WAA ambassador, Justin Andrews, was the first American and fifth overall participant to finish the 2017 edition of Ultra Trail Australia (UTA) in a blazing time of 9hr 49min 8sec. With race results like this, Justin certainly knows a thing or two about running ultras.
We can definitely benefit from listening to what Justin has to say about training for races. More specifically, his philosophy on speed work is a must read for beginners and seasoned veterans alike. The following is a article that Justin wrote specifically for Gone Running on the importance of interval training and how one can set their speed work into action.
Feel the Need for Speed by Justin Andrews
Running is the simplest act in sport. Those who choose to call it a sport in and of itself and engage in it regularly, at some point, likely entertain the thought of how to become faster. Now that I've entered my 20th year of competitive distance running, this is yet a goal of mine even though the races in which I strive to be faster just happen to be races that last half a day. As I've slowly gravitated toward longer and longer races--from half-mile races now having completed three races at 100km--reaching the finish line faster has been a driving force to train hard.
I've accumulated somewhere around 60,000km in my legs over the years, but not much of that has been run near my peak speed. The reason is simple--speed hurts and can even kill (a running career)! It must be used relatively sparingly, but when done rightly it reaps a big harvest. Speed is not my strength and it's the most difficult component for me to train, however it has always served as the third leg of the training tripod. While true it's form and frequency have varied, speedwork yet holds (and increasingly so) an important part of my training regimen since my ultra debut at Translantau 50k in 2014.
The first eight years of my high school and collegiate running career in Wisconsin were formative times as I was exposed to various training philosophies and approaches in the competitive running scene. High school races at 1600/3200m necessitated that those workouts be speed-focused. Even 5km cross country races in high school were, looking back now, all-out efforts lasting just 16 minutes in my senior year. Due to the nature of these distances, interval workouts at anaerobic threshold or what I will henceforth call lactate threshold (LT) pace, were critical to my ability to race fast. But just as important, if not more so, was the inclusion of shorter intervals at race pace or faster (VO2 Max workouts). But for the scope of this article, it being geared toward ultra-running, I'll focus on LT workouts.
At the simplest level, provided a runner stays healthy, there are two basic and guaranteed ways to run faster, no matter the distance you're preparing for (though the amount that you should incorporate of each aspect and its efficacy varies with the distance you are racing): Run more or run faster. The best practices regarding the volume and speed components of a training program have gone through some wild swings in the past 65 years or so since Bannister broke 4 minutes for the mile. He was in medical school and didn't have time for 100-mile weeks, so he trained four to five days a week and a few of those days were intervals of 200-800m near or at race pace aka done at a pace most of us only dream of. A bit later and across the world, Arthur Lydiard was indeed having his athletes run monster volume but he didn't shy away from intervals and speedwork (in their base phase, he demanded 100+ miles/week even from his mile runners and a good portion of it was high quality).
Perhaps you follow a coach's or websites advice without knowing why you are running the prescribed workout or what energy system is benefitted. While you may not be that interested in this aspect, it is important (especially if you are a newbie and don't have an experienced coach) to know the basics so you can tailor your training regimen to not only best utilize your time, but to ensure you are running the most beneficial type of workouts for your goal race. It doesn't do much good to run 10 x 400m intervals if you're training for UTMB, but it will help you try to break 4:00 in the mile like Bannister did. The reason is a 400m interval workout at or near your maximum effort (i.e. in 60-90 seconds (depending on your ability) and with 1-1.5 minutes of rest (1:1 rest), has been shown to be 56% anaerobic effort. Thus, its really only suitable to use this type of workout if you're training for a serious assault on your mile to 5k PR. If you're training for anything longer, though (and chances are you are if you're reading this!), then running longer intervals at a more sustainable pace with shorter relative rest is far more beneficial to a PR at your next ultra.
Tim Tollefson, American Hoka One-One ultra runner, who just won Ultra-Trail Australia and was 5th at HK100 this year, said in a recent interview that consistency is one of his 3 big tips for how to train. It doesn't matter if you have a one good week of training in a month or crush that track workout coming off a race three days prior, or steal my Strava CR's around Tai Wai! The important thing to remember is that though these are motivators, your long-term development as an ultra runner will not see it's apex if you do not or are not able to train consistently. Likewise, you'd do well to employ a tempered approach to ultras and associated training. If you speed train too frequently, run too much, or race too often, chances are you'll end up at the PT's office or in a magazine article on Chronic Fatigue/Over-Training Syndrome. Speed works only rewards those who work into it slowly as the recovery phase (easy run days, days off, ample sleep) is when the real gains materialize.
