Intervals

Is money ruining ultrarunning? Probably. I’ll leave that up to the old guard to discuss. What I’m talking about is one effect of the growth of our sport–the raised level of competition. What once was a sport with just a few top runners now hosts dozens of fast men and women at major races all over the globe. The influx of competition has paralleled the rise in popularity of the sport. The bottom line: ultrarunning is no longer just a bunch of hairy dudes running in the mountains. It’s a legitimate sport that supports some of the world’s best athletes.

As someone trying to compete in this cutthroat world of long-distance stardom, I find myself always seeking out new avenues to improve as an athlete. And after trying every shortcut that Men’s Health magazine could throw at me, I decided to start actually training. And it worked, unfortunately, which meant I would have to continue working hard if I wanted to do well. So for the past two years, I have trained like a real athlete and have seen a steady improvement in my abilities since then. The takeaway? Hard work helps you get faster. Damn.

Anyway, after five years of serious ultrarunning, if you’ll allow me to indulge myself a bit, I’m pretty solid on the running-a-long-way part. I can generally go 50 or 60 miles in a push if I want to. I seldom do, since I save those efforts for the races. But in general terms, I have the strength and endurance on most days to run for many hours. That doesn’t mean that training isn’t important, but it does shape the way my training is structured. Generally I will do longer training runs early in the season, then shorten and sharpen them up as the season progresses. This is part of something I do called a ‘training plan’, which uses ‘science’ to make me ‘better’. And you know where it all came from? A coach.

Before I had a coach, I had the general idea that training involved long runs, speedwork, hill work, cross training, stretching… other stuff. It was all so vague. I ran a lot and sometimes fast and competed enough that I improved quickly. But by the end of 2011, I realized that to continue to improve, I would need help. I couldn’t just ‘wing it’ anymore.

Fortunately, at that point, Jason Koop reached out to me. Jason works at Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs and is actually a much more accomplished ultrarunner than myself. Just last year he ran Hardrock, Leadville, and Wasatch, placing well in all three. The upside to this is that he knows what he is talking about. He understands the sport of ultrarunning, which is absolutely essential in a coach. Couple that understanding with a massive knowledge of the science of training as well as more than 10 years of experience with some pretty impressive athletes (like Dean Karnazes), and he is clearly the best coach EVER. I’ll fight you if you disagree.

Working with Jason gave me the structure and logic to my training that I had lacked in the past. He coached me to a level of ability that allowed me to win the Lake Sonoma 50 and Transvulcania last year, then run an hour and a half faster at Hardrock than I had the previous year. He knew how to train me, our personalities matched, and things lined up.

But you know what he makes me do? Intervals. Lots and lots of intervals. We started out last year with 5 x 4-minute intervals, and depending on the race for which I am training, those have fluctuated up to 4 x 12 minutes, 4 x 20 minutes, and even a few 2 x 30-minute intervals. Each type of interval works different aerobic systems for different purposes, but they all share one thing in common: they rock my world. No longer is ‘training’ just a bunch of long running in the mountains. Nowadays, more often than not, I find myself sprinting at absolute aerobic capacity up dirt or paved roads, pacing myself by time and effort. Sometimes I’m inspired, sometimes I’m destroyed, but at the end of every set, I am always proud of myself. The structure of training allows me to work really hard at the times that matter and relax the rest of the time, knowing that I really am doing all that I need to be a better athlete.

(Just kidding. I can’t ever relax. I’m always on edge, freaking out, panicking that I could/should be doing something MORE to be fasterfasterfaster!)

Several years ago, another competitive ultrarunner told me he isn’t interested in doing intervals or cross training. “That’s not why I run, man,” he said. “I don’t enjoy that.” I didn’t have much of a response because his attitude makes sense. If you don’t enjoy something, don’t do it. And if you are a mountain runner only because you love to run in the mountains, why pollute that experience with road intervals?

Yet I continue to run intervals, and I won’t stop anytime soon. Although, sure, I would prefer to run in the mountains, I know that doing intervals will make me faster. My goal is to be the strongest, fastest, best mountain runner in the sport. Sure, I’m still a long way off, but that’s the goal, and I know that doing intervals will give me the aerobic ability to compete on the high level at which ultramarathons are regularly run these days. Interspersing my long mountain runs with focused intervals three times a week undoubtedly makes me faster, and that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the overall goal.

