Race-Specific Training: The Biggest Bang For Your Buck

Ian Torrence discusses race-specific training for different kinds of trail races and ultramarathons.

By on July 5, 2016 | Comments

The long run is the cornerstone of any ultrarunner’s training regimen, but what else can we incorporate to ready ourselves for a race? Secondary quality workouts can come in a dizzying array of paces, efforts, and/or lengths. Tweaking these workout parameters produces distinct physiological and psychological challenges.

Race-specific workouts, or the training that reproduces the stresses we’ll encounter during our event, are best. Take terrain into careful consideration when determining which workouts to integrate. Here’s a collection of suggested workouts you can perform in preparation for your next race, depending on how flat or mountainous the course may be.

‘Flat’ Races (average elevation gain is less than 120 feet/mile)

Examples of ‘Flat’ Races:
Many road and track events like Mad City, Jed Smith, Comrades Marathon, and Across The Years fall into this ‘flat’ category. Popular trail events like Javelina Jundred, Umstead, Rocky Raccoon, JFK, American River, Ice Age, and Bandera also fall into this category.

Distinguishing Characteristics:
These races are runnable. Though there may be some climbs and technical footing, the majority of these courses have relatively flat to gently rolling terrain.

Goal Race-Pace Rehearsal

  • Why: Use this workout to dial in smooth race-day pacing. Without hilly terrain to force us to slow down, many runners can unknowingly run these races too hard too early. Develop and practice a pacing strategy that charts an even progression through the entire race. Flat races are notorious for stressing a single set of muscles. Incorporating goal-pace workouts will enable you to endure the repetitive nature of this type of race.
  • How: Perform this workout several times before race day. Start with a few miles, or a short amount of time on your feet, early in the training cycle and gradually increase the workout’s distance as you progress toward race day. Here’s how to structure the timing and mileage of this workout:

Race-specific training chart

As the length of this workout grows, it should replace your long run. Utilizing a ‘B’ event to practice goal race pace is also acceptable. However, it is vital that you run at goal race pace, no faster. Run on surfaces most similar to your race course. Practice even pacing and race-day fueling. As the distance of your goal race increases so will the volume of the workout. Recovery is essential. Be well-rested for this workout so that race-day pace comes effortlessly.

Tempo Run

  • Why: This stamina-based workout is run much faster than goal race pace. By including these workouts in your training you’ll improve your lactate threshold, the most important determinant for endurance-athlete success. Tempo runs enable the athlete to shift lactate threshold toward faster speeds and harder efforts, which will translate to quicker and more comfortable race-day efforts.
  • How: Because this training is more intense than goal-pace workouts, it lasts between 15 and 40 minutes and is performed at lactate threshold. For most, this is achieved at nearly 12k to half-marathon race pace. Heart rates should fall between 85% and 90% of maximum. Perform this workout every two to three weeks on smooth surfaces and flat to gently rolling terrain. For an easier alternative, divide the workout into a few repeats with short one- to two-minute recovery walk/jogs between.

‘Mountainous’ Races (average elevation gain is between 120 and 240 feet/mile)

Examples of ‘Mountainous’ Races:
Way Too Cool, Chuckanut, Tamalpa Headlands, Squamish 50 Mile, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships, White River, Miwok, Waldo, Western States, Leadville Trail, Vermont, Massanutten Mountain Trails, Zane Grey, Quad Rock, and Pine to Palm.

Distinguishing characteristics:
These races have numerous climbs and descents. Under optimal conditions, a middle-of-the-pack runner will run more of the course than they will hike. Technical footing and/or high altitude may or may not be involved.

Long Uphill/Downhill Mountain Runs

  • Why: Long sustained mountain runs advance lactate-threshold training and build uphill as well as downhill leg strength. Like the tempo runs done for ‘flat’ ultras above, uphill/downhill mountain workouts incorporate race-specific terrain to encourage the same results.
  • How: Find a trail or road that ascends for several miles and ideally gains between 200 and 800 feet per mile depending on the typical grades you’ll encounter in your event. Try to match the event’s predominant surface type. Complete a total of 20 to 30 minutes (early in the training cycle) to up to 90 minutes to two hours (in the advanced stages of training) of uphill running. This workout may replace the long run as its length increases. Begin the climb at goal race pace but as you reach halfway steadily increase your intensity to roughly marathon effort and then to half-marathon effort by the top. End the workout by descending the course you just climbed at an honest, but controlled pace. If no local paths fit this description, duplicate the climb on a treadmill or run repeats on a shorter hill.

