“It’s easy to sum it up if you’re just talking about practice. We’re sitting here, and I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re talking about practice. I mean listen, we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we’re talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last, but we’re talking about practice man. How silly is that?”
That, of course, was Allen Iverson’s infamous 2001 rant regarding the (lack of) importance of in-season NBA practices. He mentions the words “practice” and “not a game” over 20 times to make the eloquent point that practices are, in fact, not as important as the games themselves.
In the NBA, for 82-game seasons, Iverson was almost surely correct. With frequent back-to-back games (2 games in 2 nights, often in different cities), and sometimes 4-5 games in one week, NBA players and coaches place a premium on rest in those rare periods when they are not playing or traveling to the next city. In-season practices aren’t used to develop strength, stamina, or even team cohesiveness. Rather, all of that is primarily done during the games themselves.
So what does all of this have to do with ultrarunning? Let’s first start with the obvious observation that NBA players are about as different from ultrarunners on the athletic spectrum as one could imagine. They are the winners of the genetic lottery . . . fast-twiched-muscle super-humans who are much taller than us, possess jaw-dropping levels of athleticism, and stand out in ANY crowd.
Now compare that description to us. Ultrarunners are all types of different shapes and sizes. We compete in a sport where genetics play basically no role as to whether or not we succeed (which is one of the great things about our sport; it is as close to a “pure” meritocracy as exists today in sports). And you can’t pick out 99.9% of ultrarunners from a crowd of people.
(Can YOU find the former NBA player in this picture??)
But genetics aside, one of the biggest differences between the NBA and ultrarunning is that instead of 82 competitions (or more) a year, most of us only race a few times each year. So we can’t rely upon only races themselves to get us ready for the next one. (Note: if you’re name is Liz Bauer, Ed Ettinghausen, or Grant Maughan, and you run 30+ ultras a year, ignore this whole article; your schedule is more like that of an NBA player. Go hit up Allen Iverson for training advice!) 🙂
For the rest of us, training matters. “Practice” matters. A lot. It cannot be emphasized enough just how much it matters. Whether you succeed/meet your goals on race day is dictated almost wholly by how prepared you are by the time race day rolls around. Training sets the “ceiling” for your performance; when you toe the line, you have a maximum physical ability you can give that day; you cannot will yourself above and beyond that reality. You can only come as close to that line as possible.
2. The “Need For Speed” And The Great Training Mistake.
Okay, so hopefully we all agree that training, er, “practice” matters. So what should that training look like? What elements comprise it? That bring’s us to today’s topic: speed training for ultras. Along with several other types of essential training runs, speed workouts are vital for performing as well as possible on race day . . . even for super-long races of 100 miles and beyond.
Let’s say you are new to ultras and have run a few marathons in around 4 hours, so about 9:00/mile. Next, you train for a 50- or 100-miler, and you just knew that you couldn’t hold 9:00/mile for the entire ultra (your guess was that it would be closer to 11-12 minutes a mile, so you could hopefully finish in about 9-10 hours for the 50, or 20+ for the 100). How did you train for that ultra? When you ran your marathons, I bet you incorporated weekly speed sessions (whether Yasso’s on a track (800-meter repeats), mile repeats, or tempo runs of around 5 miles). And I bet those speed sessions were run at a pace significantly faster than your marathon pace.
But what did you do when you trained for that 50- or 100-miler? Did you continue to still run mile repeats on a regular basis? Did you consistently run tempo runs leading up to your race? Oooooorrr, alternatively, did these types of workout slowly fade out of your training repertoire? Did you become more concerned with hitting ever-increasing weekly mileage goals than getting in your speed work because, well, because “oh-my-God 50/100 miles is a really long way and I need to run as many miles per week in training as possible”?
(“The enemy MiGs are how far away? 150 miles? Wow, that’s a long way. Screw supersonic. I’ll get there when I get there.”)
