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Can I Get Faster and Go Long?

Part of being a coach is helping our athletes set very specific, realistic, and attainable goals. Many times, those goals revolve around a single event, or a few priority events, over the course of a season. These goals are a huge determining factor in the layout and design of a training program. Most importantly, goal events give us a set date to have an athlete in peak fitness. With that deadline comes a set amount of time we have to work on any limiters before the workouts need to become more race specific. 

However, over the years, we have noticed one commonality in initial goals of our athletes. Most want to get faster AND go farther. Cake, anyone?

The problem with this, although not impossible, is most amateur athletes have a very finite amount of time they can train. With that fixed amount of training time, we must determine a maximal workload to place upon on the athlete’s body. This is done either through high intensity, maximized duration, or a combo of the two.

Human Physiology 101 tells us you must stress each specific physiological system beyond its normal working limit in order to create an adaption. So, if you try to do enough speed work to get faster AND enough mileage to go farther, chances of injury and overtraining increase significantly. There is also the possibility that those who are very time limited may not stress ANY system enough to create a positive adaption. This is what we call grey zone or detraining.

Training to get fast OR training to go long, puts a large workload on the body, as it is. We also have to consider the quality of the workouts within the workload the athlete can presently recover from.  So when trying to gain speed and increase your duration, there will likely come a point when the quality of the speed sessions begin to suffer. Again, this is not stressing the upper-end energy systems enough to create an adaption. On the other hand, the speed sessions may create enough fatigue to compromise the quality of a long workout – yet another recipe for disaster.

Like I said before, it is not impossible to get faster AND go long in the same training macrocycle; you just have to consider your experience level and the amount of time you have until the goal event.

Here are some things to keep in mind when setting up your training:

1. Most of the time you are better off training more specifically to the demands of the event. If you are training for a 100 miler there is a very good chance you will benefit more from the volume load. If it is your first event, you likely need to spend most of your time building fatigue resistance by doing progressively more volume. If you have a decent amount of experience in the distance you are competing in, a speed focused block at the right time will likely help take your racing to the next level. For most elite level ultra distance athletes, this major speed focus is done over the winter or very early season.

2. If you have a long timespan to train for an ultra event, usually 6-12+ months, work on building speed FIRST. Some refer to this as “reverse periodization,” but it is more accurately “non-linear periodization.” This initial phase is filled with lower intensity skill work, such as running mechanics and pedal stroke technique sessions. Any high intensity should be followed up by a lot of recovery. The truth of the matter is, skills are best done under the watchful eye of a coach that knows what to look for and cue you on. Yes, that is a shameless plug, but doing skill work incorrectly can reinforce bad mechanics and perpetuates inefficiency.

3. Once the skills are solid, we suggest a block that is speed and/or FTP focused. This means lower volume track sessions, and shorter threshold and higher intervals on the bike. This is where you have to be careful, because too much volume and intensity is likely going to send you over the edge. Keep the overall volume low if you are doing a lot of intensity. Remember, quality before quantity. If you get into a session and are not hitting your goals, cut it down.

4. Remember, the definition of periodization says we go from less specific training to more specific training as competition approaches. If training for ultra events, this means competing at lower intensity for a long period of time. After you have gone through your speed/FTP block, you should have a new found “ceiling,” as far as threshold pace and/or power. With new zones, you can start building volume, paying close attention to your new level of top-end fitness. Thus, training longer at a higher level than before. Do not go back to your old “long run” pace or your old Zone 2 base building power. It may feel harder at first, but as you build volume you want to build it at, or slightly above, your new level of fitness. Never look back!

5. The sad truth of going long is, unless you have unlimited training time and a great ability to recover, your training will likely have to divert exclusively to building volume (fatigue resistance). This means you may lose a little of your new found speed. Don’t cry. To combat this, we suggest adding in 1 low volume speed session (bike and/or run) to your training each week. This is considered a “quality” session, and they should not be done within 24 hours of a harder workout. These sessions need to be quick and to-the-point, usually about 30-45 minutes in length with a good warm up and a few hard efforts with recoveries about half the duration of the interval. Overall, you are looking to put in 20-30 minutes of time at, or above, threshold, just to keep those fast twitch (fast fatiguing) muscles firing. Unless you have a ton of training time, and you recover well from hard efforts, limit these sessions to 1 per sport. Other time is likely best spent training the specific demands of your race.

This is clearly not the “end all, be all” in ultra distance training, but if you are limited in your training time, these tips work for the majority. It is much harder to build speed than fatigue resistance so as I have said before, Short Course is Not a Crime. Speed before distance. Chamois time = hammer time.


If you want to learn more about how you can become fitter, faster, and go farther, don’t hesitate to contact us, or check out our custom coaching options.

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