And you know what? I like the intervals, too. I don’t just suffer through them in order to be faster on race day; in a certain way, they are some of the most rewarding runs I do. Few other workouts provide the empirical structure that allows me to gauge my ability like intervals do, and rarely elsewhere do I get the amazing sense of accomplishment that intervals provide. By doing intervals, I know that I am making myself better within the confines of the sport which I have chosen. Everything else in my life seems so ambiguous; intervals are objective.

What’s it like? Nose running, spit flying, my vision almost eclipsing, I can feel my heartbeat in my throat. I pump my legs as hard as possible. They feel heavy, thick, swollen. Only the balls of my feet touch the road and as the incline steepens my steps seem to make no progress at all. I can feel the parts of my body that aren’t getting enough blood, like my hands growing colder, and I can feel the invigoration of oxygen in each breath. Everything in my body depending upon everything else, and I’m dying, man. This is it, I cannot keep this up but I have two more minutes and how can I go on?

I don’t know. Just don’t stop. I usually imagine Rob Krar catching up behind me and that makes me push a little bit harder. When the interval finally ends, I maintain a jogging pace that is little more than moving up and down on my toes. Eventually I recover enough to jog slowly downhill. And after just a few minutes, I turn around and do it all again. And it hurts just as bad.

But I’m young and strong and getting better with each step. The competition drives me to be the best that I can be. Hopefully that inspiration will carry me through my training and well into the next race. I like seeing our sport advance; the growth allows everyone to progress as individual runners. And even if I have to forsake the sanctity of the mountains for the crush of the road, I’ll do it to improve, to grow, to be better.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you do intervals?
  • Do you loathe them as much as you love them?
  • Can you tell if they make you a faster, stronger runner?

There are 123 comments

  1. Caleb

    My coach assigns various hill or gravel road intervals, and even track sessions, the controlled environment of which allows for more precise cause/effect correlation. They have made me faster and stronger, physically and mentally. I’m relatively new to any form of serious running – let alone trails or ultras! – and would make two main points to fellow newbies.

    First, intervals have (especially on a track) painted a very clear view of my capabilities. I know what I can handle and what starts to happen to my body when I linger about or cross that line where the wheels begin to come off. I can use heart rate limits I’ve actually experienced to develop race strategy. And to the question of performance enhancement, I can tell from repeating certain interval sessions that I remain stronger for longer into the run for having done various intervals once per week for nearly a year. And for long distances, intervals clearly informed my planning and execution in my first big 50K, the Rock/Creek StumpJump 50K in Chattanooga, TN earlier this month. Knowing my interval capabilities translated directly and clearly into knowing and pushing my 50K capabilities (on climbs and late in the race). For me, intervals have enhanced both physical and mental performance.

    Your point about empirical gauges of ability is very important. I have a measurement-heavy approach to trail running. Before-and-After data have been very, very valuable. They are at least motivational; they are at best extremely informative.

    So, secondly, as a general point about other data of potential value to newer runners, consider that for non-running reasons I knew (accurately) my body muscle/fat percentages in October 2011. Comparing to October 2013 measurements of the same, I know that 1) my speed has increased with near-identical weight loss percentage decreases and 2) even lost muscle has been from my upper body, which, to a point, can be advantageous for running. (Matt Fitzgerald’s 2nd Edition of “Racing Weight” offers reinforcement and science in these regards.)

    Combining these two points (do intervals, and collect other data, too), consider that in October 2013 I ran a local trail 5K 13% faster than in 2011 (I didn’t run it in 2012). This was possible largely because 1) I knew how to treat it like an interval workout (remaining fast without crashing) and because 2) I weigh less (for having measured and changed body composition, with little hassle, I might add). (For relevance to longer distances, see above about my recent 50K.)

    Thanks, Dakota, for sharing your views of speed work, which is sometimes treated with a sort of hand-waving opinion instead of science (or even meaningful, if personal, data) as second-class or unnecessary training. Get fasterfasterfaster!

