Ultrarunning: Building Up Your Speed for Ultras

August 22, 2011

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Building Up Your Speed for Ultras”, please leave it below in the comments section…

On the surface it may seem a bit contradictory that you would have to do speed work for ultras. This is the kind of footrace that naturally needs to be done at a slower pace than the standard marathon. At distances of 100 miles, you’re likely to be doing more brisk walking and jogging than actual running anyway. So where’s the need for speed?

Well in very broad terms, there are two ways to run an ultra. One can simply try to finish or one can set a personal challenge and conquer the long distance at the best possible time one can manage. If you want to run an ultra the second way, you’re going to have to put in some speed work in your training.

A different type of endurance

The bread-and-butter long runs that are part of your personal regimen help you adapt to stress and train your body to burn fat and glycogen more efficiently. This activity teaches you how to keep on running even when feeling tired. Having this kind of endurance is unquestionably a key factor that gets you across an ultramarathon’s finish line. But as sometimes pointed out by more experienced ultrarunners, there is usually a trade off with speed. You learn to cope with the distance but you might become slower in the process.

Speed work compensates for this loss and it also helps your body build a different type of endurance. Lactic acid accumulates in your muscles as they get tired until it reaches a point where you’ll just have to stop or lessen pressure to let it recover. According to some studies done on the physiology of running, exercises that focus on speed contribute to extending this threshold. That means you can run for longer periods. If you can keep up a pace and cover more ground in an ultra, you’re likely to finish in good time.

Uphill and downhill

It has been said that trail ultras are won on the downhill and flat ground sections. The reasoning here is that there is little time difference between a participant walking uphill and one running up the same route. But a participant running downhill is obviously going to do better time than one simply shuffling down. With more leg speed and judicious pacing, you can maximize the portions of an ultramarathon where running is called for.

Speed workouts

Now that you know how speed can factor in an ultra, here is a list of some common workouts that focus on this aspect.

Interval – This type of workout is more commonly done on pavement or tracks. You set running intervals either based on distance or time with slow recovery sets in between. The intervals don’t necessarily have to be uniform in length. You can also set varying paces for each.

Fartlek – Swedish for ‘speed play’. This is a type of continuous interval training where you are free to decide on when to pick up the intensity and when to cool down. Your own breathing and heart rate is the usual basis. This kind of exercise can be adapted to any type of terrain. On a hilly trail for example, you can choose to increase intensity uphill and then recover on the succeeding downhill.

Tempo – This exercise follows a more parabolic structure. You begin with a slow warm-up of a certain distance, gradually increase to and maintain a fast run, and then wind down to a normal pace again.

As with endurance focused workouts, speed work is more effective when structured properly into your regimen, with the proper build up and incremental increase in frequency. More experienced ultrarunners typically advise those just starting with speed work to do no more than one speed oriented session every other week. There are many ways to vary the workout configurations. It is ultimately up to you to discover which arrangement can give the best results.


Do you have questions about building up speed for ultras, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

Comments (2)

  • andy says:

    I love Your information. I have had the wonderfull opportunity to learn from Scott Jurek regarding the concept of gearing. He compares this to riding a mountain bike and changing gears for terrain. I had My best 50K time doing this. From My experience it was achieved by the stride length and rate. the rate stays very consistant while the length changes with the difference of terrain. On the up hills it is very important to
    keep a short length. when Your cruising on the flats You can widen it way up etc……

  • dvd ripper says:

    Hi, just stumbled on your page from reddit. It’s not an article I would typically read, but I loved your perspective on it. Thanks for making a blog post worth reading!

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