down too much as the race continues. When your comfortable pace is relatively slow, you will have a more challenging time staying relaxed and keep running.

You will likely need to walk more. In turn, you will spend more time on your feet, which puts more stress on your body and mind.

Being fast only has advantages, so why not take a chance and build your top-end speed?

3. Speed Training Builds Your Mental Toughness

Let’s face it. Running long distances is not only about physical fitness.

Your mental strength matters just as much, if not more, than your body’s physical limits.

Endurance sports are a mental game.

Of two athletes with similar physical capabilities, the one with the stronger will is going to win.

Every time you push through a challenging workout, you strengthen not only your lungs and legs but also your mind.

During those tough hill sprint workouts, you hate when you think you already gave it your all and feel like going home, you develop the mental fortitude to keep going.

Instead of giving in and listening to the voices in your head that scream at you to stop, you take a deep breath, re-focus, and go all out on that 10th hill repeat.

When that speed session your coach designed scares you…and when and you still go out and give it your best… and crush it. Then you gain confidence and self-knowledge. Both of which will get you through the tough spots during an ultra.

What Types Of Speed Training Should You Do?

Now that I have hopefully convinced you to give good ol’ speed training a try, you might be wondering what types of speed training are best.

As with many things in running and life, there is no “best.”

It all depends on your goals and current abilities. However, the below three workouts are my favorites for ultrarunners.

Before we look at each in turn, it is essential to mention intensity. Your speed workouts should be a 7 to 10 on an RPE scale of 1-10.

If you are unfamiliar with RPE, then head over to my articles on RPE for strength training and session RPE for running.

Look at the graphic below to get an idea of RPE if you are not familiar with it yet.

The basic idea is to adjust the intensity based on your perceived effort instead of heart rate or pace. The three speed workouts will have different RPE’s.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive in.

1. Fartlek

If you are utterly new to speed training and are doing all of your mileage at a “comfortable” pace, it is best to start with adding fartlek workouts to your routine.

The term fartlek is Swedish and means “speed play.” As the name suggests, these workouts are fun. They add some faster running and allow for what I like to call “progression without pressure.”

The idea is simple.

During a run, change gears to simulate race conditions and teach your body and mind to switch frequently between moderate, hard, and easy running.

Fartleks are fun and engaging due to the varying speeds and the endless possibilities of structuring a session. They also build mental strength as you learn to pick up the pace during the later stages.

The general guideline is that you alternate between different tempos. The details are up to you. Follow a pre-defined structure or go by feel.

An example of a structured fartlek is to warm up at a leisurely pace for 2km, then increase your speed for 1 minute. Recover with easy running for 5-8 minutes and pick up the pace again.

An unstructured fartlek is more fun, in my opinion, and teaches you exceptionally well how to run by feel. The speed and recovery vary according to the landscape or your feeling. If you are running through urban landscapes, run hard to a landmark (mailbox, sign, lantern), recover with a slower effort, and pick the next landmark.

If you are hitting the trails, you could run the uphills hard and the downhills easy (a great strength builder, by the way).

The difference between interval workouts is that you don’t stop running during a fartlek, and the more challenging efforts are not so fast that you need to stop running during the recovery periods.

Your RPE for a fartlek should be between 6 and 8.

2. Short Hill Repeats

These are my favorite speed workouts. Taxing but fun, they are a great strength builder and help to improve your Vo2max.

They offer similar benefits to sprints on the flats but with decreased injury risk.

While sprints on flat terrains are often the cause for hamstring injuries, sprinting uphill provides the advantage that you can practice running at a high cadence and get your heart rate up without running at maximum speeds.

If you don’t like going to the gym or don’t have time for a separate strength training session, consider hill sprints your savior.

I would even argue that hill repeats are the best strength workout for runners who are time-pressed yet still want to race well.

Why?

Because if you’re going to race well, you need to make time for running a reasonable amount of volume and build leg strength on top of running high mileage.

Hill repeats are the most running-specific strength workout you can do.

3. Tempo Runs

Ahhh, the tempo run.

Maybe the most misunderstood workout in running circles.

Much of the confusion comes from different understandings of what a tempo run is.

Different prescriptions and explanations exist. In contrast to the other two workouts, this one will require you to run at a reasonably steady pace. Think of it as a “comfortably hard” effort that you can sustain for about 45 – 60 minutes. You don’t go “all out.”

You mustn’t race tempo runs.

These runs improve your ability to sustain a faster pace for longer. They help improve your aerobic efficiency and are great confidence builders. On race day, you know that you can hold a challenging pace.

A classic tempo run workout, devised by legendary running coach Jack Daniels is a 20-30 minute tempo run, done at a pace that you could theoretically hold for around one hour.

Instead of doing one continuous tempo run, you can also do tempo repetitions. These are similar to interval workouts, except that you are running at your tempo pace and the repetitions are longer.

An example of this is running 3 X 10 minutes at your tempo run pace, with a recovery jog of 3 minutes between each repetition. However, be sure not to slow down your pace during your tempo run block or segment. It is common to progress from tempo repetitions to a continuous block of tempo running. For example, you start with 3X10 minutes and progress until you can hold the pace for a constant 30-minute tempo run.

It is best to add tempo runs after you built a good aerobic base and spent some time doing more intensive speed work. You want those tempo efforts to correspond to faster paces, after all.

A nice variation of the tempo run is the progression run. Here you finish your run faster than you started. For example, you could do a tempo of 20 minutes where you run the last 5 minutes faster.

How Do You Integrate Speed Training Into Your Training Plan?

As with many things in running, there are no clear-cut rules.

How and when you integrate speed training into your training program depends on your current abilities and level of fitness, where you are at in your training cycle and your or your coach’s training philosophy.

For example, during my certification as an ultra-running coach, the curriculum advocated a block training type approach for ultra-running. For those who don’t know, in block training, you try to develop one energy system at a time. For example, you might have an endurance block where the main focus is on developing endurance. You can still include speed training, but the focus is on aerobic development.

On the other hand, in a speed-focused training block, you include more speedwork and less endurance-based workouts.

Many runners follow a general pattern of one speed session, one long run, and the rest of their runs as easy runs – week in and week out.

For many recreational runners, this is an excellent base to build upon.

If you are new to speed training, start with one fartlek every week or every two weeks. Then add in some tempo runs and eventually include hill sprints.

Listen to your body and follow the 80/20 principle, which states that you should do around 80% of your running at a leisurely pace. For the remaining 20% of your training time, you should run at higher speeds and intensities.

Pay attention to your body’s signals and how well you recover. Most importantly, don’t increase distance and intensity at the same time. When you are ramping up mileage, you shouldn’t add hill repeats, plus fartlek and a few tempo runs on top of it 😉 

Get In The Best Running Shape Of Your Life

With one-on-one coaching, you’ll get the expert coaching and support to finish your dream race with a smile on your face.

Whether your goals are:

  • to improve your race performances
  • to complete your first ultra-marathon
  • to stay injury-free during your next training cycle
  • to add strength training to your running program
  • to optimize your nutrition

…or anything else related to running, I will help you achieve them.

Head over to my coaching page to get an overview of the different coaching packages available, and hit me up with any questions you might have.

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