How to use stamina-based workouts, such as steady state runs, tempo intervals, and thirds progression runs, in your ultramarathon training.

By on June 5, 2012 | 13 comments

Author’s note: In this piece (and the several that follow), I introduce and explain new or often misinterpreted terminology used by many of the world’s top distance coaches to describe specific workouts. Understanding these terms as they pertain to your training will help you better comprehend the purpose of each of the workouts in this and subsequent columns.

The Importance of Stamina

Distance is not the ultramarathon’s absolute challenge. Rather,the challenge lies in covering the distance within a limited time frame. Most everyone reading this column could complete 100 miles in several days without much issue; however, running 100 miles in less than 30 hours would be a much greater test. Add to this the component of competition, and the objective becomes even more demanding. In order to finish under cutoffs and race well against your peers, you must perfect your ability to run at a steady pace for a long period of time. Stamina-based workouts help you achieve this through lactate threshold (LT) improvement and learning to run by effort — two essential skills when racing on rough trails or hilly road courses.

Lactate Threshold

Blood lactate is formed through any simple muscle movement. During light activity, the body is able to rid the muscles of the small amount of lactate created. However, at higher exercise intensities muscles are flooded with lactate and a point is eventually reached at which the body cannot clear the large amounts of lactate created. We are all familiar with this feeling: burning muscles, the inability to produce power, and the inevitable need to slow down. Lactate threshold, the most important determinant for endurance athlete success, has been reached. Stamina-based workouts enable the athlete to shift LT towards faster speeds and harder efforts.

Keep in mind that stamina-based training is not speedwork. In fact, the most difficult aspect of LT improvement is to keep from running these workouts too quickly. Pushing yourself to go longer at a given pace rather than faster is the key component. In general, LT is attained at near one-hour race pace and stamina-based training focuses on working at or near this point. For elite runners that can be nearly half marathon pace, for some it’s 10-mile pace, and for others it’s 10K pace. Running too fast will only tire you and shorten the amount of time you are able to hold your effort within this beneficial range.

Unlike your endurance-based workouts, stamina-based workouts require 10-30 minute warm-up and cool-down periods.

The Workouts

Steady State Runs
These are great workouts to introduce into your training if you haven’t raced in a while, are new to stamina-based workouts, or while building your base for an upcoming racing season. Steady state (SS) runs are performed slightly below LT — between one hour and forty minute and two hour and fifteen minute race pace or roughly half-marathon to 30K speeds. If you train by heart rate, you’ll want to stay between 83% and 87% of maximum. Twenty minutes at SS pace will provide training benefits early in the training cycle, but as your fitness improves, you’ll want to work up to an hour or more.

Tempo Runs
The tempo run (TR) is probably the most misinterpreted workout in the running community. TRs are more intense and thus shorter in duration than SS runs. They last between 15 and 40 minutes and are performed at LT (between 50- to 70-minute race pace). For most, this is achieved at nearly 12K to half-marathon race pace. Heart rates should fall between 85% and 90% of maximum.

Ultrarunning champion and coach Ian Sharman has extolled the virtues of tempo running.

Tempo Intervals
If you find the length of tempo runs tough to recover from or just too daunting, try tempo intervals (TI) as a way to increase your stamina. Though these are slightly faster than TRs, they are broken into two or more repeats with short (2 to 5 minute) recovery jogs in between. TIs should be run at 40- to 50-minute race pace or appropriately 10K to 15K race pace. Each repeat should last between six and 15 minutes. The longer repeats necessitate a longer recovery interval. Start with short repeats and increase their length as your fitness and confidence develop.

Thirds Progression Runs
Thirds progression runs are an exception to the rules. No warm-up is required as this workout begins at a comfortable, conversational pace; however, as the workout progresses, you pass from an endurance-based training zone into a stamina-based training zone. As the name implies, the workout is split into thirds. If you’re new to thirds progression runs, start with 45 to 60 minutes and work up to 90 to 120 minutes. For the first third, run at a very slow, easy pace. In the second third, increase your pace to a manageable, but steady speed. During the final third of the workout, increase your speed to between marathon and half-marathon effort or roughly 80% and 90% of maximum heart rate. This is an excellent workout for developing a sense of pace and effort as you pass from one training zone to the next.


Like the recovery, easy, and long runs described in last month’s column, stamina-based workouts can also be performed too aggressively. Learn how pace and perceived effort correlate by running them on flat, even surfaces. As you discover how these particular sessions should feel, take them to more difficult terrain, like the trails and rolling roads where you will need to rely on your honed sense of effort rather than splits on a watch.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Do you mix any of the above workouts into your ultramarathon training? If so, which ones and how so?
  • How have you found stamina-based workouts help your ultrarunning?
  • On the other hand, have you tried but not found benefit in running such workouts?


  • McMillan, Greg, Start Slow – Finish Fast: How Three Types of Progression Runs Boost Your Fitness. McMillan Running Company. McMillan Running Company. Web. 15 May 2012.
  • McMillan, Greg, Running Physiology and the Four Training Zones. McMillan Running Adult Camp. SpringHill Suites, Flagstaff, AZ. 11 May 2012. Lecture.
  • McMillan, Greg, McMillan Running Company’s Online Coaching General Training Information Packet. Flagstaff, AZ: McMillan Running Company. Print.
Ian Torrence
Ian Torrence has more than 12 years 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