Well, maybe, maybe not. No tales of nice days out in the winter sunshine here I'm afraid, just a bit of rambling philosophy on training - so you can click out here if that's not your thing!
About a month ago I related how I was introducing some faster outings into my training in an attempt to get a bit of improvement in my ultra performances. It came out of a discussion with people experienced in training for ultras, but as always in this fascinating sport there is never an unchallenged view on anything.
The first questioning came from Stuart Mills, who also knows quite a bit about ultra running having won the Lakeland 100 and the Hardmoors 55 as well as many other events. He left quite a long comment on my blog but including the following: ".....there is no one answer in terms of what is the best way to train for ultra trail running to improve performance, but based on my experiences and reading of the limited academic literature, what you are doing is something I would definitely not be doing. The question I ask is how often during an ultra you will run at 8 minute mile pace or faster. I barely run at that pace during an ultra after the initial few hours. So why train at that pace?..........Stick to what you have done....."
Well that made me think a bit. Why not go back to my old ways? But I do remember a saying that my Dutch colleagues were fond of when I worked in the Netherlands for a few years - "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got" - so if you don't change the input, don't expect the results to change either. I looked around for some more support, and on occasions like this I always go back to Dr Tim Noakes (The Lore of Running) for starters.
Here I found "....after 12 months or so of training, athletes who only do distance training reach a definite plateau. To improve beyond this, the athlete must either further increase the distance run or else run the same distance but run some of that distance at a faster pace..." Hmm, so either faster or longer, not very conclusive. But he also says "Speed work also trains the central governor to allow for greater effort. A target is set and a time laid down. But the governor resists by testing the will, arguing that such effort is unnecessary. As result, speedwork becomes a test of will" and we all need a bit of that in our ultra endeavours, but still not conclusive.
I was rescued by Andy Dubois (Hardmoors 110 winner and personal trainer) who in his blog post "Three Common Training Mistakes" wrote "To force the body to change it is necessary to step outside your comfort zone on a regular basis. Whilst some training sessions should be performed at comfortable intensity there are other sessions where it is necessary to push yourself to ensure you receive the training benefit.............you will sweat more, puff more, your muscles will hurt more and it will be harder mentally, but for those that can embrace this the results will follow."
So I carried on happily enough until I listened to the really excellent West Highland Way podcast No6, by Marco Consani and Thomas Loehndorf. Both had, by their own standards, disappointimg early experiences in the world of ultras, but then for both of them it came spectacularly good. Their secret? Not pushing so hard in training, enjoying the outings, not coming home trashed every time!
So where do all these conflicting words of wisdom from the experts leave the rather less able performers like me (and possibly you)? Well, that means that I've had to think a bit, not something I'm all that used to these days, but I was maybe set on the right track by remembering a snatch of conversation in the Tour de Hellvellyn back in December of last year. I ran for quite a few miles with a guy who was 69 years old who had been a road runner then come into ultras relatively late in his career. "But I used to be able to run a three hour marathon, and ten miles in an hour" he said, "so the pace needed for ultras seemed very easy to keep up without much effort".
I think that the problem is that when the good guys talk to the rest of us, some of them don't understand just how wide the gap is. They understandably talk to us in their own terms, but unless they have some coaching experience with much less able competitors, we may get the wrong messages.
I'll make an observation from another sport. At the climbing wall that I go to once a week in the winter, the routes are nearly all set by a young guy who can climb comfortably around the 7b grade. Let's say that this is the equivalent of a two and a half hour marathon, not world class but still decidedly good. After he's set a route he grades it, and I'm sure he gets all those at the top end spot on. I climb at around the 6a/6b grade (achievable by pretty well anyone who puts their mind to it a bit, say the equivalent of a three and a half hour marathon) and the routes he grades in this range are often completely wrong - because to him they're all just "easy" - and he needs those of us who are near our limit in this range to help with the differences between one and another.