Yet, interval training has tangible benefits for those who incorporate it intelligently--at the right time in the training cycle, in the right volume, specifically geared to the race we are preparing for, run at the right pace and with the right amount of rest. With these five elements in mind, I'll elaborate a bit and then I'll share some sample/key interval workouts that I've used to run my personal bests from the 10k track to 100km trail races.
Traditionally, interval training was used mid-training cycle (endurance base phase is first, then LT interval training, followed by the last phase of sharpening that incorporates VO2 Max workouts and a taper). This is the approach many elites use on the track and road scene for their major "A-races" that only come around 1-3x per year. But, if you're like me, you have several ultras planned for this year, and while a couple are my "A" races, you certainly want to do well in all of them. LT training, then, has the function of getting certain aspects of your aerobic engine adapted to a stress level not encountered in racing ultras. These workouts can be done year-round, but I don't recommend doing them in the week leading up to an ultra (my last hard LT workout was actually 15 days before UTA, though 10-12 days out would also be suitable; I opted for longer out because it was the longest interval workout I'd done in several years) nor in the two weeks post-100k or longer race (if you recover faster and have been incorporating these for a couple months already, the 2nd week after a 50k or shorter race could have you ready to resume these).
Volume-wise, a cumulative time of 15-45 minutes at LT pace is plenty. These are typically broken up by 1-4 minutes of rest depending on the interval distance, so these workouts offer great "bang for your buck" as just a half hour (after a warm-up) can yield far-reaching returns rather than running 'junk miles' each and every day. As for what distance interval to run, a good rule of thumb is that the longer you are racing, the longer your intervals should be. If you're training for a 50k, 1k-3k repeats for a cumulative 20-30 minutes at LT pace would be great; if you're training for a 100k or longer, you'd do well to work up to 3k-5k intervals with a cumulative time of 45 minutes at LT pace. Rest periods between intervals are typically 1/4-1/5 the 'on' time, though it's not an exact science. I typically would rest 1 minute for a 1600m interval lasting 5:30; for a 2k interval that takes 7 minutes, I rest 1.5 minutes, and for a 3k interval lasting 10.5-11 minutes, I rest 2.5 minutes.
Before I share some sample workouts, I want to define and direct you to your LT pace. LT pace is a pace you can hold for an hour-long road race (i.e. 10k pace if your 10k PR is close to 60 minutes, or LT pace could be your half-marathon pace if you can run sub-80 minutes). My half marathon PR is 1:12:19 so that equates to 5:31/mile pace. Conversely, you can use your 5k road or track (not trail!) PR pace + 25-30 seconds per mile. My 5k PR is 15:52 which is 5:06/mile + 25 sec./mile=5:31. As you can see, my long history racing sub-marathon distances has my PR's very evenly correlated, thus using either method to calculate my LT pace yields the same result. So I use 5:31/mile (3:25/3:26/km) for my LT pace. If you use the second method and your 5k time is under 20 minutes, add 25 sec/mile like I did. If you're 10k time is close to an hour or your 5k PR is over 25 minutes, add 30 seconds to each mile of your 5k pace.
If you like to train by HR (or want to confirm that your LT pace is suitable), then use a HR monitor while running the below workouts. You must know your maximum HR, though, for this to help. LT pace workouts, by definition, will have you running at 83-87% max HR. So if your max HR is 200 bpm, a suitable HR during your intervals should be between (200 x .83) and (200 x .87) 166-174 bpm.
LT workouts aren't meant to feel super hard. Again, they are to be run at a pace you can hold for an hour or so. As the combined volume for a typical workout is only 5-15k and includes rest periods, you should always finish the last interval feeling like you could run one or two more. An important thing to remember in these workouts is that you should be able to talk in short phrases throughout, and you need to feel your pace. Don't get swept up in the mob that's running off the front. Settle in, relax, run smoothly and efficiently. Focus on smooth breathing, economic and intentional arm carriage, and tall posture. The last hard interval workout I did before UTA was 5 x 2km @ 3:25/km with 90 seconds rest between each. With each passing interval, I looked at my watch one less lap for each one: i.e. On the first interval I glanced at my watch every 100-200m to get on pace; on the second interval, I looked at my watch for only four of the five laps; on the third interval I stopped looking at my watch for the last 800m; on the 4th interval I didn't look at my watch for the last 1200m and on the last interval I didn't look at my watch at all, running by feel. And guess what? That 2k interval was within 2 seconds of the other four.
