Improve Your Ultra-Running with These 5 Shorter Sessions

What if I told you that you can improve your long distance running by using shorter training sessions?

Sounds like the ideal scenario, right?

Well, by training a little bit smarter, you can.

I’ve written about the 80/ 20 principle of training before here and here.

The theory is that 80% of your training should be done at a very easy pace. This allows you to increase your ability to run longer, which is hugely important for ultra-running.

Elites spend 80 percent of their miles going easy.
— Matt Fitzgerald (elite running coach)

The other 20% should be much higher ‘quality’ running where you are pushing yourself harder.

This article explains the basics of how to use ‘quality’ training sessions for runners, including:

  • My definition of ‘quality’

  • Why ‘quality’ training sessions are important for ultra-runners

  • 5 different types of sessions - including examples of how to do them

  • The risks of ‘quality’ training sessions

This article should help you create specific workouts in your training plan.

But if you’d like an easier and quicker way to improve your performance, take a look at how I could help you with ucoaching.

What is A ‘Quality’ Training Session?

I define ‘quality’ as any session when you’re working much, much harder than usual.

You can measure this in a number of ways.

  • Training at a pace or speed that is much higher than normal

  • Using heart rate and training zones

  • If the session feels harder than usual

And lots of people use a combination of them all.

It doesn’t really matter how you specifically define a quality session. As long as you’re working at a much harder intensity than is comfortable.

Why Are Quality Training Sessions Important for Ultra-Runners?

There are lots of reasons why these sessions are great for your running performance.

1) They Improve Your Technique

When you are running at a higher intensity, your running technique will usually improve too.

2) They Make More Efficient Use of Your Time

These sessions are a lot shorter than your long runs and you still see significant improvements in your running.

You’ll also see quick improvements if you’re new to this type of training, or don’t do much of it. Because it is a different type of stress that you’ll be putting on your body.

3) They Get You Used to Race Conditions

Many of these sessions are good because they get you used to working at an intensity that is similar to your races.

One of the main things I tell athletes that I coach is that you shouldn’t have many surprises on race day.

And that includes the pace and intensity that you should be running.

So these sessions are a great way to get you used to that in training.

4) They’re Good to Track Your Performance

They’re also a great way to measure how you’re improving.

You can easily set sessions that are repeatable over the course of a few weeks or months. So you can easily track whether you’re doing the same sessions quicker or easier than before.

5 Types of Quality Training Sessions for Ultra-Runners

There are lots of different types of ‘quality’ training sessions that you can do.

But here are 5 that I use in my training. And I also set these for the athletes that I coach.

You don’t have to do all of these in any one training block. Pick one or two that are most relevant for you.

For example, if you have a race that is particularly hilly, focus on hill repeats.

If you’re particularly bad at pacing, then try the progression or negative split sessions.

1) Hill Repeats

  • What are they good for?

This is a great workout if you’ve got a race that has got significant uphill, or downhill, to it.

These allow you to practise the really specific technique that’s required for ascending and descending.

They are also a great way to build strength in general. And they’re good for improving your technique.

I’m a great believer in the benefits of hill workouts. Speed requires good running technique and to run uphill effectively you must use your muscles in a very coordinated way. Speed also requires a quick cadence, which will be encouraged by hill running
— Jo Pavey - 5 time Olympian and World, European and Commonwealth medallist
  • How to do them

This is quite simple…

Find a hill and run up and down it!

You can find a shorter hill with steeper inclines (working hard for 60 seconds or less).

Or find a longer hill with more gradual inclines, working harder for more than 60 seconds.

Most people use the uphill as the ‘hard’ part of the session.

But you can go hard on the downhill too.

Just don’t go hard up AND down the hill.

Within a single session, you should do a certain number of repetitions. And aim to do each one in the same time, or quicker, than the last one.

Don’t go so hard on the first one that you struggle with all the rest.

Hills are also a great opportunity to practise your walking technique. Most runners are surprised by how much they end up walking in ultra-races. And so you should be practising this in training too.

You’ll benefit from doing just one of these sessions a week. Or every two weeks.

But if the event you’re training for is particularly hilly, you’ll want to include more.

For inspiration, this article from Runner’s World gives you 10 hill training workouts.

And if you’re struggling to find a hill where you live, you could use stair workouts.

  • How to measure your improvement

Your time to go up (or down) the hill should improve over time. Or your effort level should go down for doing it in the same time.

2) Progression Sessions

  • What are they good for?

These are good for two reasons, both related to how you can use them to get better in race conditions.

Firstly, they get you used to running at a very slow pace in the early stages of a race.

This is critically important in ultra races when you need to run within yourself in the early stages of a very long race.

Second, they are good for getting you used to pushing hard when you’re tired. Like you’ll need to do at the end of a race.

The end of these sessions are run at the highest intensity. So they teach you to dig deep at the most important part of the race.

Correctly using progression runs results in very little fatigue compared with normal running
— Greg McMillan - World Famous Running Coach
  • How to do them

Break a shorter session down into several different parts.

Each of these parts will get progressively quicker. The final part should be he quickest and should be faster than your average goal pace for your race.

Always make sure you have time for a warm down too.

For example, a 10km session may be broken down as follows - 2km easy, 2km medium, 2km hard, 2km very hard, 2km warm down.

But the parts don’t have to be equal. You could also run at a steady-pace for the majority of the session and then in the last part, you could run very, very fast.

Greg McMillan, the world-famous coach to many elite athletes, gives 3 types of progression session in this article.

  • How to measure your improvements

The pace of your final sections should get quicker over time.

3) Negative Split Sessions

  • What are they good for?

These are very similar to progression sessions in that they can prepare you for race situations.

