Try Something New

Ultrarunners move from one ultra to the next, year in and year out, rarely varying their training or race distances. Doing what we love is important, but it takes an enormous amount of energy and can get a little stale at times. When motivation wanes it’s time to heed that little voice in the back of our heads that whispers, Ugh, I’m not up for another five-hour training run, or the sinking feeling that you’re not having fun anymore at mile five of a 50k. When these voices get loud enough, it’s a sure sign you need to make a change: Cut your weekly running volume, speed up your workouts, and shorten your race distance. You will challenge yourself by running faster than you’re used to and improve your fitness while racing shorter distances. The remedy works. Here’s how you do it:

Step 1

Pick a lull in your racing schedule such as after a major goal event. Set aside two to three months to drop out of the ultra-racing scene without experiencing FOMO. This doesn’t mean that you can’t run with your ultra friends; it’s simply a time that you won’t be specifically gearing your training toward an ultra.

Step 2

Decide if you are willing to race off trail or not. This is a personal preference, of course, but road races provide the ultimate disconnect for those who normally race exclusively off road. Trail running won’t be eliminated from your training program, as it’s a very important facet of any runner’s well-rounded regime. Your training can still include two to three trail runs a week.

Step 3

Determine your preferred non-ultra race distance. During this two- to three-month period you’ll choose races that range between the 5k and half-marathon distance. Understand that you’re not going to become an expert at these shorter distances in such a small amount of time. The purpose is to temporarily change your training focus.

If you’re having trouble deciding on a temporary distance, use Greg McMillan’s runner-classification categories to assist in your selection. All runners will fall into one of these three groupings: Speedster, Endurance Monster, or Combo Speedster-Endurance Monster. Find your match by using the chart below. Note: Many ultrarunners will automatically assume they are Endurance Monsters. Not true; Speedsters run ultras too. Scrutinize your training history to find where you really fall.

Speedster
  • Better at fast-paced workouts
  • Struggles with longer workouts like tempo runs and marathon training
  • Performs better in shorter races than longer races
  • Recovers more quickly from speed workouts
  • Feels overly fatigued from longer workouts and races
Endurance Monster
  • Enjoys and excels at tempo runs, long runs, and marathon training
  • Enjoys high-volume training
  • Feels overly fatigued from short, fast training
  • Performs better in longer races than shorter races
  • Recovers more quickly from long races and workouts
Combo Speedster-Endurance Monster
  • Enjoys both tempo runs and fast-paced workouts
  • Performs equally well in short and long races
  • Recovers equally well from fast-paced workouts and longer workouts

The Speedster will enjoy the training required for the 5k. The weekly quality sessions revolve around speed-based (short and fast) workouts. The Combo runner prefers an equal mix of stamina-based (long tempo runs) and speed-based workouts. The 10k would be a good fit for them. The Endurance Monster will gravitate to half-marathon events, as the harder training is stamina-based.

Step 4

Now that you’ve picked your race distance, explore your local race calendar. Find two to four races of similar distance and terrain that are three to four weeks apart. The first race is a baseline fitness test, the second a progress report, and the third your final exam.

Step 5

Build your training. There are numerous training plans available for the 5k, 10k, and half marathon. Feel free to use any plan that appeals to you. However, here’s how I suggest you build your training around a busy personal and work schedule. The following rules apply to each of the three training programs (5k, 10k, half marathon), but the ensuing workouts are specific to each race distance.

Rule #1
Space your long run and quality sessions far enough apart that you can recover adequately. Keep off (no-running) days in your schedule if you normally take them. Cross training is a good alternative.

Rule #2
Easy days fill in around your long run, quality workouts, and off days. Limit them to 30 to 70 minutes of recovery and easy-paced running.

Rule #3
Use the McMillan Running Calculator to determine your quality workout pace ranges. The workouts listed below correspond to the endurance, stamina, and speed paces found on the calculator.

Rule #4
Quality workouts must be done on fast surfaces (tracks, treadmills, roads, or non-technical and fairly flat trails). Be conservative on the first few quality sessions. Like anything new, it may take a few workouts until you get the hang of them. Long runs can be completed on the trails or roads.

Rule #5
All quality workouts must be preceded by at least a 15- to 20-minute warm-up and concluded with at least a 10- to 15-minute cool down.

Rule #6
If you find yourself short on time in the week, here’s the order of priority: long run, primary quality session, easy runs. Don’t try to make up missed training by performing two primary quality sessions in one week.

Rule #7
Add the optional second quality workout to your week ONLY if you are recovering well from your primary quality workout and long run. Include it when you want an added challenge.

Rule #8
This is supposed to be fun. Try this program for as long as you wish. If you’re not enjoying it, then stop. If you like it, continue for the entire three-month cycle.

Translation Key

Symbol Meaning
minutes
seconds
m meters
M miles
K kilometers
w/ with
x times
b/n between
wo workout
SS Steady State Run
TR Tempo Run
TI Tempo Intervals
CI Cruise Intervals

Translated Examples

  • Speed wo 10-12 x 200m w/200m translates as:
    This is a speed workout. Run 10 to 12 times 200-meter repeats with 200 meters of slow jogging or walking recovery before starting the next repeat.
  • Stamina wo 6-8 x 2.5’ (@ 10K effort) w/90” translates as:
    This is a stamina workout. Run 6 to 8 times 2.5 minutes at 10K effort with 90 seconds of slow jogging before starting the next repeat.
  • Stamina wo SS: 4-6M translates as:
    This is a stamina workout. Run 4 to 6 miles at steady state pace.

