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From ultra(slow) runner to 2:3X marathoner || Training methodology, with coach David Roche

David, wife and speedster Megan, and rescue dog Addie, a spaniel/retriever mix

For the last three years I have perhaps been more serious about running than about backpacking. It’s a function of lifestyle and age: running 10-20 hours per week is more compatible with marriage than thru-hiking would be, and at nearly 36-years-old I have only a few years left in which to run really fast lifetime PR’s.

I took my seriousness to a new level in December, when I hired a running coach, David Roche. David is an accomplished runner in his own right — in 2014 he was the US Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year — but his primary value to me and others on the SWAP team (“Some Work, All Play”) is his coaching knowledge.

In 2016 the SWAP roster consisted of the male and female US Skyrunners of the Year; the 2nd-ranked female international skyrunner; the 30k, 50k, and 50M national champions; the North American Mountain Running champion; and several Top 10 Western States finishers.

David must be doing something right. In this interview, we’re going to tap into his magic, focusing specifically on road and ultra marathon training, primarily from the perspective of a veteran ultra runner.


Q | When you looked at my pre-Roche training data, what struck you most about what I was doing right or wrong? How typical was my training for an ultra marathoner?

You clearly had the tools to be better than you’ve been. Your mistakes are common to lots of ultrarunners, whether they have your talent or not — you were skipping steps on the path to reaching your potential.

You did lots of workouts and long runs, with a unifying element of grinding it out and suffering. However, you weren’t spending enough time building yourself up as a runner, improving your running economy so that you could get the most out of those long, grinding workouts later.

Note: This a representative example of pre-Roche training: high mileage, lots of vertical, and slow. This run was done towards the end of a 100-mile week with 20k vertical feet of gain, benchmarks that I’d hit the week prior, too.

So we went back to the drawing board and attacked running economy from all sides. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly your body responded to strides, short hills, and short intervals. Very quickly, what was moderate became easy, and what was hard became moderate.

Recently, your workouts have shocked some of your Strava followers, but are right in line with what I expected given your previous ultra-focused approach.

Q | Let’s dive into running economy. To start, how do you define it?

(takes down massive textbook from the shelf)
(drops textbook because biceps are not strong enough to support weight)

Running economy is essentially how much energy output it takes to run a given pace. That’s why Galen Rupp can look and feel like he is jogging at 5-minute per mile pace, but a cyclist with the same VO2 max will look like an angry hippo trying to do the same.

Better running economy translates to better performance even if underlying physiological variables like VO2 max and lactate threshold (LT) stay constant.

Q| How did we improve my running economy? Are these improvements largely responsible for my recent performance gains, or did we also work on VO2 max and lactate threshold as well?

Improving running economy is where science and art meet, as if Picasso wrote a physiology textbook. The two most straightforward ways to improve economy are to: run more, and run fast.

Given your ultra background, we began with nearly a month of training that focused entirely on short surges between 20 and 40 seconds in the context of daily runs. Each of these mini-intervals were at the fastest pace you can go without straining.

What you saw pretty quickly is that your body got “comfortable” running fast at all paces, not just the surge pace. As a result, your daily aerobic miles got faster too, forming a positive feedback loop between running economy and aerobic development.

Lots of factors go into that “comfortable” fast running, with some being neuromuscular, some being based on energy systems, and some being based on oxygen-processing power. However, the changes in your major physiological variables — like VO2 max and lactate threshold — were likely minor, since you have been pushing your body for decades already.

Instead, what improved is your velocity at VO2 max and lactate threshold. The entire system is designed to improve vVO2, vLT, and vAT through progressive overload of different training strategies, from those initial strides, to short intervals, to more sustained tempos. By building from the ground up, each successive workout is more economical than it would be otherwise.

In the process, you learn that what you previously considered to be your genetic limits was actually a limitation in how your brain and body work together to move fast over variable terrain.

First run with striders, back in December:

Q | In those early workouts, doing 10-ish striders, each 20 to 30 seconds long and separated by 30 to 100 seconds of easy running, felt very elementary — they were far less taxing on my body than, say, a 45-minute tempo run, which I was plenty capable of doing. If we’d skipped these early bursts, how would my experience be different at this point in the training cycle, five weeks out from Boston?