In an ideal race, you should be able to run at an even, or negative pace, in the first and second halves.

A negative split means you’ll run the second half faster than the first half.

Which is a proven tactic at the elite level, with most of the best ever performances being negative splits.

So, if you can get this race strategy correct, your performances should improve.

It takes mental willpower to run a controlled, smart first half and mental toughness to pick up the pace in the latter half
— Michelle Meyer - 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier
  • How to do them

Split your session into half and aim to run at a quicker pace for the second half than the first.

However, where it’s different from progression sessions is that you shouldn’t take it too easy in the first half, just to make it easy to go fast in the second half.

Here’s where it takes a bit of honesty with yourself to check that you’ve pushed yourself hard enough in that first half of the workout.

  • How to measure your improvements

You should get quicker in the second half of these sessions and you should get better at actually doing these sessions too.

These workouts are difficult to execute well, because there is a fine line between getting it right and wrong.

So you should be able to measure your progress through ‘feeling’ that you are getting better at the sessions themselves.

4) SPEED WORK and tempo sessions

  • What are they good for?

These are great for improving your top speed and your running technique.

They also help to keep training interesting, because they are so different to your usual training.

And because you rarely do these sessions, you can see quick, big improvements just by doing a few of them across your training plan.

Sprint workouts are important because they help improve your form and efficiency at all paces
— Runner's World

Most ultra-runners don’t do any speed or tempo work, because they don’t see how it can be relevant to them.

But they are definitely useful and should be used..

  • How to do them

There are a huge range of ways to do speed work and tempo sessions. But essentially you need to pick a short distance and do repeats of them in one workout.

Speed work sessions are shorter - typically from around 100 - 800 metres. Whereas tempo sessions are longer - from 800m up to 2 - 3 km.

The lower the distance, the more repeats you should do in a session.

And in speed work sessions you will do less overall distance. Because you will be working at a much higher intensity.

For example, a speed session could include 10 repeats of 200 metres. Meaning you’ll do 2,000 metres of total hard work. You should have between 1 - 2 minutes of rest between each repeat.

Or it could include 3 repeats of 800 metres. For 2,400 metres of hard work. Here you’d have 2 minutes of rest.

Whereas a tempo session could include 3 repeats of 1,000 metres. Or one or two repeats of 3,000 metres. You might have 2 - 5 minutes of rest depending on the intensity here.

You should be aiming to do each repeat at the same, or quicker, pace than the previous repetition.

The recovery periods are absolutely critical in these workouts. You should be taking them extremely slowly.

I often advise athletes to walk for the first part of the recovery, to ensure that you are truly resting.

And on the second half of the recovery, you can jog very slowly.

For each of these sessions, you should also be aiming to do the last repeat as quickly as your first one, whilst maintaining good form and running technique.

This Runner’s World article shows 4 types of speed workout and this Podium Runner article has some basic speed workouts.

  • How to measure your performance?

You’ll get quicker over time at the individual sessions. Plus your running form should increase, both in these sessions and generally.

5) ‘Hold on’ Sessions

  • What are they good for?

These are very tough workouts and should only be used when you’ve got more experience. Because they’re a little more advanced and can take a lot out of you.

But you can also see big benefits physically and psychologically if you do them correctly.

They can also be used to ‘cheat’ in training. You can replicate the tiredness you get at the end of races, without doing really long workouts.

  • How to do them

Choose a medium sized session and go out in the first half at a high intensity. Then, spend the second half ‘holding on’ for as long as you can at a good pace.

For example, in a 10k session - do a 1km warm up, 5km at your 5km pace and then the next 4km trying to maintain a good pace.

The last 4km is the important part here as you’ll be exhausted from a very tough effort, but you will need to keep pushing on.

  • How to measure your performance?

You’ll feel improvements in your psychological ability to push through. You should also see more consistent times for that final section where you’re ‘holding on’.

What are the Risks of Using Quality Sessions for Ultra-Runners?

So you might be thinking, ‘if I can get quicker and bigger benefits from shorter sessions, why bother with other sessions at all?’

As with anything, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

Here are some things to think about when using quality running sessions in an ultra- running training plan.

  • Don’t Start Too Quickly

If you’ve never done these type of sessions before, you need to ease into them.

Try one session a week at first, then increase it to two sessions after a few weeks.

  • Don’t Do Too Many of These Sessions

Because these should be done at high intensity, you shouldn’t be doing too many of them.

Your body will need more time to recover from them than most of your other runs.

Which is why it’s not advised to do more than 20% of your running on these sessions.

Don’t do two quality training sessions on back-to-back days either. You need to leave at least one day between sessions. More if you are just starting out.

You also don’t need to do all of these sessions at once. Pick one of the five types of sessions to focus on at first. And then introduce other sessions at different points during your training plan.

Or you might not need some of them at all.

You also need to count your long run as a quality training session. As that will take a lot out of you.

A typical training week might include a long run on Sunday. And a quality session on Tuesday and Thursday.

  • Don’t Replace Your Long Run

Your long run is still the most important run of your training plan. These sessions should not replace the long run.

Long runs are especially important for new runners who need to build their base fitness to take on new races.

If you’re struggling for time to do your long run, it’s a good idea to replace it with a quality workout occasionally though.

  • Don’t Do Them Too Close to Races

Because these sessions take so much out of your body, it’s best not to do them too close to races.

I typically don’t do full ‘quality’ sessions for the 3 weeks before a race.

I may do some shorter sessions at slightly lower intensity in the last few weeks.

What Quality Sessions Do You Use?

Let me know in the comments at the bottom of this blog, on the Contact Page or on social media below. 

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