5k Training

Long run

  • Endurance wo 90-105’ or 8-12 miles

Primary quality workout of the week

  • Week 0: 5K base line fitness test – Upon completing this first event or time trial, refer to the McMillan Running Calculator to determine your training paces. Continue to revisit and update your paces after each race.
  • Week 1: Speed wo 10-12 x 200m w/200m
  • Week 2: Stamina wo TI 4-5 x 1M w/2.5’
  • Week 3: Speed wo 6-8 x 800m w/400m
  • Week 4: Speed wo 4 x 1M w/800m
  • 5K race
  • Week 5: Speed wo 8-10 x 200m w/200m
  • Week 6: Stamina wo TR: 3-5M
  • Week 7: Speed wo 4 x 1M w/800m
  • Week 8: Speed wo 8-10 x 300m w/400m
  • 5K race
  • Week 9: Speed wo 2 x (3 x 400m w/200m) w/400m b/n sets
  • Week 10: Stamina wo CI: 4-5 x 1K w/200m
  • Week 11: Speed wo 3 x (3 x 400m w/200m) w/400m b/n sets
  • Week 12: Speed wo 10-12 x 200m w/200m
  • 5K race

Optional second quality workout of the week

  • Hill wo 4-8 x 60-90” hill (6-10% grade) @ one-mile race effort w/jog or walk back down as recovery

10k Training

Long run

  • Endurance wo 90-120’ or 10-16 miles

Primary quality workout of the week

  • Week 0: 10K base line fitness test – Upon completing this first event or time trial, refer to the McMillan Running Calculator to determine your training paces. Continue to revisit and update your paces after each race.
  • Week 1: Speed wo 8-10 x 200m w/200m
  • Week 2: Stamina wo TR: 2-4M
  • Week 3: Speed wo 5-7 x 800m w/400m
  • Week 4: Stamina wo SS: 4-6M
  • 10K race
  • Week 5: Stamina wo SS: 4-6M
  • Week 6: Speed wo 5-6 x 1M w/800m
  • Week 7: Stamina wo TI 3 x 2M w/5’
  • Week 8: Speed wo 3 x (3 x 400m w/200m) w/400m b/n sets
  • 10K race
  • Week 9: Stamina wo TI: 4-6 x 1M w/400m
  • Week 10: Speed wo 6-8 x 800m w/400m
  • Week 11: Speed wo 2-3 x (3 x 400m w/200m) w/400m b/n sets
  • Week 12: Stamina wo CI: 4-6 x 1K w/200m
  • 10K race

Optional second quality workout of the week
Stamina wo 8M with the last 2M at half-marathon effort, working down to 10K effort in the last 5’.

Half-Marathon Training

Long run
Endurance wo 120-135’ or 12-18 miles

Primary quality workout of the week

  • Week 0: Half-marathon base fitness test – Upon completing this first event or time trial refer to the McMillan Running Calculator to determine your training paces. Continue to revisit and update your paces after each race.
  • Week 1: Stamina wo TI: 3-5 x 2K w/3’
  • Week 2: Speed wo 8-10 200m w/200m
  • Week 3: Stamina wo CI: 8-10 x 1K w/200m
  • Week 4: Stamina wo SS: 4-5M
  • Half-marathon race
  • Week 5: Stamina wo 90’ run with optional last 10’ at half-marathon effort
  • Week 6: Stamina wo TI 6-8 x 1 mile w/400m
  • Week 7: Speed wo 5-7 x 800m w/400m
  • Week 8: Stamina wo TR: 4-6M
  • Half-marathon race
  • Week 9: Stamina wo 90’ run with optional last 10’ at half-marathon effort
  • Week 10: Stamina wo TI 3-5 x 2K w/3’
  • Week 11: Speed wo 6-8 x 1200m w/600m
  • Week 12: Stamina wo CI: 8-10 x 1K w/200m
  • Half-marathon race

Optional second quality workout of the week
Stamina wo 60-75’ thirds progression run. Run the first 20-25’ of the run very easy (warm-up), the middle 20-25’ at a medium effort (slightly slower than marathon effort), and the last 20-25’ at a medium to hard effort (marathon to half-marathon effort).

Step 6

Enjoy the fruits of your labor. The transition to these shorter distances should be seamless yet challenging and you might even set some new PRs along the way. More importantly, you will be able to start your new ultra season on strong, rested legs and with renewed enthusiasm.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • By Greg McMillan’s definitions, are you a Speedster, Endurance Monster, or Combo Speedster-Endurance Monster? What about your body’s running preferences makes you know that?
  • Which shorter race distances catch your interest and when was the last time you raced under an ultramarathon distance?

[Editor’s Note: This article is dedicated to Zoroaster, Ian’s dog who passed away last week. You can read Ian’s story about Z on his blog.]

There are 3 comments

  1. tiboux123

    I enjoyed reading this article and am always curious to know how I can get faster especially when it come to doing speed work that continues to build each week.

    My question is instead of doing the same race three times could you do a 5k, 10k then finish up with a half marathon? Thus creating a nice build up.

    Sidenote: I am well aware that you can do whatever you like; I am more curious about the benefits of three of the same races or building up to that goal race.

    1. itgoes

      The benefit of running the same distance three or more times during this kind of training cycle simply gives you the opportunity to easily see your fitness gains. Could you see that with different race distances? I think so, but the training for each race distance is tailored to that specific event. The bottom line of this piece is: You'll benefit mentally and physically by changing your training paces and racing distances no matter how you piece it together. Cheers! Ian

  2. @Strongerrunner

    I really like this concept to liven up your ultra training. Right now I am solely focusing on running a PR 10 mile. I am using the Daniels Running Formula training book. Using the 15K training schedule. I am hoping the speed crosses over to my ultrarunning. I know that it has definitely given me a fresh approach to my training.

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