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Ultra running and the need for speed

by Robert Britton
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Tags  Robert Britton   |   inov-8   |   Team Centurion

In his first column, our latest columnist Robert Britton,  member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad, Team Inov-8 and Team Centurion, explains why speed work is beneficial for the ultra runner

Everybody knows that to run an ultra marathon you have to run lots and you have to run slowly. The only people who sign up for the stupid things are those who have become too slow to be competitive at proper distances like 5k, half marathons or the almighty marathon and one thing you must never do in training for a 100 mile race is speed work. It's pointless because you don't need to go fast. Right? Rubbish.

There is a great section in the book Relentless Forward Progress by Byron Powell that has a discussion of the value of speed work within ultra marathons and both sides are put up. Experienced runner & Coach Ian Torrence is on the pro side and respected 100 miler Geoff Roes is the party against. Geoff uses the example of Anton Krupicka in his argument as proof that you don't need to be fast to win 100 milers, as Anton only has a 5k PB of about 16:30 but still records victories at Leadville and comes a close second at Western States, just by running up and down mountains all day long. The thing is 16:30 is still fast! REAL fast! How often do you actually have to run 5:18 minute miles in an ultra marathon?

I could get all scientific and state that High Intensity Interval Training, Tempo  and Speed Work can raise your VO2 Max, increase VO2 efficiency, raise your lactate threshold, build functional muscle, give you floaty light feet and teach you new pain thresholds, how to suffer like David Rudisha,  but I want to keep this simple or I'll get confused.

The way I look at it, the faster (and fitter) you are, the easier it is run at a slower pace in your races.

"To run 50 or 100 miles faster, start by running 1 mile faster." That is the opinion of Paul Navesey, Team Centurion Ultra Runner and holder of the 50 mile course record at the brutal Caesars Camp, and this makes sense to me. If you want to improve your 5k time then you break your training down, run each kilometre faster, with rest in between, and then reduce the rest. This is one example of interval training but why would this apply to marathon racing but not ultra marathons? 

Speed sessions to try

2 mile warm up,
8 x 600m with 200m recovery jog,
2 mile warm down

2 mile warm up,
10km on track alternating laps at 5k pace then marathon pace,
2 mile warm down.

The fact is that if you improve your marathon time then you are going to shoot up the places in an ultra marathon too, you will be fitter, leaner, more efficient and faster.

Leadville 100 mile winner and US 100 mile Grand Slam record holder Ian Sharman reckons that "Ultrarunners often consider speed work to be superfluous but it's essential for helping with good running form, especially towards the end of a long race". Speed work is a great way for runners to build functional muscle and strengthen your core, hill sprints even more so and this is going to keep you strong and upright in the latter stages of your race, when others are faltering and you can reel them all in.

It doesn't just have to be the physical benefits, Debbie Martin-Consani, Team GB runner and record holder at the Grand Union Canal race, reckons that she'd "go loopy just jogging around all the time". Mixing up your training can keep you interested in what you are doing and keep you enjoying yourself. Debbie also believes that "improving times at shorter distances can only benefit long distance races. I often squeeze in a 5K race the weekend before big races, in the hope that I’m at peak fitness."

To get faster you need to run fast, that's what I believe and more and more people within the ultra running community are getting the picture. There are still "training plans" that come out in running magazines that advise just lots of steady plodding but hopefully they will catch up soon.

Drop your 5k time and the rest of your distances will become quicker too. If you've run ultra marathons before then you know you are mentally strong enough to get there, just make sure you get to the start line fitter and faster next time. If you are just starting out, don't forget all the good work you did training for halves or marathons, never sacrifice quality for quantity in your training, just read the other articles to follow this one and keep your speed.

To prove this point a few of us "Ultra-Runners" thought we would have a go at the Canterbury 10 miler at the end of January and try and win the team prize, just to let people know that running Ultra marathons isn't just about running slowly for long periods of time, we can mix it up with the fast roadsters as well! I'll let everyone know how we get on...


About The Author

Robert Britton

Robbie is a 100 mile runner who is a member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad and Team Centurion and likes to run ridiculous distances as quickly as possible.

To provide enough food to feed a monster running habit, Robbie coaches other ultra marathon runners through www.robbiebritton.co.uk and is also a member of the coaching team at Centurion Running. He likes to dabble with a bit of writing so that others can learn from his mistakes and enjoy the sport as much as he does.

Robbie is also a is a Profeet ambassador.


"Pain is inevitable, suffering is just part of the fun"


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