Speed training for Ultras

Do I need speed training for ultras?

Another discussion from Twitter, but one I’ve seen discussed several times online and in the ultra running community before

'Are speed intervals as part of training for an ultra necessary? All the plans I've found online don't mention speed work at all #ukrunchat'

Instead of my usual ‘it depends’, this time I’m going to set out my stall early on with a clear cut, ‘almost certainly, probably not’.

A lot of the confusion around this topic comes from the application of the word ‘speed’. If your are training for an ultra-marathon, and your coach has set you something they describe as ‘speed work’ or ‘speed intervals’, I do hope its through a mistaken application of the term, as opposed to a mistaken interpretation of what speed is.

What is Speed?

Let’s start at the beginning. Speed. What is speed? Speed = distance divided by time. Meters per second, miles per hour, kilometres per hour etc. These are all familiar measures of speed. So basic, it hardly seems worth stating.

These measures of speed are common in sport. Every tennis serve on TV seems to be recorded and displayed in the background. You’ll also most likely be able to see the velocity of pretty much every ball bowled in a televised cricket match too. This is because they are useful, sport specific performance indicators. The faster a serve is hit or a ball is bowled, the less time to react and the harder it is to play.

Unfortunately, when we consider performance in running, we adopt a subtly different perspective. We tend to look at the time take to cover a certain distance (min/miles or min/km). You might argue this is the same thing, and when you look at it like a physics equation on paper, it pretty much is. What it means for training, and how you train however, it most certainly is not.

How fast do I need to be able to run?

Lets look the fastest man on the planet - Usain Bolt. As you might imagine, when he ran 9.58 seconds for 100m, there was no shortage of analysis into just what makes him so fast and how he did it. In short, he’s fast because he has what seems to be a pretty perfect blend of muscle fibre type, an ability to recruit those muscles near maximally and efficiently, his body structure (good lever lengths), and of course, all the training and technical skill that allows him to maximize his stride length and stride frequency over 100m. On that day, and many others, all of what I’ve just mentioned meant that he was able to both reach a higher top speed, and also slow down less than his competitors over 100m. Take a look at the graph produced by the Science of Sport for a clearer picture of how that race panned out.

Even world class athletes slow down over 100m!(Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5cT )

Even world class athletes slow down over 100m!(Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5cT )

Ignoring the acceleration, which is also a big part of 100m performance, we can see that in a race the length of just 100m, even world class athletes are actually unable to sustain their highest velocity – in Usain’s case a ridiculous 44.72 km/h! Fundamentally this is because humans will struggle to continue to be able to maintain the required rate of energy production to do so - note the decline in 'total power production' even over 10 seconds.

Graph showing Energy Production in the human body

Energy production in the human body (Credit to http://ow.ly/IH5Eo )

Now maximum speed is pretty bloody important over 100m. But its not the only thing that is important. Speed maintenance, or the ability to endure can be seen to start to come into play. Over 200m, the latter becomes even more important, over 400m, more so. You don’t even need to stretch the race out to 100 miles to pretty much completely remove maximum speed as a limiting factor in performance.

We can look at it another way to prove the point. Take a look at what happens when you take Mo Farah, and Alistair Brownlee (two guys who can by most endurance runners standards can absolutely shift) and put them to a test of speed against a collection of other athletes.

While acceleration, technique and motivation need to be considered, both of them get completely burned by an Anthony Joshua (11.53 sec for 100m) – a man who’s sport doesn’t even involve running! I’d argue he beats them by far enough to suggest that outright speed clearly isn’t what makes Mo or Alistair good at what they do.

Speed requirement in Ultras

Ok, so by now, I hope you are beginning to see how important maximum speed might be in longer distance events (not very). But let’s really drum it home with a specific example. The initial question was posed by someone hoping to take on the NDW 100. Even though the individual’s goals were to just complete, let’s imagine he’s going for the course record - 15:44 for North Downs way. Ignoring nutrition, personal admin etc pacing etc for the sake of argument, (all huge aspects influencing the outcome of this type of event) this theoretically means you need to travel at an AVERAGE speed of 6.35 mph,10.24 kmh or 2.8 m/s over the distance. So, in terms of a speed requirement, if you can travel this fast, you have the raw speed capability to equal the course record. Why not go test it, see if you can run 100 metres in 35 seconds. I believe in you! Whether you can sustain it, is an entirely different question.

We do  know that pretty much everyone fades over 100 miles so its likely that you’ll need to be able to run a little faster than this. But let me stress again top speed is clearly not the problem. Take a look at average speeds of competitors over the SDW100 in 2012 to give you a very rough flavour of how fast people are running.

Graph depicting average speeds of runners between checkpoints during the South Downs Way 100 mile ultra in 2012

Average speeds between checkpoints at the SDW 100 2012 (Credit to Sam Robson and Centurion Running http://ow.ly/IH6tj)

So what about the need for speed intervals when training for ultras?

So this is where the term ‘speed’ is being misused when coaches or athletes refer to speed intervals. I’m assuming that most ultra-runners or coaches aren’t setting their athletes much less than 400m intervals, but even these are not developing maximal speed and should not be called ‘speed intervals’. They are developing an athletes capacity to not go slower. To endure. Not speed.  If 400m intervals developed maximal speed, Usain would be running them. Based on his self-confessed laziness being reason he hasn’t yet trained to competitively run 400m, this might just give you an indication of how much he actually runs that distance!

Don’t get me wrong, increasing your maximal aerobic capacity, your ability to utilize lactate, developing your running economy and the host of other biomechanical, physiological and psychological adaptations that can be improved from systematically running faster than race pace will likely improve your running across most distances. But I must be categorical here – they are not speed training. They are not speed training in that they do not (at least effectively) develop maximal speed. They develop your ability to sustain sub-maximal speed.

To some extent, I feel like this article has just delved into semantics, but I hope I have also made an important distinction for you, and one you can apply to your own training plans. If we misinterpret speed, we leave ourselves open to getting our training wrong too. Next time you hear or see someone stating the importance of speed training for ultras, you don’t have to disagree, but perhaps politely ask them to say what they actually mean, and not just what they think they mean. There is a BIG difference!