    – Caleb

    1. Alex

      That just hasn't been my experience. My high school and college coaches both emphasized year 'round speed development, and I've kept that up in to my adult life. Neither myself nor my teammates had injury issues, and the group I (primarily) run with now is healthy too. Perhaps my perspective is skewed towards the young and light, however. I'll readily admit that not everyone should follow the same plan. I do think there is something to be said, though, that EVERY high-level coach, form high school on up, emphasizes the importance of targeting all of your energy systems, all the time. Even Lydiard's famous base phase included sprints and tempo efforts.

  2. Helen

    Lets not forget that Armstrong is an investor in Carmichael Systems. Also don't forget that Durango is a hotbed of doping. In fact, when pro biker Tom Danielson was forced to admit to doping as part of the Armstrong investigation, City Council named him Honorary Mayor of Durango!

      1. lstomsl

        Durango is a hotbed of doping???? Cause I live there and I don't know of anyone using (illegal dope). Who besides Tom Danielson (who went to college there and then moved to Boulder) has ever been accused of doping?

        I was disturbed to hear Rick Crawford get drug into all of this. He doesn't live here anymore either.

  3. OOJ

    Terrific post: good to read clear examples of top-level runners utilizing coaching/disciplined training.

    Quotes for emphasis:

    >"The structure of training allows me to work really hard at the times that matter and relax the rest of the time, knowing that I really am doing all that I need to be a better athlete.

    (Just kidding. I can’t ever relax. I’m always on edge, freaking out, panicking that I could/should be doing something MORE to be fasterfasterfaster!)"

    A coach provides the discipline to hit the gas hard 1-2 days a week, then forced easy running the other days. This is (micro- and macro-) periodization is a vital part of sustainable training, and clearly a major component in Mr Jones' success.

    This element will be expanded upon in next month's "Stay the Course".

  4. Meghan Hicks

    To all,

    Dakota wrote an article about interval training and how it has changed his mental and physical approach to his sport. The comments section of this article was intended to be a place for everyone to discuss all things interval training. However, the comments here have digressed to the point that little productive conversation about interval training can now occur. This is disappointing and I hope that, from now forward, comments will evolve back to more productive place.

    We thank you to those of you who expressed your interest in talking more about doping on a more general and constructive level. As many of you know, the forward progress of iRunFar over all these years has been a reflection of what we see the community likes, asks for, and thrives on. We will take your suggestions to heart. That said, a number of comments to this article have shown the challenge of having a constructive conversation about anything, let alone a topic that is among the most sensitive in any sport community. Opinions are spoken like fact; people write disrespectfully about other people; and fallacious arguments are presented as logic. A fair conversation requires that every participant play fair, and that's not happening in the comments to this article.

    To those of you who have and are taking productive part in this conversation, thank you. You are the ones who help keep the conversations here valuable and meaningful, which has always been the intent of the comments section of our articles.

    Thanks for reading.

    1. Tom W

      True, but Dakota also chose to advertise/promote who his coach was. Certainly don't fault him for that, sounds like a beneficial relationship for both parties. But, in doing so he certainly opened himself and coach up for scrutiny.

      Enjoyed the article and some of the doping questions raised. Unfortunately the trolling goes along with any public forum.

      1. Meghan Hicks

        Tom W,

        While trolling is now common on the Internet, I don't think it has to be common on iRunFar. Call me hyper-optimistic but, as easily as people can choose to troll, they can choose to act respectfully, constructively. Especially, maybe precisely, because we're trail runners who operate with a unique set of ethics when we're on the trail with each other, within wild places. We will always expect equal civility on iRunFar as we see on the trails and we hope that readers will also expect this from each other. :)

      2. Ben

        Dakota's coach is Jason Koop, an employee at Carmichael Training Systems. Dakota's coach is not Chris Carmichael (an individual who has had some past history). One does not equal the other; I feel like this has been lost on those trying to accomplish whatever their agenda has been with the comments above.

        Put another way, I work for a publicly traded company. I'm an employee of this company. The founder of this company was accused then found guilty of insider trading a few years back. Although this slightly tarnishes the public image of my company, it does not reflect on me in any way as an individual. One does not equal the other.

        Talk about a strong "community" we have, this comment section has been pathetic.

