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 122 comments

  1. Alex

    I adore intervals, and this Zatopek quote sort of puts in to words why: "Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast." Which isn't to say that I don't run slow, often, or that no one should. Just that running fast is rewarding, both in the moment (it's quite exhilarating) and down the road (being faster is cool).

  2. Fernando N Baeza


    Your running is an amazing thing to see, especially from ultra fans such as myself. So I can only imagine what your training runs look like. I myself do Third Progression Runs, and yes! Intervals! It is quite surprising to me how many ultramountain runners overlook these type runs. These runs are very invigorating as you stated, but I do it all on trail. I use flatter, small rolling trails to run fast, and push the pace to that point in which heaving and puffing becomes the necessary survival tactic! Awesome write up! Rob Krar, watch out! Here comes Dakota! ;D

    Fernando N Baeza

    San Antonio, TX

  3. astroyam

    I love long runs on awesome trails, and I love intervals because it's fun to turn faaaast. It's also very satisfying to get the whole system running at a high effort.

    Not to mention the harder parts of long runs feel easier after you do intervals. You just get better. And, a couple hours after finishing intervals, is when I get the creative kick and calm mind discussed in a recent article.

    On the other hand, I think the 3x per week part is only for the pros. I do 1x per week, it feels great, and call it good on the intense stuff.

    Thanks for the shot of reality Dakota. Sometimes in sports with a lot of 'soul' component, it becomes uncool to want to train, but actually training is fun, it's just faster running.

  4. pedro garcia

    I certainly would not publicize my link to Carmichael or his 'system':

    People might think I was a doper. It is just lucky that you compete in an international sport that has a great program in place to bust dopers…What's that you say? There is no testing? Nevermind, but thanks for shedding some new light on Karnazes as well.

    1. Anonymous

      That changes things. Don't know how someone could work with a coach that has such a long history with doping (and helping athletes that dope). Nevermind race day testing – if they don't do out of season testing no one is going to get caught in this sport

      1. Corre

        Since when are the doping allegations against Lance Armstrong "unfounded"? Relevant fact, Carmichael was Lance's coach. Vote for Pedro!

          1. Matt


            I think that we might need to admit that Dakota might have made some waves when he stated – without qualification – that he is being coached by a team that has had some questionable doping associations in the past. I don't think that this is the same as accusing Dakota or doping, despite Pedro's teasing insinuation.

            Doping exists in most major sport whether money is involved or not, so the sooner the ultra/trail community creates some transparency around the topic instead of shutting down all conversation or controversy, the sooner we can stop the baseless accusations.

            Personally, I think that all sponsored athletes should be required by their employers to submit blood samples on a random basis to a neutral governing body. Until that happens, there will be a cloud of suspicion around certain teams or athletes that cannot be resolved in an internet comments forum.


            1. Tom W

              Well said. Would guess that there is already quite a bit of PED (doping, TRT, etc.) use at all levels of the sport. Just a 1-2% boost is worth 9-18 minutes in a 15 hour race.

              I don't expect the issue to be addressed for quite a while though. If the major sports can't solve the problem with all of their money and resources what chance does ultra running have?

              Still important not to judge runners/coaches just based upon affiliation though. Although it cannot be ignored either.

          2. Corre

            I disagree, it's totally called for. People have good reason to raise an eyebrow and question this here. Everyone knows doping has been widespread in professional running and endurance sports; track and field runners and endurance athletes of all kinds have a long record of doping. Now, at least one top level professional endurance-runner is training with the same coach who brought us Lance Armstrong, the greatest doper of all time, but you say that revelation should not raise any eyebrows or questions? Sorry but it just plain does.

  5. joe

    Truth is, most of us could reap vast improvements in ultra racing results by increasing aerobic capacity just by running easy more and doing it consistently year after year. If we try to imitate Dakota the end result will probably not be good.

      1. Jeff R

        It's probably the most common recipe for disaster that I've seen from runners who get excited about trying to improve. For a few very talented and durable types, it may work well.

    1. James

      Agree – intervals 3x week would wreck most ppl. He's young and believe that allows him to handle this. Not sure a 40 y.o. could handle.

