Trail runners and ultrarunners get a bad rap for speed. People assume trail running is slow by nature, and that trail runners should therefore always train slow. Runners that prefer their running off-road resort to a strict regimen of speed-walking and a majority of ultrarunners prefer hiking 100 miles over running 26.2.
Yes, I’ll admit that trail and ultra running typically involves a much slower pace than road racing. The rocky, hilly terrain and long distances of trail and ultra require variable, sometimes slower, speed. But that doesn’t mean we should always train slow.
Trail and ultra runners have to train hard to win. Renowned running coach and professional trail runner David Roche has pros and weekend warriors alike run a high-intensity workout once a week. Roche believes that running economy, the measure of how much energy it takes for you to travel a certain distance, can only be improved when the occasional interval training session is thrown in.
“The most important metric for performance (and finding flow) is running economy,” Roche says. “Lots of variables improve running economy, like consistency and higher volume, but one of the most important is doing a small amount of faster running. A little bit of go-fast stimulus can make all paces feel easier, even the slower days and long runs.”
When we run fast our slow runs use energy more efficiently. At best, our slow pace becomes more comfortable and faster. Of course, everyone runs for different reasons. Not every ultrarunner needs speed running. Still, there’s no denying that high-intensity training can help resolve performance plateaus and boredom brought on by exhaustive long distance training and racing.
If you’re looking for a performance boost or to break the monotony of training, here are four go-to workouts designed by Roche and the head running physiologist and coach at APEX Coaching and Consulting, Joe Cavarretta.
Roche Workout One: Binary Code
The workout: Spend 10-20 minutes warming up with a slow, easy jog followed by 8 to 15 x 1 minute fast with 1 minute easy in between. During the fast portions, run moderately hard; maintain a pace you’d use in a 5k. You don’t want it to be too hard, but smooth and sustainable. For a more advanced workout, pick up the pace during the easy minutes between your intervals to somewhere in between easy and moderate. Roche calls the moderately paced rest periods “floats” Like the warm-up, spend 10-20 minutes after the workout jogging slowly and cooling down.
Why it works: According to Roche, these intervals work your velocity at VO2 max, which is a critical running economy metric that helps to build power output and aerobic capacity. The “Binary Code” workout coupled with faster recovery periods between intervals improve our ability to clear fatigue-causing chemical byproducts of exercise.
Cavarretta Workout 1: Endurance Hills
Cavarretta, who coaches runners of all abilities including the 2018 50k road National Champion, also puts a lot of emphasis on improving running economy for trail runners stating that sometimes, our legs just can’t keep up with our engine.
“Many times with trail runners, I notice their cardiovascular system has outgrown their body’s ability to move fast,” Cavarretta says. “This places a ceiling on their ability to push their limits and create improvement. Speed workouts can improve max speed, muscle power, coordination for downhills and running economy. The improvement in running economy means we will also reduce the cost of running at sub-maximal speeds (e.g., 50-mile race pace), and ultimately become more resistant to fatigue.”
The workout: Warm up for 15-20 minutes, or to feel. Run 8 x 45 second uphill at 95 percent max effort. A 3-8 percent grade is ideal. Make sure the walk or jog back to the start is easy. Take additional rest if needed. The goal is to hold a fast pace for each repetition, so take the necessary rest after each rep to ensure you can maximize each interval, and hold the starting pace throughout the workout. Cool down with 15-20 minutes of easy and slow running.
Why it works: Cavarretta utilizes this workout to develop speed, endurance and sustained power on challenging hills. Training your nervous system to fire more efficiently will improve running economy at all paces, and will enable a runner to go uphill with less effort.
Roche Workout 2: The Closer
The workout: After warming up, start your workout with 10-20 minutes at a moderate effort, meaning an effort you could sustain for about an hour. Follow those 10-20 minutes at your moderate pace with 5 minutes of easy jogging to recover. Then, ramp it back up again with 4-8 x 30 seconds very fast with 90 seconds easy in between. Top it off with 10-20 minutes of slow jogging for your cool down.
Why it works: Having performed this workout under Roche’s guidance, I know it’s a butt-kicker served with a healthy dose of confidence. Roche states that The Closer is a go-to workout for running economy.
“The tempo portion of this workout develops lactate threshold, a key metric impacting running economy,” he says. “Then, the faster sections at the end work on maximal power output and speed. It’s a do-it-all workout for a do-anything runner.”
Cavarretta Workout 2: Uphill Accelerations
The workout: This short but effective workout starts slow and ends fast. After your 15-20 minute warm up, run 6-8 x 20 seconds uphill accelerations. From a standing start, slowly accelerate up a hill of about 3-8 percent grade, finishing near max effort for the final five seconds. Like the last workout, walk or jog back to your starting point and be sure to recover fully before the next rep.
Why it works: Cavarretta says the uphill accelerations introduce fast running to your legs and develop running mechanics needed for more advanced workouts.
“The short speed sets strengthen your body’s running structures without creating excessive fatigue and lay the foundation for future speed work,” he says. “As a bonus, they will also improve running economy and leg strength.”