        1. lstomsl

          Dakota and Jason are people. They make choices. It is certainly possible that they knew nothing about Carmichael's past when they began their relationship with him but they do now. They can now either choose to continue contributing to the financial success of someone who became famous from aiding a cheater and in the process cheating legitimate coaches out of clients. Or they can choose to take a stand and end that relationship and make a positive statement about their position on doping. Dakota in particular has a loud voice in this sport from his performance as a runner and from his following as a contributor to iRunFar. I look forward to hearing his position on the matter.

          1. A. Keller

            We would all do well to remember the oft-repeated advice that, if you have something to say about somebody, don't say it online if you wouldn't say it to their face during a run. Just keep it bottled up inside until you can talk about them to someone else behind their back. That way, you'll still be an asshole, but at least you won't be an anonymous internet asshole, which as we all know, is the worst kind of asshole.

            Now go run some intervals, and, for motivation, think about Dakota catching up to you from behind after you just questioned his integrity to his face.

          2. A. Keller

            lstomsl-To clarify, my comments aren't directed at you, but to the forum in general. Posted it under your comment accidentally.

  5. Paul in Ireland

    Thanks Dakota

    Great article and an interesting insight. As someone else said in this section, I am slow, love the trail and do no speedwork. When I did, in the past, I was faster. Maybe you convinced me to throw some intervals/fartleks into my mid-week runs.

    Best wishes for your next endeavours!

  6. AJW

    I have to agree with Karl on this one. While my days of running intervals are over (unless you consider 7 minute pace across a meadow chasing my xc runners an interval) I prescribe them to my coaching clients on a very limited basis and only after a long and disciplined build-up.

    That said, the old saying is still true, in order to run fast you need to run fast.

  7. AJW

    Please don't tell me they just put IPA on the banned substance list. Because, if so, not only am I totally screwed and likely to be stripped of my eight silver buckles by Lord Balls but, by association, so are all the others who've enjoyed IPAs with me on the infield at Placer High School on the last Sunday in June over the past 10 years. And, trust me, that's a long list that we don't want L'Equipe to get ahold of.

    Peace everyone, we're all in this together!

    AJW

  8. Travis Macy

    Great article, Dakota. I really enjoyed the information and your writing style.

    Jason, you sound like a great coach.

    I agree: intervals are very important.

  9. Helen

    Trolling is writing things you don't really mean just to amp people up and get a response. I don't see any real trolling on this thread, but people expressing genuine beliefs. The love in that is the ultra community gets a little stale when nothing but sunshine and lollipops are allowed.

  10. Justin R.

    Meghan and Bryon,

    I'm in agreement that this is isn't the forum for a discussion on doping, especially as it relates tangentially (at best) to Dakota. But maybe, as you mentioned Meghan, that a discussion on this topic is what the community is asking for. It seems as if a few of the respondents had legitimate and reasonable questions regarding Dakota's association with an organization recently in a negative spotlight. Might an article on doping and ultra-running be warranted at this point?

    Best,

    Justin

  11. Shelby

    I don't like doing intervals because they are more uncomfortable than lollygagging; but I like doing them because I'm a tortoise who is destined to be a turtle and speed work WORKS.

    I don't like having to go to work when I want to run all day and then play with my kids; but I like having only 30-40 min to run during my lunch hour, because it forces me to do speed work 2x per week.

    I don't like feeling slow when I'm running as fast as I can; but I do like seeing my 10k avg min/mile drop by a full minute within weeks of doing intervals & tempo runs.

    I don't like off-topic or inflammatory comments on this site, but I do like commenters that call out the offending parties with a gentle, but firm slap on the wrist.

    I like that iRunFar is listening to what is of interest to readers; but I don't like comments about doping when the topic of discussion is interval training.

    I like Prez and his writing.

    I don't like hater's comments or nicknames that do not serve anyone's good.

    "Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness." – Tolstoy

  12. tinog

    Dakota,

    you are a smart, talented, fun, optimistic guy. You'll be on top for as long as you wish.

    (I used to train long and slow, always. For the last 3 months I have been doing intervals. I love them, I am amazed how much I have improved doing them)

  13. Nick J

    I'm a big fan if intervals but never understood why mountain and trail runners need to seek out roads to do them on. I just bust mine out on steep trails with the idea that its an improvement in climbing (and even descending on the odd occaision – read scary) that I need to improve in order to be a better mountain runner, I think I may have done one session on a flatter trail this year but never on a road, so what's the benefit and should I be doing it?