Sound a bit familiar to anyone out there? The most common training mistake I see in ultrarunners — both newbies and veterans — is becoming a slave to the Weekly Mileage Monster and only being concerned about the total miles run each week, rather than focusing on the quality of each workout. When that happens, every workout — regardless of the distance — tends to blend in together and they are all run at pretty much the same speed. In a very real sense, then, you develop one single speed in your legs. And when race day rolls around, you’re either running at that speed (when you feel good), or walking (when you don’t). There is no in-between.
(Ever see a triathlete use a single-speed beach cruiser on the 110-mile bike portion of the Ironman Kona World Championships?)
3. Speed Workouts For Ultras.
Obviously, the exact type of speed workouts — and the frequencies they should be run — in training for an ultra depends greatly on the runner, his/her experience, his/her goals, the distance of the race, and the details of the race itself. In other words, it’s highly individualized, and no two runners’ speed programs will look entirely alike. That being said, there are some staple speed workouts that I use routinely with my runners to ensure that when they show up on race day, they possess more speed gears in their arsenal than “go” and “stop.” Here are a few of them:
- Tempo Runs: It always baffles me how these workouts are such a staple of marathon running, yet almost wholly ignored in ultramarathon training. These runs are so popular in marathon training for the simple reason that they work. You cannot show up on race day expecting to run X minutes per mile comfortably when you never run X-2 minutes per mile in training. 5 to 10 mile runs, at about 2 minutes per mile faster than your goal pace; that’s really all there is to it. (Note: I’m often asked how times in tempo runs or shorter races correlates/predicts times for ultras. While there are plenty of predictive charts, graphs, calculators out there on the internet, none of them are individualized-enough to provide an accurate prediction for any specific runner. In order to get the best idea possible of a realistic goal for an ultra, it’s best to have someone who knows your running history, your current level of fitness, and your abilities on specific workouts in order to help formulate the most realistic goals possible).
- Mile Repeats: This is another marathon staple that is almost completely unused in ultra training. Why? Run at a faster pace than the tempo runs (around 2:30-3:00/mile faster than goal pace), these training runs can give your legs added strength on race day to tackle hills (“hills are just speed work in disguise,” as the saying goes), and also teach you how to run on tired legs without wearing you down too much for your other “hard” runs in your training program.
- Progressive Treadmill Runs: 5-10 mile runs on a treadmill, starting at a challenging pace, and then increasing the pace a bit with each mile. Yes, this workout sucks. Yes, treadmills are basically torture devices that go against every reason that many people run in the first place (to be outside, to be “one with nature,” etc, etc.). But do you know what else sucks? Mile 80 of the Keys 100, when you have no energy and no earthly idea how your tired-to-the-bone legs are going to carry you those last 20 miles. Treadmills instill all kinds of mental toughness, and teach you that yes, you can in fact maintain — and even raise — that strenuous pace even though your legs are killing you.
(I know. I hate treadmills. We all hate treadmills. But I hate being unprepared even more…)
Speed work is challenging, for sure. It’s especially challenging to do when training for an ultra and being ever-watchful of always-increasing weekly mileage. But beware of the Weekly Mileage Monster. Quantity matters, sure, but quality matters more. I tell all my runners that before they lace up their shoes and head out the door, they need to have a specific purpose for their training run. What is the point of today’s run? And “feeding the Weekly Mileage Monster” is not an acceptable response 🙂
Speed work prepares us for race day, both physically and mentally. It develops leg strength, the ability to power through low points, and, gives us more than one “gear” so that our race day pace is manageable, and we can compete to the best of our abilities. Don’t show up to the start line on a beach cruiser.
4. Next Week on Coach’s Corner.
Weight Training For Ultras . . . Beneficial For Anything Besides Being a Peacock?
(Circa 2007, smack-dab in the middle of running marathons in the 2:40s and 2:50s, despite or because I could bench press 300 pounds???)
Have a great week, everyone!!