You’d be running harder, but slower. An ultrarunner doing a 45-minute tempo run without the tools to run fast is like asking a school bus to hold 80 miles per hour for 45 minutes. Instead of forcing the bus to go fast, I’d rather upgrade to a Porsche. The first 12 weeks of training — including the fast strides and short intervals — were all about making that upgrade.

So that readers can see the difference, I want to share similar workouts from pre-Roche and post-Roche training:

  • December 1, 2015 versus February 25, 2017. The first effort was just before my last ultra of the 2015 season, Vulcano Ultra Trail in Chile, where I placed third. Ten weeks earlier I had also placed third at Run Rabbit Run 100. In the more recent workout, I ran 12 seconds faster per mile, and one mile further, on the exact same loop.
  • April 23, 2016 versus March 3, 2017. These two efforts are less similar, but I still think they are telling. The first — a 17-mile effort at 6:21 pace with 155 bpm average heart rate — was my last hard effort before the Colorado Marathon, where I ran 2:44. The second was my most recent long run, on which I averaged 6:11 pace for 21+ miles, including a 10-mile stretch at marathon pace (5:44/mile, 161 bpm average HR) and an easy 1.5-mile cool down.

Q | Are these performance gains mostly attributable to improved economy, i.e. faster velocity at the same VO2 and lactate threshold levels? I struggle to think that I am “fitter” now than I was earlier, but I would definitely say that I’m “faster.”

Economy is definitely the main factor at play. You probably have marginal gains in VO2 (especially since you were a bit under-trained at that end of the spectrum) and the percent of lactate & aerobic threshold you can sustain. But when an athlete has a long history of fast running like you, there won’t be too much movement, or at least not enough to explain the big leaps in performance you and other people on SWAP have had.

It’s important to consider all the component parts of running economy, which is a catch-all term that incorporates hundreds of physiological variables. For example, cardiac stroke output is how much blood your heart can pump with each beat. The main way to improve stroke output is to do short, fast intervals (like the strides) that strain the heart’s capacity to pump enough blood over a short period of time. So that likely plays a large role in the heartrate variation we’ve seen.

And there are still other things to think about. For example, I’ve taken you out of the mountains, which has improved your recovery since you are no longer thrashing your legs everyday. That translates to better workouts and aerobic runs, and the positive feedback cycle continues.

Q | If I were training for a 100-mile ultra, in which I might only average 12-minute-per-mile pace, do the benefits of running economy workouts still apply? Relative to race pace, my standard 7-minute easy pace is flying. It’s hard to believe that 30-second bursts at sub-5 pace have any bearing on an ultra.

Now that is the million-dollar question! Can we apply the principles of fast running at short distances to ultra distances?

I think that too many runners over-emphasize specificity in their training. Yes, we are talking about a really long, slow jog — But who wins those long, slow jogs most of the time? The answer is the fastest runner, as long as the fastest runner has the endurance and resilience to handle the distance. That axiom applies to all events, from the 10k to 100 miles. The demands on endurance and resilience are just higher at 100 miles.

For Boston, now almost a month away, we are about to switch 100 percent of your training into long-distance mode, to prepare for miles 20 to 26, focusing on slow-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. For UTMB, the switch will happen much sooner, since that race relies more on endurance and resilience.

A rising running economy tide raises all aerobic ships. While those 30-second bursts may seem irrelevant, they would be programmed early in an ultra training cycle. As you have seen firsthand, improving economy improves aerobic performance at all paces, not just fast ones. So your all-day effort level gets faster too. Add in a hearty dose of endurance and resilience work before an ultra and voila — you have a fast all-day effort that can actually be sustained all day.

Q | After two weeks of striders-only, you added a fartlek and a long run to each week of training. Let’s talk about the fartlek. The first was 12 x 1-minute intervals separated by two minutes of easier running. Each week the interval increased and rest decreased, until I was doing 12 x 3-minute intervals with 1-minute easy. What is the fartlek meant to accomplish?

If strides and sub-aerobic threshold running are on the Running Economy 101 syllabus, Economy 201 is adapting to the biomechanical and aerobic demands of going faster for longer. Basically, the fartleks are about progressively extending the distance you can sustain your newfound speed while also decreasing rest to enhance aerobic stress.

