Ultra speed training in the heat

One of the reasons I started running ultras was because speed work was getting tricky.

My muscles were rebelling – tight hammies, angry calves, lazy glutes – I just wasn’t getting any faster – so when someone told me I won’t need to do speed work if I was to run ultras, my mind was made up, unfortunately, they were wrong but by then I was in too deep. In fact, it turns out they were very wrong.

True, if you have endless trails to run steadily and no shortage of time on your hands then it is perfectly possible to complete ultras at a fair pace without speed work. However, most of us don’t have five plus hours a day to train, nor would our bodies stand up to the several hundred kilometers of training per week this involves.

Drowning in sweat at the end of a steady, heart rate zone 1/2, 14km. Yup, it's that hot and humid, but guess I'm fat burning well with that much sweat ;-)

Drowning in sweat at the end of a steady, heart rate zone 1/2, 14km. Yup, it’s that hot and humid, but guess I’m fat burning well with that much sweat 😉

And in the case of Qatar; no one would survive five hours plus outside running every day during the summer. Even running doubles is impossible since it takes six hours plus to rehydrate after a single two hour session. Your kidneys would live in a constant state of peril.

Speed work allows us to rev the engine, save time and in some cases the pounding on the legs, through shorter sessions. But here’s where it gets messy – I find speed work much more intense on the body and there’s no way I could clock up enough 100 to 400 meter reps to make any difference to my ultra training.

However, speed work in the desert is certainly not the easy option. You’re not left hanging onto your chest because the stress on your CV system is burning your lungs out; the searing heat is – and that’s after just 400m at max intensity.

The compiled heat issues and demands of ultra running entail a complete rethink – one to be fair that all ultra running demands. Being able to sprint a mile isn’t really going to help you on a 60km plus ultra when you need to be able to complete the first 45km at low aerobic intensity in order to avoid blowing up.

So with short sprints outside out, I’m left thinking how I can manipulate the intensity of my runs to make the effort worthwhile, which means playing around with up-tempos and pyramids.

To be honest, I’ve always liked a good strong pyramid where you build, build and build a bit more before gradually easing off. You really feel like you’re getting somewhere with less risk of injury – by gradually building there’s no sudden sprint so less chance of a muscle going ping – and by taking your foot off the pedal no less steadily you’re also less likely to end up revisiting your last meal (theoretically).

Thankfully, we also get some respite from the heat due to public track sessions during which for the princely sum of QR10 (about 2GBP) we’re able to use Aspire, Qatar’s sport school’s, indoor track on two evenings a week. Unfortunately, the track is only 200m, which isn’t so kind on those already tight hammies, but the A/C more than makes up for running in ever decreasing circles.

As an ultra runner, my sets do raise more than a few eyebrows among the 5km fraternity. While they are madly dashing round and collapsing in a heap every few laps, I’m gradually winding up my laps and trying not to lose count (being inside means gps is lost so it’s back to the good old days of lap counting). You do also need a great feel for speed so these sets aren’t ideal for those without the experience to judge pace, having said that these sessions will quickly teach pacing which is an essential ultra-runners skill.

A simple set involves warming up (can be done outside) dynamic stretching (I do too little as the indoor session time is limited) and then the main set which is more of a tempo than a straight interval. I simply run a 5km effort at half marathon pace during which you’ll watch your HR rise, followed by 120 second recovery, and then another 5km effort at half marathon pace with a pick-up over the last 400m or so. The recovery is not stood around, or laid on the ground, but a jog at ultra pace.

Another nice one is a 20-25min effort at half marathon pace (following warm up/ dynamic stretching) rolling straight into a 400m at 10km pace, 300m ultra pace recovery, 300m at 5km pace, 200m recovery and then 200m at 90% max effort, before another 20-25 min effort at half marathon pace. The sandwich rep can then be repeated if you really want to.

Cool down and stretch and that’s an hour easily filled. Outdoors isn’t quite so straightforward in the summer – once your HR is up there, that’s it as it will stop up there as your body simply cannot cool. Pick-ups, tempos, and controlled speed shorter sessions at the end of longer runs seem to be most effective, staying close to home and stopping if needed.

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