Run Ultras Faster

Tips for Ultra Marathon Speed

Finishing an ultra marathon is an accomplishment in itself. The typical ultra runner is more concerned with beating cut-off times than running fast. Still, we are runners, and running faster is part of the fun. Once a trail runner has successfully completed a couple 100km or 100mi races the desire to go faster is unavoidable.

Would you like to run your next ultra marathon faster? Read on and learn how the ultra marathon speedsters are training.

JO17_Big Sur International Marathon_RT

Michael Wardian at Big Sur International Marathon, Photo: Dave Freeman


Speed Work Defined

Trying to define speed work can be quite tricky. An easy to understand definition can be found on the website. In his article, Enduring Well – The Value of Speed Work for Ultra Runners, Jacob Puzey explains: “Speed work, when defined as ‘anything shorter and faster than goal race pace/distance’ is quite broad. When we are talking about ultra-pace and distances this could include most, if not all running done in training. If this definition of speed work is too broad, we can narrow it to any ‘effort in training designed to increase the athlete’s ability to cover ground at a faster rate.’”


Successfully covering ground at a faster rate is every trail runner’s desire.


The Science of Speed Work for Ultra Runners

Jeff Pelletier explained the science well in his article, Speed Training Work for Ultra Runners – Is it Important? He rounds it off to two levels of effort: 1) at or around lactate threshold, and 2) at or around maximal aerobic capacity.


Pelletier says, “higher intensity workouts around your lactate threshold pace or effort can help teach your body how to use lactate acid as a fuel source, to exercise at a higher intensity for longer and to recover quicker from a period of higher intensity work like hill climbing.”


He goes on to explain that VO2 max acts as a ceiling under which all other zones are stacked up. VO2 max is said to be determined mostly by genetics, but can be improved by 10-30% through training. By practicing speed work you can improve your VO2 max score. Imagine improving by 10% and how this could affect your overall race performance.


Out in Front and Running Fast

Dylan Bowman, overall winner of the 2015 Tarawera Ultra Marathon, feels that as the sport continues to progress and get faster, that it will only be possible to compete at a high level with some form of speed work. He usually does three speed sessions a week.


Bowman is coached by Jason Koop, the director of Carmichael Training Systems, who, when it comes to training intensity, stresses timing and specificity.


Ruby Muir of New Zealand, who recently was the first place female finisher at the Tarawera, says: “I do a lot of running at faster paces and believe it is essential for anyone wanting to improve their performance. For ultras I think you can get massive benefits by targeting your lactate threshold.” Notably, Muir does one structured speed work session a week, and two other faster paced runs.


Michael Wardian has represented the USA at the 50km and 100km World Championships and has a 2h 17min 49s marathon personal record. Wardian regularly takes first place in 50mi and 50km trail races. He races a lot — 54 times in 2014 alone — but he still finds time to get at least one good speed session a week.


Wardian says, “I don’t think speed work is essential for all types of ultras, but I do think it will benefit athletes in ultras and lead to improvements.”


The amazing speed of Ellie Greenwood has helped her set course records at the Western States 100 -Mile Endurance Run and the JFK 50 Mile. She has also won other well-known ultras such as the Comrades Marathon and the Ultra Race of Champions. Greenwood agrees that speed training is essential to doing well during ultras, especially road or less technical trail ultras. She includes speed work in her training year round.


Ellie Greenwood, course setter of Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and JFK50-Mile, Photo: DrozPhoto


Sage Canaday, who has won the Speedgoat 50km for the last two years in a row, feels that: “a variety and mix of workouts is always best. There needs to be a long-term plan for periodization and progression, but little doses of speed and intensity really seem to help with efficiency over distance.”


How Do They Do it?

There are as many approaches to speed work as there are trail races.


Many ultra runners base their training on a traditional marathon training plan. Muir believes that a marathon training system can give you almost all of the physiological adaptations required. She says “almost” because, “for very mountainous races I find you need more strength and muscular endurance than you can get from pure marathon training.” This is why she adds in weekly runs that offer vertical gain.