So back to running. Stuart M focuses a lot on the mental side of ultras, and it this is clearly an important part of his success, but it doesn't hide the fact that he is still a pretty quick runner. A couple of months after his win in the Lakeland 100 he ran the Beachy Head Marathon in just about 3 hours. I'm sure he'll respond but my challenge is that you don't get to be able to nail sub 7 minute miles over a very hilly trail for 26 miles by doing all your training in the comfort zone.
But overall I think I got the most useful information from the Thomas/Marco podcast. They were running alongside a canal, flat but obviously wet and muddy. They said they were aiming for 8 minute miles but were going faster than this as Thomas told Marco they were going too fast once or twice, so I guess they were somewhere in the 7.30 area. It was clearly comfortable though as they were chatting easily and not breathing very hard, telling us how these easy sessions were good for them. Easy session - 20 odd miles at 7.30?! I found this hard to take at first but I did a bit more research. I was sure I had read of Marco running a half marathon recently, and I found it in Debbie's blog - he finished in 1 hour 18, just about spot on 6 minute mile pace for the 13.1 miles. So cruising along the canal, Thomas and Marco were taking 25% longer per mile than Marco's half marathon. Now half marathons hurt a bit, you're breathing hard from quite early on, but even with a bit of pain my best half marathon effort was at an average 7.17 pace, and 25% up on that is 9.06 minute miles. Yes, even I can cruise along for quite a few miles at that........
Now I'm not pretending that this is totally scientific, I'm just comparing myself with one other runner, but it's interesting to take this a bit further. In 2010 Marco and I both had, for our differing abilities, good West Highland Way Races. Marco got to Rowardennan (27 miles) in 4 hrs 28 min. If I continue to use the comparison of our half marathon paces as a predictor, I should have got to Rowardennan in 5hrs 28min - in fact it took me 5hrs 29min! It doesn't work quite so well to the finish, where Marco's time of 18.47 should have compared to a 22.48 for me, where in fact I finished in 23.34. Whether Marco had a storming finish or I cocked up the last few miles is not really relevant, other factors come in late on in a 95 mile race, but it's still close enough to be interesting. All this does nothing more of course, than to give one or two anecdotal examples along the lines of the performance predictors that you see on many websites - put your time for one distance in and predict your time for another, so what overall am I driving at?
Well, the crunch argument seems to me to be:
1. If you can improve your half marathon time, all other factors being equal (ie you still do enough "time on your feet" miles) you will improve your ultra performance, simply because you can go at a higher base speed before it stops feeling "easy".
2. The only way to improve your half marathon time is to get your heart used to working comfortably at a higher rate. Unless you practice this, it won't happen.
3. So at least a moderate amount of speed training must be necessary to improve ultra performance.
There will still be runners out there who will say, no, I'm still improving and I don't do any speed stuff. My answer to this is as follows.
We all come into ultra running with a certain amount of basic onboard ability - we could measure this by our 10k time, half marathon time, or whatever. For already accomplished road runners coming into the game, this basic ability is very high. But whoever we are, we then have to learn how to run ultras. Getting your body used to many hours of continuous activity, hydration and nutrition, equipment selection, race strategies, getting all this progressively better improves our performance. Performance will improve without any attention to improving or even maintaining our basic ability. But we will reach a point where we have got all, or most, of the gains we are going to get from this. At this point we will only improve if we turn our attention to covering the ground faster in the same degree of comfort - running faster.
I'm now convinced that over the past 4 or 5 years I've learned a fair bit about ultra running, but I've got lazy.
I gave up first 10k's and then half marathons because I didn't like the discomfort involved. Easier to do a longer run, enjoy the view and not get out of breath. My best 10k time is 42.35. It was 4 years ago on a fast flat course with plenty of other runners, and I thought I would never see that sort of speed again. Last week, after doing a minimum of two faster sessions a week for 8 weeks, I ran round one of my local loops, exactly 6 miles, on my own on a cold blustery day, in 41.50, which equates to a 10k of around 43.30. Now I'm not saying that this is magically going to improve my ultra performance, but I don't think it can do any harm. I might even run a 10k race later in the year!