Running fast is hard. It’s one of those things us ultra runners sometimes skip. Yep, we need endurance, the long hours on our feet to build the strength to plug out big race miles, but I believe that we also need to do some speed work. Tripping the light fandango, aka speed work, is also a way to get decent gains for not a lot of time on those poor, tired, and blistered ultra running feet.
After building a strong endurance base over several months, my training plan gets much more race specific. The ability to lay down some quick miles when you need to can get you out of no end of race day scrapes…like the time I took a very wrong turn five miles from the end of the Dukeries Ultra, asked directions from a Scout leader and his troop, and then had to pick up a pretty handy pace to get back home in a decent-ish time. My ability to cane it at the end of the race also meant I got home before the rain came down. Useful!
Clearly, 200m sprints aren’t going to cut it in an ultra race but they are a good place to start if you’re not comfy with kicking up dust. Fartlek sessions, when you bump up speed and heart rate, back off and go again at variable intervals are a simple way to ease yourself into a mind-set for more complex speed work.
Speed work does not always mean hammering round a track however. Despite the soft spongy surface of the open access tracks here in Qatar, I get injured very quickly every time I take to the rink. The continual turning plays havoc with my dodgy hips. Instead, I put myself through the rigours of regular tempo and hill work.
And yes, I have managed to find a handy little incline in flat-as-a-pancake Doha…just the one! It actually works quite nicely for the dreaded 8X 1km marathon speed repeats. This infamous interval set reputedly builds the ability to hold marathon pace for the duration. Add a short ascent and a touch more distance and I reckon you’ve got a nice little ultra training set. My 1.2km loop goes uphill for 400m (that’s Mount Everest in Qatar) and is run at goal marathon pace, speed is nudged up along the top for another 400m and popped up another gear on the 200m descent the other side. I then 60 second recover on the straight at the bottom before giving it another boot or six.
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s tempos. Intervals are manageable – you bump up speed for 8 minutes or so max and
then back off. The rest is never that far away, but tempos are just too long. I loathe them, however, I do appreciate the benefits and that’s why I torture myself through them. For me the up-tempo is a whole pleasanter experience, ensuring progression is more gradual with my body sort of adapting to the torture in action. Going up a gear every km seems to work nicely.
Shorter races also make great tempo training sessions. Doing a shorter race – 10km or half marathon – I have a clear reason to run outside my regular ultra-pace comfort zone. It’s not nice but means I get a spin out under pressure.
Of course none of this faster work would be possible without that all important patience-testing endurance base.