As a runner, how do you get faster when you are already putting in so many miles and tons of vertical?
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Progressing as an ultra-runner presents itself with lots of challenges when it comes to training. A lot of focus goes into long run days but does this ultimately help your long term improvement? What about speed? How do you get faster when you are putting in so many miles and tons of vertical?
Last year I had an incredible season, highlighted with a top 10 at UTMB CCC 100k. After reflecting on my training and the race, I wanted to know what set me apart from the top 5 girls. The answer was SPEED. I knew I was strong and solid on the climbs, however, the massive downhill's and flat rolling sections was where I needed to improve. I knew I had to improve my overall speed to stay competitive for future races. In early March I contacted running Coach Eric Orton out of Jackson, WY and we sat down to hash out a plan to improve my speed. Eric coaches runners from all around the world and I feel very fortunate to have him in the same town I live and train in.
The terms track, raw speed, heart rate, and threshold hill repeats entered my training regimen almost immediately when I started my Monday morning speed training with Eric. He even shoveled off the track after snow storms so I could make it out every Monday morning to train.
At first I was scared to jump back on the track. It’s been a couple years since I've been on the track. Prepped for skiing lines more than running an oval, that first snowy month at the track really hurt. Eric had me doing a lot of very short, fast efforts to train the neuromuscular system and get my legs used to moving “fast”. 100 and 200 meter intervals were the order of the day, it was no longer good enough for me to rely on just mileage but I needed to increase my speed and avoid stagnation, over training, and plateau.
It was weird for me to run short and fast, but as I started to incorporate these workouts into my training weeks, I noticed that my over distance days felt easier and they were faster. By no means will I ever run as fast as I run on the track in an Ultra race but Eric likes to remind me that a fast ultra runner is fast at all distances and the secret sauce is in speed.
Leading into my first big race of the season, I went through a six- week building phase with a focus on improving my velocity at VO2max effort. This training consisted of unique combinations of 200s, 400s, and 800 meter intervals. I get asked all of the time how fast I run these. I’m not in the business of running an Olympic trial 5k time but I am looking to shift my threshold HR higher so race pace feels easier and my climbing efforts quicker. By the end of the training phase I was running those intervals between 5:03-5:50 mile pace.
When you have the crazy hard workouts like this the Wednesday’s schedule hill repeats don’t hurt as much. The hill workouts were aimed right at or just below my threshold heart rate and longer than the speed intervals. My last race prep workout was 3 x 10 min repeats on a runnable hill. What we look for here is watching HR, making sure I don’t go above my threshold of 180 beats per minute. During this time, Eric is running behind, instructing me how to “read” the terrain and properly pace myself. Knowing how to read a hill and how to prepare for it can make up minutes when it comes to an ultra race. This is where I think I will see the most improvement going forward in my race strategy. Coach really taught me to be mindful of the grade you’re climbing, when the grade and HR goes up, pull back and focus on cadence and/or power hiking. When you have a flatter, runnable section that's when you let out more speed. This continuous focus on adjusting speed based on the terrain and HR adds up over time and ultimately makes you faster while conserving energy. I always remember, what goes up, must come down and . a fast racer is a fast descender. I am anxious to see how my new training helps improve my speed from last year on the flats and descents in the mountains of France this year at my biggest race of the season at UTMB TDS 119k.
I open my race season June 19th at Broken Arrow Sky Race 55k with 11,000 feet of Vertical gain over technical terrain. I’m excited to see how I feel and to incorporate some of the lessons I learned this spring. Happy Training.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meredith June Edwards is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running Team.
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