Training Update


I've decided to modify my training somewhat this year. In the past, my greatest challenge has been making the cut offs.  Now that I have some experience running ultra-distances, I've decided to work at increasing my cruising speed, and hopefully, increase the cushion I have before cut-offs.

Always running long and slow has taught me…. well,… to always run long and slow.

There are many ultrarunners who believe that you only need two or three extra long runs in the 25-35 mile range to be capable of finishing a 50 mile ultra. In the past, I have usually run many more long runs than that. The thought of running so far intimidated me, I believed that I needed a lot of experience running long so I would be confident that I could finish.

Although I still respect the distance, I am no longer anxious about it.  I know that I can run 50 miles because I've done it before. I'd only like to increase my speed, and not by that much.

There are some ultrarunners who run very few ultra-long runs in training. Instead they focus on intervals, fartlek, tempo and other "speed" training. Bruce Fordyce, famous for winning more Comrades Marathons than anyone else, focused on speed/quality rather than distance during training. He did many of his workouts on the track.  He is not alone; there are many other ultrarunners who run most or even all of their extra-long runs in the ultra-races themselves. During training, instead they spend a great deal of time doing shorter more intense work outs. The fastest runners at short distances are the fastest at longer distances. 

"Race during your races, not during training" is advice I've heard more than once.

I'm no where near having tht skill or ability of these elite. However, I'm going to do one or two fewer extra-long runs during each training cycle and add regular weekly intervals and/or other speed work to see if it helps. Will it work? I suppose I will find out. This is only a single year of running for me; I intend to run for many more years. If it doesn't work out, I can go back to what worked for me in the past.  

I must admit it: I HATE intervals. Maybe this is precisely why I need to do more of them?

Speed work for an ultramarathoner, of course, is much different (ie slower) than for those done in training for shorter distances. Our intervals are 1/2 mile or 1 miles with short jogging rest breaks in between. Fartlek can be done on trails. Tempo runs as well as longer runs with faster sections should also be included.

One workout I've had success with in the past are Yasso 800s. These involve running 10x800s with jogging breaks in between that are equal to the time spent running the interval. The average time spent running each interval in minute:seconds is supposed to predict your 26.2 mile marathon time in hours:minutes.

A good predictor of how fast you can run a 50 mile race is how fast you can run a 26.2 m marathon. They say that you can run a 50 mile ultra about 2.2 to 2.3 times your marathon time. Obviously, there are many other factors that will determine the actual time such as weather, training, terrain, altitude and so on.

However, I don't want to have to run a marathon before each ultra just to know what my potential 50 mile time might be. It would be too hard on the body to race that distance so soon before racing an ultra. So I do predictor workouts to get a general idea of how I am doing in my training.  How accurate these workouts are in predicting times are less important. I'm looking for a standard to compare to previous workouts, as a gauge of how well or poorly my training is going right now.

Last weekend I did Yasso 800s in Iowa on dirt roads. It was sunny, cool (30-40 degrees) with a 5 – 10 mph cross wind. My average was  4:02, which predicts a potential marathon time of around four hours, if I were racing and seeking a PB. The best Yasso 800 workout I did last fall was 4:17. This is significant impovement.

However, yesterday and only a week later, I ran them again but this time my time now was 3:47! For an ultra-slogger (slow jogger) like me, that is quite a remarkable improvement. It is even more impressive given that these were run on a track in Custer, South Dakota at an altitude of 5400 ft  with a 15 – 20 mph crosswind, compared to last week at <1000 ft in Iowa with much less wind.

So why such a marked improvement only a week later and under somewhat more challenging conditions?

My body certainly didn't have time to make any physical adaptation to running faster. The improvement occurred because of several reasons.

One is that I noticed that I tend to pant with short fast breaths when running fast or when I am fatigued… I know that I absolutely must stop this. Thus I focused on relaxing, using my abdominal muscles and not only my chest and breathing deeply. Just by doing this I was able to run faster with much less exertion.  

Second, while doing the intervals I focused on stretching out my stride a bit while staying relaxed and not overstriding. I also concentrated on symmetrical efficient arm movement with a relaxed upper body and shoulders. As an ultrarunner, I run my ultradistances  with a slow ground-covering shuffle. This is an ultra-specific race tactic and different from shorter events. However, shuffling is not good for shorter distances. It can be bad habit to get into doing on all your runs. Over time it will shorten your stride, even at distances where you do want to go faster and where it is appropriate to run with a longer stride.

Finally, I was able to run faster simply because I knew that I could. Tim Noakes MD in his book "The Lore of Running" spoke about this. We are limited by how fast and far we can run for a number of reasons including physical fitness, VO2, genetics, weather, altitude, hydration, nutrition and other factors. However, synthesizing all of this information is our "central governor" – basically our brains telling us to be careful because of a strong self-preservation instinct.

Under most circumstances, our central governor will not allow our bodies to do something that would be harmful or deadly. It always tries to save a little. This would have been adaptive in the past. Imagine an Ice Age hunter returning exhausted after a long hunt and then encountering a hungry lion. Only those who had a little extra in them would be able to fight or run so they could survive another day. 

The central governor usually works subconsciously and without our knowledge. The signals this central governor gives us when it wants us to back off we are all well-familiar with: fatigue, muscle pain/weakness, shortness of breath, difficulty staying focused on the task at hand and a strong desire to quit.

The statement: "When you think you've gone as far as you possibly can, you've probably gone only half as far as you could" is true. By challenging ourselves during races and training, we train this central governor to be more forgiving and less cautious. This permits us to go further and faster in the future before it finally kicks in and tells us to stop or slow down.   

Of course, predicting a 26.2 mile marathon of 3:47 and actually doing it are two very different things. Nevertheless, based on this information, it is exciting to think about what I might be able to do at upcoming events. Based on a predicted marathon time of 3:47 hr:min; I might have the potential to do a 50 mile in less than nine hours!!!!

Right now, that sounds completely and utterly impossible. I know that I mustn't think that way because then most definitely it will not be possible. Much of running, and especially ultrarunning, is mental anyway.

If you truly believe you can, then very often you will.  

My fastest 50 mile race ever was my first. It was the Chicago Lakefront 50 mile in fall 2007. I ran it in 10:29 hrs:min. Could I beat this?

If I can do 50 miles faster than ten and a half hours.. then by how much?  There's only one way to find out….


I just registered for the Antelope Island Buffalo Run 50 mile coming up in late March. It is a flat trail race on the largest island in the Great Salt Lake of Utah.

I wonder how fast I might be able to run this? My first goal of course will be the goal I always have: finish no matter what. My secondary goal will be to break my previous best 50 mile of 10:29 hrs. 

My final goal  will be to do it in less than 10 hours.  Based on my other runs and how great my training is going now, I should be able to at least do that as long as the trails are dry, the weather is not bad, I have a good day and most important, I don't make any dumb mistakes.

How fast can I run 50 miles? By how much could I beat my previous PB?

There is only one way for me to find out: I need to do it.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend


8 responses

  1. That's pretty amazing distance!!Well done, very inspirational!!!!!!

    February 9, 2009 at 10:42 am

  2. Hi this is realy inspirational…. Thanks keep up the good work… Love to read your stuff.

    February 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm

  3. Hey thanks… I hope I'm able to achieve my goals… but simply being able to run is success in and of itself.

    February 9, 2009 at 8:01 pm

  4. Thank you… I appreciate your comments!

    February 9, 2009 at 8:04 pm

  5. Long running, like my mountain climbing, falls into the category of "the body is stronger than the mind lets it be." How else can you explain the running for 20+ hours or climbing, almost non-stop, for close to a day at high altitude? Good luck bro; run well and well run.

    February 10, 2009 at 12:22 pm

  6. I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised at how a little bit of speedwork helps your pace. The hard work does pay off as you know from logging all those distance miles. It's going to be great not having to worry about cutoffs, you can just enjoy the trail and people and experience! You'll do great!

    February 11, 2009 at 3:44 am

  7. Speed work definitely helps – a couple years ago I took the same approach that you outlined above and it worked pretty well – I cut 30 minutes off my marathon time.

    February 11, 2009 at 8:40 pm

  8. Thanks!
    One nice thing about speed work is that you see the benefits after only a handful of workouts where it may take months to see solid results from endurance training.
    I too have heard/read that the fastest runners at short distances will also be the fastest at the ultra-long distances- no matter if it is 50, 100, 200+ or more miles.

    February 13, 2009 at 10:08 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s