      Do agree that speedwork is a must. Some of the folks who don't do it often now probably did a lot of it in their T&F, X-country days and have reaped benefits long ago.

      1. Adam

        Yes. I think almost every top ultrarunner has some kind of XC/track background, even if it ended after high school. So perhaps guys like Meltzer and Olsen don't want to do anything but running "slow" in the mountains now, but they've put in their time running fast and short back when it probably counted the most, during their pubescent/early adulthood developmental years. Another point about track/road running is that it's efficient. Many of us don't have the time to do long slow mountain runs every day, as much as we might love them, especially if the trails are already a few miles away.

        1. Speedgoatkarl

          you are exactly right Adam. My days of running super fast intervals are over. I still run hard and at threshold about once every 5 days, which works for me. Us old guys, especially myself work on efficiency for long periods of time. The one year I ran Hardrock in 26:39, (2001), I was all about efficiency more than speed. I had 14 min of downtime, which made my overall finish time quick. I do agree intervals are important. As a coach myself, I prescribe intervals, or other types of runs that encourage running hard. Injury prevention is key to success too, noone gets faster sitting on the couch.

          I'll keep running slow….but further and further so noone can catch me. :-)

      2. Mondo

        I agree, James – when you're on the wrong side of 50 y.o. it takes a day and a half to recover from intervals! And you still have to fit in a long run and tempo run somewhere.

        But yeah, speedwork and hill repeats are essential.

  6. Bjorn Fabritius

    I hate intervals, but while I was running with a club (and a coach) I did them twice a week and it totally improved my speed. After the first year I had crushed my PBs on all distances.

    Now that I've moved away and haven't found a new club yet, I try to squeeze in the odd interval session, but I just can't get myself motivated to do so on a regular basis.

    Thanks for your insight into this, Dakota. I shall remember it next time, when I'm breathing hard and hurting halfway through an interval ;)

  7. Dan C

    No structured intervals for me the last few years. I do a lot of fartlek and progression runs. I never liked intervals even in high school but every so often I plan out some sort of hill interval when I am on the treadmill.

  8. Joan Roch

    This (once again excellent) article from Dakota couldn't come at a better time. After a good 2013 ultra-trail running season, I decided that 2014 should be better. And the only thing that came to mind in order to improve my performance? Intervals! I am glad that Mr. Jones and his coach think the same thing. So, I now include interval sessions 1 to 3 times a week. We'll see where it leads me.

  9. Mike D.

    It might be just me, but running intervals all out to the point where you are actually racing your intervals is not a good idea. For me, intervals are good, but they should be controlled effort and never all out or near the feeling Dakota describes. Of course I'm not even close to 20 anymore so maybe those young studs can get away with that kind of torture.

  10. Brad Z

    I have done intervals off and on now for the last few years, both in training for getting faster for short road 5K's and this year for longer trail races. I do loathe them as much as I love them. There's a sense of trepidation that comes over knowing that you are going to go out almost full bore and possibly run yourself into the ground, yet there is the euphoria of accomplishing the task and then seeing it make you faster even as soon as later that week! Intervals definitely helped me a few years ago on the roads when I was looking to lower my 5K times. They also seem to have helped this year in training for my first trail marathon and second 50K. In between those two events, (which occured within about 1 month), I also PRed at a tough 15K trial race topping my time from 5 years ago! Unfortunately I didn't recover enough from the trail marathon and 15K to be fully ready for my second ever 50K and ended up getting my first DNF ever in a runnnig race.

  11. Jeff R


    Would you be betraying your coach to go into a little more detail about your workouts? Perhaps for some of your individual races in the past year, how the interval workouts developed leading up to race day, the effort levels you targeted for each workout, and the terrains you chose. Do you practice hard efforts up steep grades?

    "Sprinting at absolute aerobic capacity" Was that an intentional joke? I like it! I'm going to use it.

    To answer Meghan's questions, I do intervals. I only love them. When I'm conscientious about backing off my regular runs they make me stronger, otherwise they wear me down. I'm a horrible ultra runner.

  12. Simon_swiss

    I just started doing intervals two weeks ago because I became slower and slower over the past two years while my training for mountain marathons and ultras. I just did to little tempo training/work comparing to the old days when I trained for road maratons and ultras.

    Interval training is about structure and discipline. No way to run them faster then the coach says. That leads to injury. And one session per week is enough for normal people.

    The intervals will definitely make me faster again.

  13. Schlarb

    Good for you Dakota! Broaching the subject of doing intervals… glad to see it. There are A LOT of guys at ALL levels of the sport who consider any sort of speed training, flat land running or heaven forbid, off the single track running as being of the devil or "un-cool".

    I respect the notion of being exclusive to a particular variety of running because that is what you love, but for a lot of us, improvement, injury prevention and the general motive of being the best we personally can be at running should, in my opinion, motivate people to work on aerobic threshold, leg turnover and max speed.

    Bottom line is, "speed training" done right, improves range of motion and efficiency at faster paces which enables a runner to maintain any pace (even HR100 mile race pace) with less effort and energy.

    NO… intervals aren't just for kids. Yeah, the term "speed kills" has some truth to it as fast running can expose you to injury, but just like any training component (climbing or miles too), building gradually and listening to your body, not your heart, is paramount and done right will result in… improvement! Ditch the fallacy that intervals are just for the young.

    Yeah, we are way better than Roadies, but the sooner you accept that our training principles are pretty much the same, the sooner you can take advantage of those principles.

    1. ziel

      Yep. Keep those joints loose with a track workout and a tempo/interval workout every week. Other side benefits include improved speed and more free time (back in time for a real breakfast!)

  14. Charlie M.

    Well when you are older like myself, it's best to bring a portable chum bucket attached to your waist. Pack in, pack out, dry heaves are ok.

  15. Jason H

    This is a timely post as I get ready for HURT 100 training. It's a knarly course, so the temptation is to do steep uphill intervals on difficult terrain. Doing that it's easy to hit maximum effort similar to short track intervals, but I haven't really considered the tangible benefits of running fast on flat land, even though it's worked for me in the past. Open stride, economy etc. In the past I've handled two speed sessions per week ok. But backing off the structure a bit for the second one allows me to listen to my body and go only as hard as I actually feel like.

  16. Jason Koop

    This is a great summary of some of the work Dakota has done. Like all athletes, his workouts are tailored to his individual goals, experience, time of year and abilities. While the specific workouts (both interval work and otherwise) that Dakota does are tailored for him, the general principle of doing the right workouts, at the right intensity, for the right duration at the right time of year will lead to more progress for any athlete vs. simply going out and putting in miles.

    1. James

      Curious – I've heard many ultra runners say winter months is the time for speed training and once Spring arrives your are putting in more long runs at a better pace… perhaps somewhat flipping the tradition of "sharpening" with a marathon program (Endurance -> Speed as event approaches. Do you subscribe to this? Or do you believe it is part of training all year? Thanks.

  17. jordan

    Last year was my first real Ultra and I blew up late in a 50 miler but still finished in 6:24. I thought more and more miles was the answer topping out at 110 mpw in singles. I felt horrible and had worse race times. So a couple months ago I decided to get back to the "marathon basics" plenty of speed work with long trail runs on the weekends, 60-70 miles. I feel so much stronger and faster. Long story short, we have to do what works best for us and if you want to race fast you have to train fast. Thanks for the article Dakota

  18. David

    Here's a good quote from a Matt Carpenter interview…he did speed work 2x week.

    "I took a lot of what I learned making the Olympic Trials and applied it to the Ascent and Marathon (Pikes Peak). Because I think a lot of trail runners, they are so enamored by trail running that that is all they do. I win Pikes Peak down on my treadmill and on the track. I don't necessarily win it on the mountain. In fact, I spend a lot less time on the mountain than a lot of runners. Because Tuesdays and Thursdays (speed work) are where you get fast. And that is down here. The altitude is important, but without the speed, you're not going to be able to run fast."

  19. Ethan Veneklasen

    I totally buy in to the idea that a mix of road running (in general as well as road intervals), track intervals and even longer trail intervals can have a HUGE impact.

    I remain a "middle of the packer" but I was able to drop more than 1 hour from my previous 50 mile PR (despite being 10 years older and on a course that was much harder) at the Headlands 50 Miler this year. I attribute this to training more like a road runner and then adding a middle of the week 8 miler and my weekend long runs (25-40 miles) on trails to build specificity and strength. The jury is out about how this will impact my road marathon in December but it sure has worked wonders for my trail racing.

    I also relate to the learning to "like" your hard workouts. It's the same thing as running 100 milers in that we "enjoy" it in a perverse sort of way. The feeling of being a "real athlete", pushing yourself to maximize your training (whether for a personal PR or to win races, it's all the same) and then that feeling of accomplishment when you are done. THAT is good stuff.

    Best of luck in your future racing Dakota!!!

  20. Cody C

    Are most people doing intervals based on precised effort? Heart rate? Pace? I would rather do them on trail so I assume you have to do one of the first two options? Correct?

  21. Hugh

    [Editor's Note: The contents of this comment have been deleted because they make an inappropriate, unfounded accusation about a specific ultrarunner doping. This kind of comment is against iRunFar's comment policy.]

    1. Hugh

      'Unfounded accusation'? No. It was a founded question. Founded on photographic evidence and empirical observation. Why did Dean Karnazes' chin grow 30% larger in a dozen years? Hazard a guess anyone?

  22. Ryan David Pardey

    I just started up doing intervals again after a bit of a hiatus. They're my least favorite part of run training, but as you say, they're effective and they provide a great sense of achievement. Today I beat all my 4 interval times from last week. I write my previous interval times on my hand and use that as inspiration to PUSH HARDER and better myself.

  23. Soul Runner

    I don't think a coach is necessary just to do interval training…hopefully Loudkota is getting his "Money's" worth. Every mountain runner should incorporate some flat speed work on the roads or track and a little barefoot. Loudkota is still bitter about losing to Krar, sore loser!

    1. Jim Bruening

      Hi Soul Runner,

      It seems like you're being a little judge-y and unfair. Dakota is sharing HIS experience – not preaching to us. Be angry about something else on the internet. He's shown a lot of respect and admiration for Rob Krar in his writing.

      Be well,


    2. Soul Runner

      Not sure I agree Jim, that is twice he is made wise cracks about Krar. Charlie, I have never been a Loudkota fan never will…


  24. Jay

    See the slide at about 5:00 minutes. 60 minutes or less of vigorous exercise is good for you. My bet is he ain't running 2 hours of intervals each day.

    Now, running long / often (see 13 minutes in) may warrant some attention but that would probably be the case for everyone reading this website. I am also interpretting some of this to say that that we may not be better than non-runners. So if all things are equal (I am the same risk of couch potatoes) because I run too much/long, then I will have lived a happier life in my estimation.

  25. Corre

    Dakota is coached by Jason Koop of Carmichael Training Systems, the same "Carmichael Training Systems" that was involved with the Lance Armstrong doping conspiracy. You can try to parse words all you want but the doping connection here is still a troubling fact.

    "They don't know what was in those syringes, and they don't recall taking a drug test in those days. But they say the injections were given by the U.S.A. Cycling staff, including coach Rene Wenzel, trainer Angus Fraser and, according to documents, coach Chris Carmichael."

  26. stack

    4th… would be awesome to see an example of one of the interval workouts. maybe the 4×12 or 4×20 w/ your pace you run and recovery?

  27. SageCanaday

    I didn't do any interval training most of this year (touched the track twice in the last 15 months) and only did several 20-40min road tempo runs. However, after my disaster at UROC (where Dakota et al. kicked my butt!) I've decided to get back into "speed-mode" (which has been prominent my running/training career for the last 14 years) and touch base with Vo2max and developing running economy at faster paces again. It seems like the more traditional marathon training + adding a longer long run was a better fit for me early on. Of course then there is periodization of the workouts, frequency of racing, weekly mileage, weekly vertical, altitude tents, individual genetics, nutrition etc..

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