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As long distance or ultra runners do you need speed work?

As an ultra runner or someone preparing to become one, the question arises; Do I need to do speed work? 

Below details  the information to make an informed decision on whether you need to include speed work yet, or at all. We will consider the benefits of it, the dangers, how to do structure it, and the different types of speed work.

From the outset let me state my position;  I believe you can run ultras and never do speed work if you don't want to. Its a good tool that has many advantages but there are also disadvantages that can sometime outweigh the good. 

Running long ultras at least (excluding road 50 to 80km distances) is not about leg speed, but more about strength and endurance, correct  nutrition and hydration, plus possessing  a gritty determination and stickability.  For me, these things are more important than speed training.   However it does have its benefits - especially if you are a natural fast runner and want to be at the pointy end of the field.  But, it is never the most important part of ultra trainer. 

Speed training can backfire if you are not careful.  It can actually  make you slower if you go out too fast or concentrate too much training time on honing speed.  This can be to the very real detriment of your endurance.  Long endurance training always has a trade off.  You can't be a sprinter and an ultra athlete and even many top marathon runners failed miserably when it comes to having a go at long ultras because they think the preparation with the marathons focus on speed, pace and splits etc is the same just longer for ultras.  Its not.  Many a top ultra runner is hopeless or at best average at short distances races.  Of course natural running ability helps at all levels but many top fast runners concentrate on speed to the detriment of the pacing or the long time on the legs training that is required. 

Focusing on speed work doesn't make us faster on the ultra race day (with exception of the short road ultra) and most certainly doesn't help on a 100 mile plus mountain race.

So if you are someone like me, not blessed with any sort speed in my legs - take heart.

That said, let me share with you my story.  

I never had any natural speed - being an asthmatic hasn't helped but I also don't possess the right genetic make up for speed. I have far more slow twitch fibres than fast (more about what they are later - suffice to say the ones that make you good at endurance rather than speed) and I have trained from a very early age to go long, not fast- so  any speed I had as a child was trained out of me, unwittingly at the time.

I have also suffered most of my life with anaemia, which is a lack of red blood cells in the body, the ones that carry the oxygen to the working, oxygen hungry muscles (anaemia is a common problem amongst women and amongst long distance runners) so my bloods ability to feed my muscles with oxygen has never been good.  "Below average" is what I was told by the University professors at AUT university.  My VO2max a disaster. Hence I naturally gravitated toward super long races as I have found my mass of slow twitch fibres and my stubborn, hang in their personality enables me to do well in this genre.

So Rule No 1. to be learned from my story;   You don't have to be fast to do crazy long distances or even to do quite well at the long stuff. In fact you might be at an advantage over those short distance specialists who go like the wind but whose fast twitch fibres tire quickly, not to mention their often lack of patience for the grueling long hard yards.

Don't compare apples with oranges and play to your strengths.

There are many advantages of incorporating some sort of speed work into your programme even at a relatively low level but also there are dangers.

First up; Don't do any speed work until you have a very solid endurance/fitness base. Speed requires stability, strength, muscle control, coordination and good running form to be any good to you and you don't want to risk heart conditions because you pushed your heart rate up too hard and high.  So work primarily on that base and incorporate strength and mobility training to work out any imbalances in the body and to increase your control and coordination before you go blasting it. If you have been running less than a year you probably shouldn't be doing any speedwork yet - unless your discipline is short distance exclusively. 

Rule No.1 -  Build any speed work  on top of a good foundation. Don't  define this purely by long hours of running, but by ensuring  you have completed a good base programme of strength and conditioning, mobility training and stretching.  You should have undertaken some kind of form drills to make sure your body can handle the special rigors of this type of hard intense workout.

Rule No.2  When you do start speed work,  do it gradually and slowly and build it up.   It should never encompass more than 10% of your overall training mileage (again talking to long distance runners, sprinters and 5k runners are the topic of my discussion here).   Ease into it carefully and at the first sign of any niggling injuries pull back.

Rule No.3 -  Work out your personality and your goals and analySe your need for speed or not.  Remember the tortoise and the hare.  Which do you want to be?

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