Short Hills

  • Why: Shorter hill workouts develop the ability to handle lactic-acid build-up, strengthen the legs, improve powerful turnover, but avoid the punishing pounding of what an equivalent flatter-paced workout would produce—allowing you to train uninterrupted through the ensuing necessary and challenging long runs.
  • How: Find a hill with a medium slope (6% to 10%) that takes between 45 and 90 seconds to ascend. Run up at an effort equivalent to your 5k race pace. Focus on good form with powerful push off and strong arm swing. Slowly jog down the hill to recover. Start with four to six repeats and build up to 12 to 14 reps. Spread out the hill training stimulus by alternating the weeks you perform a short hill workout and the longer mountain run.

‘Colossal’ Races (average elevation gain is greater than 240 feet/mile)

Examples of ‘Colossal’ Races:
The Barkley Marathons, Manitou’s Revenge, Speedgoat, The RUT Mountain Runs, Georgia Death Race, Tushars, HURT 100, Hardrock Hundred, Wasatch Front, and UTMB.

Distinguishing Characteristics:
These races have numerous steep, sustained, and/or technical ascents and descents. Many climbs require hands-on-knees hiking and/or trekking poles. The middle-of-the-pack runner will hike as much or more than they run of the course.

Steep-Slope Hiking

  • Why: Race specificity is most important for these ‘colossal’ events. The majority of the population lives far from ideal training grounds, making this kind of terrain difficult to incorporate into a long run. Hiking up and down very steep and awkward slopes, no matter their length, instills confidence and builds strength. Additionally, athletes can use this time to develop trekking pole proficiency.
  • How: Seek out a steep 15 to 45% slope. Do your best to match your event’s predominant surface. Start by accumulating a total 30 to 45 minutes of uphill and downhill hiking on the slope. Work up to 90 minutes to two hours as your fitness increases. If your slope isn’t long enough for a single pass, do repeats. Use a stair-stepper or treadmill if you have no slopes available. Wear the gear you’ll use on race day. Perform the workout often, especially if you aren’t getting this specificity during your long runs.

VO2 Max Workouts:

  • Why: The majority of our training preparations for these ‘colossal’ events will be done, and rightfully so, on steep terrain and at relatively slow paces. Incorporating VO2 max workouts will help resolve performance plateaus and boredom brought on by the exhaustive nature of the training. Physiologically, these often-overlooked dynamic workouts teach us to run harder for longer by improving:
  1. Metabolic pathways that help us store and use fuel sources more efficiently.
  2. Biomechanical advantages that reinforce proper running form and range of motion.
  3. Recruitment and growth of fast-twitch muscle fiber.
  4. Lactic-acid buffering capability.
  5. Oxygen uptake from the blood once it reaches the muscles.

Because many ‘colossal’ races are held at high altitude, VO2 workouts help prepare the body for the efforts you’ll experience at oxygen-poor elevations.

  • How: VO2 max intervals, or speed-based workouts, last between one and six minutes with speeds that emulate ≤5k race pace. Heart rate for this kind of training will range between 94% and 98% of maximum. Because we can only spend a short amount of time at these speeds, a recovery jog is required between repeats. These jog intervals should last roughly one-half the distance or the same duration as the fast running. The goal of the workout is to spend a total of 10 to 30 minutes at these quick speeds. Examples of these kinds of workouts (after a thorough warm-up) include:
  1. A series of one-minute fast and one-minute jog rotations.
  2. Several four- to five-minute fast repeats with four- to five-minute recovery jogs in between.

Any combination of fast repeats and jog recoveries will suffice as long as the intensity falls within the parameters above. These workouts can be done on any flat to rolling surface with good footing. Keep in mind that the purpose is to run fast so avoid technical trails.

Coach’s Notes

There are many instances where an event’s average elevation gain may fall closely between two of the event classifications. For example, Quad Rock 50 Mile, whose average gain is about 230 feet/mile, treads the line between ‘mountainous’ and ‘colossal.’ In this case, I suggest using a combination of the workouts from the two classifications during your training or choosing those workouts that will strengthen your weaknesses.

I can’t reiterate enough that these secondary quality workouts are not a substitute for long runs. VO2 max work, short hills, and tempo runs alone won’t get you to the finish line; their purpose is to develop more leg strength and better turnover and improve the heart and lungs’ ability to handle higher workloads. Long runs—on the surfaces (dirt, pavement, rocks, and roots), terrain (flats, hills, and mountains), and in the conditions (heat, cold, and altitude) we’ll encounter during our event—still remain our primary workout.

Don’t waste your time by practicing skills that won’t be useful on race day. Instead focus on incorporating plenty of race-specific workouts into your program. They’ll always deliver the biggest bang for your training buck.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you do any of these or similar race-specific workouts? Can you share a few details on how you employ them into your training?
  • Which race-specific workouts do you feel have helped you feel most prepared on race day?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at SundogRunning.com.