Your Ultra-Training Bag of Tricks: Stamina-Based Workouts

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.

There are 13 comments

  1. Mark

    I've started doing more with biking and running for stamina and have been looking for info on ultra training, so this article came at the perfect time. My latest power stamina workout is biking 27km, then running up a small mountain here (~600m elevation gain to the peak), back down and then biking another 27km back home.

    I also sometimes head to the area (Hornli Zurichberg) by train and then run up and down the mountain twice, trying to maintain a steady climb. This option is nice as my legs have to switch between ascending and descending modes, which I find really improves the mountain fatigue resistance of my legs.

  2. Anonymous

    I have Ian as a coach. His coaching methodology has been very productive for me in two ways. 1. I am gaining a lot of fitness and 2. the variety of workouts keeps me more focused and committed. I run alone always, mixture of workout makes my training more enjoyable and challenging. Challenge makes me get out of the door with more enthusiasm.

  3. Dean G

    Ian or others,

    As you train for longer races, like 100 milers, do you find yourself doing longer SS runs? I've always wondered how fast you guys run your long runs, in relation to HR.

  4. Jeff Faulkner

    I have a question for you Ian. How does running negative splits compare to the Thirds Progression Runs? I do this weekly to increase my stamina. I start off at a conversational pace and slowly ratchet up the speed and/or effort until I am running at max effort, usually for the last 1.5 or 2 miles of the workout. I say and/or as I can't maintain a fast pace running up hills, not yet at least.

    Thanks for any input.

  5. Steve Pero

    Another good article on training, Ian.

    My week consists of one day of short hill repeats and another day of around 40 minutes of tempo pace (10 min w/u and c/d). All the rest is really easy recovery running, conversational pace. The weeks are usually between 50-70mpw. I've been training like this with some success for over 30 years, but now training at altitude (5300-8200'), which adds to the difficulty. I'm 60 this year and having fun in the age group races. :-) Usually around October, I revert to all easy running until after the winter, where I start picking it up again.

  6. Lori Lyons

    Ian thanks for the informative post. I mix trail and road running, and realized while reading that my road workouts are always either Steady State or Thirds Progression (without previously knowing this is an actual strategy). I do the Steady State because I find that if I can maintain a pace where my heartrate is elevated, for a longer period of time, this actually helps my trail running because I'm better on those long hills where the heart rate goes up – I can hang with it. The Thirds Progression is what I do if I need to ease into the speed (e.g. just woke up) and to focus on negative splits (i.e. reminding the body that I'm not allowed to progressively slow down!) and lastly to keep form as fatigue sets in during the last third. Thank you for providing some terminology and physiological insight to my workouts – I now know that this is stamina and LT training!

  7. Ian Torrence


    Yes, as you get fit the length of those SS runs (like your long runs) can and should lengthen. Keep in mind the parameters: Long Runs (~70% of maximum HR and below), Steady State Runs (~83% to 87% of maximum HR), and Tempo Runs/Intervals (~85 to 90% of max HR). Speed workouts (training that achieves HR’s above this) will be discussed in the next column. Once you fall out of those HR zones you are no longer working at levels that produce lactate threshold gains or productively encourage endurance benefits efficiently. In essence you’re spinning your wheels: working too hard (overtraining) or not hard enough (under-training). Though running, no matter the speed, is a good thing and has benefits, you won’t be getting the biggest bang for your buck if you fall in between these zones. To see this visually visit this graph Greg McMillan has created here: [Broken link to McMillan Running removed.]

    The yellow coloration represents a specific zone while the white shows “no man’s land.”

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