If you get to the point where you are running by feel and not using your watch much, you must not get lazy or lose focus after a lap or two and end up way off pace, or glance down halfway through and then speed up to 'make up time.' In the end, the ability to keep a metronomic pace without the help of a watch is a skill that will not only help you run workouts well, but is useful to gauge your effort in a race setting. At UTA last weekend, I was passing the likes of Sondre Amdahl and Mike Wardian but knew it was a pace I could keep up for 10 hours if my nutrition plan panned out; you can neither afford to get swept up with faster runners nor get scared and race too conservatively just because you may be passing someone you've never beat before.
But back to the topic at hand! The first workout below is like bread and butter--the staple workout of my serious training diet but easily modifiable to your fitness level and approaching race. As with any hard workout, if you're feeling unusually labored on the 2nd/3rd interval and have worked up to doing 5 reps or so in the past, cool down and call the rest off. Don't force these workouts. Get more rest, take a couple days off and come back a few days later to try again. Further down are some more advanced and intense interval combinations; these are more suited to those training for 50k and longer races who have been running interval workouts regularly and injury-free for several months.
I first recommend a thorough warm-up before tackling these workouts.
A 10-20 minute jogging warm-up, light stretching and form drills, and some faster strides like 4x 100m accelerating to 90-95% before starting these is recommended. After the workout, run a cool down jog for the same time or longer than warm-up.
Run the below workouts on a track, stretch of runnable trail or uncrowded road. If you've never done this type of workout before, use the Basic Workout below; start with 3 intervals and work up to 5 or 6. If you're not relying on HR data, it's ideal to run where you can have precisely measured distances--GPS watches don't cut it for these workouts! So running at the track is ideal or borrow a wheel from a road race director and then spray-paint a few dots along a stretch of road. Running with friends at a weekly track session is ideal if you're new to these, but don't be tempted to stick with a group that's too fast or slow for you! If you're more experienced, have time constraints that force you to run solo or you want to toughen your mental game, try these workouts alone.
Basic lactate-threshold interval workout:
3-6 intervals of 1600m (4 laps on 400m track) with 1 minute rest between each interval.
More advanced variations:
3-5 x 2000m, 90 sec. rest
3 x 3km, 2:30 rest
2 x 5km, 4:00 rest
Ladder regression: 4k (3:30 rest), 3k (2:30 rest), 2k (1:30 rest), 1600m
If you're wanting to spice up your intervals, you can do them over undulating fire roads, non-technical dirt or grass trails or on hilly city streets. But again, don't pick terrain or hills where you can't hit your pace. While you could obviously hit correct HR, LR intervals in my mind still rely heavily on correct pace to yield the most gains, certainly not least for the confidence gained on the mental battlefield. If you're a hardened (and healthy) veteran runner and have two days per week to devote to speed work, you could do one day on the track where pace is the focus, and then one continuous LT-effort run of 20-40 minutes on trails where HR is the focus. This approach (plus a long run) is the training plan I've employed to hit my marathon and half-marathon PR's. And it's the plan that elites use the world over, but nothing can give--sleep and diet must be monitored closely and life/work/family stresses kept to a minimum.
If your race is going to be on pavement or on actually runnable trails (not HK trails, but somewhere you could run within a minute of your best 5k time), workouts like those above are essential; I'd recommend doing them once per week and even throwing in up to 5km at this pace in your weekend long run every other week. If you're racing hilly or mountainous ultras of 50km and above, these workouts serve somewhat of a different purpose, though they're still beneficial. They allow you to race at a higher intensity without producing lactate (though recent studies and science has debated the 'lactate' threshold theory as a limiting factor in muscle fatigue/failure, but suffice it to say employing these workouts will take your running to the next level), and they allow you to recover quicker coming off of climbs, thus you're able to generally race faster. Racing ultras with too high a HR early on will break the camel's back, so running LT workouts improve your body's ability to run faster at a lower HR.
To recap, speed work can and will help you not only enjoy your next race more, but also get you to the finish line faster. However, you must obey the tried and true principles I'll review now:
1) Principle of Specificity: workouts must be geared to race distance and terrain
2) Principle of Consistency: you must train frequently and have a gradual increase in volume and intensity, but don't increase these simultaneously
3) Principle of Pacing: You must hit the correct pace for your current fitness level (not some PR pace you ran 5 years ago), and use an appropriate rest time between each.
Adding these workouts into your training schedule will bring some variety and pain you may be missing. But, start slow, keep at it and before long, you'll be fitter and running faster. See you out there soon!
Share this post