Bowman also tries to replicate race specific intensities in the critical weeks before races. He says: “in the last few weeks before the Tarawera, I focused mostly on lactate threshold intervals between 8-10 minutes at 80% perceived effort. We focused these efforts on flat to rolling terrain to replicate the race course and intensities I’d likely use.”


Muir likes to incorporate one structured workout a week, one medium long run (16-20km) that increases pace to more of a marathon pace, and one of her two longer runs (27-30km) at a harder effort, ideally finishing the last few kilometres at marathon pace.


She also likes to mix it up and run repeats around a grass field, do fartlek workouts on easy trail or gravel roads, and do tempo or marathon paced runs on road.


Wardian does all kinds of speed workouts, from five 1mi hill repeats, to three 3min, or a 5km flat out. He also likes doing speed fartleks — going hard to the next tree to catch the person in front of you.


Greenwood’s speed sessions vary but she says they tend to be longer intervals. She likes running five 1km or two 5km sets. She avoids the track and does her speed work on trails and road, at times flat terrain and other times on rolling trails.


“I do a lot of 2mi repeats (four reps) at around half-marathon pace. Other workouts include uphill tempo runs of 20-40min, and some fartlek surges during 20mi-plus long runs,” says Canaday.


Put It into Practice

Running your next ultra marathon faster can be done with one speed session a week. Finding the motivation is the first step. Greenwood suggests, “commit to speed work once a week, at least to start with, as you will see the benefits with consistency.” She also suggests finding a group to train with that will push you to run faster.


Bowman says hiring a coach would be his biggest suggestion: “education is critical to incorporating speed work while remaining healthy and excited about your training. Connect with someone who can provide that education and give you direction and leadership in your training.”


Three of Bowman’s Typical Speed Sessions:

VO2 Max Intervals: 6-10 x 3min at 100% RPE (rate of perceived exertion) with 3min recovery. Usually done up hill.

Lactate Threshold Intervals: 5 x 10min at 80% RPE with 5min recovery. Also, usually done up hill.

Steady State Intervals: 2 x 30min intervals at 75% RPE with 15min recovery.


“Begin very easy and set up the routine. For example, once a week start running two or three 1k repeats with a big warm up and cool down. Keep them at a pace that makes you feel strong but is not at all a struggle, and this way you can remove the stigma of doing a speed workout,” says Muir.


By starting out easy you will avoid risks of injury. After this Muir suggests to reduce the recovery time and increase the reps until it is more of a workout.


Three of Muir’s Typical Speed Sessions:

Intervals: 5 x 1.5km at 10km race pace with short recoveries.

Fartlek Session: 2min on, 2min off. High average pace with recoveries still at fast pace.

Pure Tempo Run: 6km at 1h race pace.


Trail running and racing is about having fun and speed sessions should add to the fun factor. As Wardian suggests: “I think the best tip or advice I could give about speed work is keep it simple and make it fun. It does not have to be a drag. Chase your kids or dog or cyclist to the next traffic light. Running is fun and speed work can be too.”


Speed Work Types:

Tempo: This is the effort right outside of your comfort zone. It should be hard to carry on a conversation but you can still talk in short bursts. Your breathing should be heavy but not gasping. Like all speed sessions you start with a warm up and end with a cool down. Run at tempo for 20-60min.

Interval: These are quick, short, intense efforts that are followed by a full recovery. The difference between interval and tempo is that intervals are run at or above your red line. Having a conversation is out of the question and you will be trying to catch your breath. Run for 30s to 8min and then rest for the same or higher amount of time.

Fartlek: Swedish for ‘speed play.’ Fartleks are unstructured and all about playing with your speed. Warm up and then run fast for 10-30s. Race your trail runner partner to the next boulder or tree, and then run easy to recover. Repeat. The goal is to keep it lighthearted while gaining speed.


By Clint Cherepa


Clint is currently in Nicaragua engaged in volunteer work, writing, and ultra training. He plans on returning to the USA this summer to crew and pace his little sister in her first 50mi trail ultra.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *