Well I didn’t manage to run fast enough to win a pie at the Thanksgiving 4 mile today but I still had a pretty good run and shaved 2 seconds off my time from last year for a new PR. Nick, of course, made off with the first pie in my age group easily and the time for the third pie was about 22:27.
It’s going to take a lot more work to shave 2 minutes and 9 seconds off my 24:36 finish time. I know I’m not in the same peak condition that I was in last spring leading up to Western States. But regardless of overall fitness, I definitely feel like I’ve hit my top speed at this race.
The speed workouts that I ran this last month may have helped slightly but I don’t think I started these with an adequate running base to work from. Looking back, I think I would have benefited more from the extra speed work if I hadn’t completely bottomed out after Wasatch. I don’t think that adding speed work while building or re-building a base fitness level is the best approach in the long run. But now that I’ve ramped up my running back to a normal volume, I’m going to keep focused with regular cycles of track work through the winter. Since my 800 pace isn’t much faster than my 3 to 4 mile race pace, I’m going to stick with 400’s or shorter intervals until I can successfully run the longer intervals at a faster average pace.
For ultra marathons, very few people put much focus into speed work. Personally I think it’s the last exercise on the list of training priorities to add to an ultra training schedule. Most fitness and performance gains can be achieved through sheer volume and consistency over time. Adding hills – hill intervals, hill tempo runs, long slow hills, hiking hills, …pretty much any way you can run, hike, or crawl your way up hills is going to improve your cardio fitness and strength. Speed work ads a lot more stress and impact and increases the risk of injury and burn out. So when in doubt, I’d recommend skipping the speed work just to play it safe. A small performance increase isn’t worth the risk of losing your long term consistency.
But after building a solid running base, I think speed work can be incredibly beneficial to help train for ultras. The obvious benefit is that it will eventually increase your speed at all levels. With very small doses of speed work, you can increase your normal cruising speed at ultra marathon pace. Dropping an average easy pace from a 12 minute mile to an 11:24 minute mile will knock a full hour off a 100 mile finish time.
I really think that the most important benefit from speed work is the mental training. In all of the track workouts I’ve run, my legs really weren’t that tired throughout the full workout. The biggest limiting factor was my motivation and concentration level. After a number of intervals, I just really didn’t want to push myself through another. The physical ability was there but it took a huge mental effort to repeat the interval. And to maintain speed through the full interval, it took even more concentration. This is exactly the same mental battle that you go through in the end of any hard ultra.
My next ultra races aren’t until Ghost Town in January and Moab in February so this gives me plenty of time to focus on a couple good quality cycles of speed work in the next couple of months. Since both of these courses are very fast and runnable, I hope the effort will pay off with a couple new PR’s to start the year.