    1. Travis Macy

      Great question, Nick. I also do most of my intervals on trails because of the benefits for climbing and descending over steep and technical terrain–and because I simply like running on trails much more than roads or the track. I do recommend and complete road and track intervals, nonetheless, because they make a runner go faster than he or she would go on a trail. Improved efficiency at the higher pace of track/road, in my experience, translates to helpful leg speed for mountain running. One of my favorite road workouts with good transfer to mountain running is 4×2:00 uphill going very hard (Zone 5 of 5) with 2:00 rest. For me, this has been a good high intensity workout as a mountain running race gets close because I get the cardio and strength benefits of hill sprints plus more leg speed than I would get on the trail.

    2. Ben Nephew

      Hi Nick,

      I think it depends on what you are training for. If you are training for a trail ultra with little roads, there are many race-specific training based reasons for road intervals. It's easy for most runners to find trails easy enough to do fast intervals on, especially if we are talking about speed relative to ultra races. Some runners have an easier time doing traditional track or road intervals. The reason for this may be that these intervals are done with a group or training partner that is road based, or maybe the coach is not local and road or track data are easier to deal with than trail intervals. Personally, I find that I actually do better with less road and more trail even when training for a road race, as there is less risk for injury. My best 50k and 50m bests have followed training periods where I did just enough road work to prepare my legs for the harder surface.

  14. Adam

    If doping were legal and available to all, it wouldn't be cheating. Rather, just one more potentially harmful thing athletes could do to improve their performance. Nobody runs 100 mile races for their longterm health. I think EPO shaves about as much time as dropping four ounces off one's shoes, so I'm pretty sure there's not a drug or blood transfusion out there that will turn me into Rob Krar. However, as long as doping is banned (at least implicitly…since, as Pedro rightly points out, ultrarunning has no standardized rules or testing regarding PEDs and transfusions) and not widely available, it's cheating. If a given athlete is being coached by someone who works for the same company that was implicated in the Armstrong scandal, that's not an unfounded accusation, it's a fact. Regardless of how clean DJ might be, he had a choice of coaches, and he chose this guy, just as Koop had a choice of employers, and he chose Carmichael. Those statements aren't insinuations, they are cold hard reality.

  15. Adam

    That's exactly what I'm doing now, road and track during the week, and long slow trail on the weekend. I'm improving much faster than I ever did when I was just piling up miles at any cost (including way to much hiking when I couldn't complete runs of 25-30 miles), and the trails are a nice reward on Saturday, instead of something I get burnt out on. Running 5 miles at my (still quite slow) threshold pace on the road is much more psychologically demanding than running 26 steep trail miles at 11:30, which makes it perfect training for pushing myself late in an ultra, when 9:00 feels like sprinting.

  16. Michael Smith

    The reason I prefer to run my intervals on the road/ track is that those surfaces are unchanging and I can easily measure my progress session after session. Admittedly, I am a track guy at heart and love those sessions, but more importantly; I am not subject to weather, people or their effects on the trails and my subsequent times. Hydration and re-energizing are made easier too.

  17. jasonlreedy

    Great article! I have been reading a lot about ultra runners NOT doing intervals or weight training and its good to see some do. Like most ultra runners, for me, time management is tough and intervals help me in a pinch. I don't have any science behind it but intervals give me "more" miles than just running distance. Its like time travel. Intervals tax my cardio as well as streghthen supporting ligaments and tendons. They also point out weak muscles that need more work in the gym. I feel like I just ran 20 miles after a good 6 or 7 mile session of 400, 800, and 1600 repeats and it only took an hour. Plus I didn't have to figure out water points or bring a ton of gels. But the biggest advice I would give anyone starting this…recover, recover, recover. If you push to hard you will tear and strain things in your body you never knew you had. You can never replace the long run because you have to train though those tough times and learn how to burn fat efficiently, but intervals are an amazing tool if used appropriately. Great for the body and the mind.

  18. Christian Messerschmidt

    Dakota’s piece on intervals is as relevant today as it was when it was first published here.
    It is also featured in Coach Koop’s fantastic book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” and is very consistent with their training philosophy.

    Thank you for sharing it!

    PS: I am utterly shocked by the some of the horrendously irrelevant comments to this original blog.

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