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Training specificity for long distance running events seems to be a topic where opinions are all over the map. It’s interesting how the range of view on appropriate training paces is rather narrow for virtually every running event up to the marathon, but once we move into the realm of ultras (particularly trail ultras), the near consensus all but disappears. Many people appear to advocate the value of training at your target pace to get your body accustomed to everything that that pace involves, while others would advise training faster than race pace to better build strength and fitness.

One of the shortcomings in some discussions may be the failure to recognize how a lot of people actually run during their ultras. Trail ultras force most of us to move at a relatively wide range of paces for various periods of time. We run when we can, walk when we decide that it’s more efficient to do so, and generally just try to avoid any significant physical or mental breakdowns along the way.

It’s natural (and mathematically convenient) to think about our race goals in terms of a single pace; the minutes per mile pace we hope to average over the length of the course in order to achieve a particular time. Unfortunately, this average pace might not be particularly meaningful (apart from the finish time it yields), particularly for those of us who run our ultras in the middle or back of the back. For example, in the Red Hot 55k trail race I ran a few weeks back, my average pace over the course was 12:34 per mile – but I didn’t actually cover much of the course at anything near that pace.

I went back and looked at the data broken up in quarter mile segments. I only ran 2.5 miles (10 quarter mile segments) in a 30 second range bounding my average pace (12:19-12:49). When I looked at the one minute zone around my average pace (i.e., 12:04-13:04), I found that I still only covered 5.5 miles at that pace – that’s not much more than 15% of the total race distance.

Red Hot 55k - Quarter Mile Paces

Red Hot 55k – Quarter Mile Paces

Looking at the totals for various pace ranges, it becomes even more clear that my average race pace might not be particularly useful for structuring my future training because I was usually racing quite a bit faster or slower than that average pace:

  • 0.5 miles were under 9:00 pace
  • 6.5 miles were between 9:00-9:59 pace
  • 6.5 miles were between 10:00-10:59 pace
  • 2 miles were between 11:00-11:59 pace
  • 5.5 miles were between 12:00-12:59 pace
  • 3.75 miles were between 13:00-13:59 pace
  • 8.25 mils were 14:00 pace or slower

If this is how I’m going to run an ultra, why would I try to build my training around that average pace? And if my goal is to run that same race next year and knock 15 or so minutes off my time, and run it at an average pace of 12:00/mile, would it really benefit me to spend more time on my feet at a 12 minute pace? (Well, it probably would, so I guess the question is really whether that same training time would be better spent running at a different pace….) The answer, I think, is that becoming more efficient at moving at 12-minute pace probably won’t help me as much as other training would. After all, I probably won’t do much of the race at that pace. If I were to try to maintain a 12:00 pace on the tricky slickrock sections of the course then I’m going to blow up. And if I cruise the dirt roads and easy trail sections at that pace then I’m leaving way too much in reserve.

Instead, I think I should use that goal pace to target training paces that may be significantly above and below it. Perhaps on long trail runs, where I’m going to be out for many hours, I’ll average something that comes close to that goal race pace. But again, I’m likely to be moving faster or slower than that single goal pace during the training run.