It all builds — at first, during the 1-minute intervals, you are running around VO2 max effort, so you are working on your vVO2. As the rest decreases, you move into Critical Velocity (about 40-minute pace), an area that blends energy systems and has big bang-for-buck with limited injury risk. If you jumped to CV first, you’d be running far more slowly. By starting at the ground level, the top levels are on more stable ground.

Typical fartlek workout:

Q | And then the long runs. What purpose do these serve? They started as easy 16- or 18- mile efforts. Then you instructed me to run them faster, so say 6:30 pace instead of 7-minute pace. And finally we added “marathon pace” efforts, so 5:45 pace for some specific distance. We started with 4 miles at MP in the middle of a 20-mile run, and next week it will climax with a 16-mile effort while on a 24-mile run.

While I’ve been beating around the bush while focusing on running economy, the number one determinant of running performance is aerobic development. Across the board, we have increased the average length and speeded up the pace of your runs. Up to a point (and especially over 75-80 minutes), the longer the run, the more the aerobic development at the cellular and systemic levels.

You had run long before, but not longer and faster before. So all the runs (not just the long runs) are designed to hit that aerobic sweet spot while engaging the muscle fibers that matter on race day.

The long runs matter, and the runs at marathon pace really matter, but what matters most of all is just sustained aerobic development while stressing the musculo-skeletal system with run-fast biomechanics.

Recent long run:

Q | If my background had been shorter road and track distances, rather than trail ultras, how would my training have been different?

The first questions I ask after looking at training history, race results, and workout files is where an athlete falls in two areas: running economy and aerobic development.

When a post-collegiate human rocket joins SWAP, usually they have solid running economy, with big gains to be made aerobically. For them, short intervals are done on short rest, and there is a lot more steady-state running throughout the training cycle.

A great example is Scott Trummer. While he didn’t run in college, he is a 24-year old that likely has 13:30 5k talent. In his last race before joining SWAP, he cramped up at mile 23 of the US 50k championships.

His training did three things: blended economy/vVO2 to use his efficiency for added aerobic stimulus (lots of 30/30s as his version of strides), relaxed aerobic threshold runs (15 miles at 5:34 pace at 154 average heart rate), and intervals on short rest (3:1 ratio to 6:1 ratio). He is making his 50-mile debut at the American River 50 Miler, and I already have some popcorn to watch that unfold.

Essentially, people like him and Megan Roche are pinnacle SWAP athletes — outstanding economy that translates to effortlessly fast running through minor training tweaks geared at race goals. You’re working toward that same outcome — if we had 2 or 3 more training cycles to adapt, the best approach for you would look similar to Scott or Megan, but with slightly more focus on strides and economy due to age and background.

Q | The Boston Marathon is April 17. Bighorn 100 is June 15. UTMB is September 1. What is the training plan from here?

This question gets back to a major point: while training happens in the full workouts and long runs, adaptation happens in the empty spaces. If you have a tragic flaw as an athlete, it’s that you work too hard to recover adequately.

The first week after Boston will be recovery, easing back into runs a few days later, but taking it painfully slowly at first. The next 2 weeks will be quick reintroductions of the basic training building blocks: economy in week 1, vLT in week 2. Then, you’ll spend a full month in the mountains, emphasizing endurance and resilience needed for Bighorn. Starting a month from race day, strides will vanish completely and workouts will be focused on tough climbs and descents.

On race day, you’ll combine your marathon speed with mountain strength, mixed with plenty of recovery to let the stew come together. I think Boston is a bit of a crapshoot — as are all marathons given the vagaries of race day — I know you’ll have the best race of your life at Bighorn.

For UTMB, we’ll fully recover for 2 weeks, then get back to the grind, doing a more substantial economy rebuild before launching into a month of long mountain days interspersed by recovery periods. I never want you to lose sight of the new Andrew — an athlete that is fast enough to run at the front of any race in the world, and strong enough to rip people’s legs off late in the race.

Q | On that note, let’s put some people on notice. What are your predictions for my finishes at Boston, Bighorn, and UTMB?

Haha, classic Andrew, always willing to stir the pot!

My honest answer is I don’t give a sh*t. If you show up prepared, nailing the daily process like you have, the results will fall into place. Or possibly they won’t if you have a bad day.

Either way, in training and racing, if we can reframe the goals from emphasizing the finish line to thinking more about the start line and each step along the way, you’ll be the most fulfilled runner you can be. And supporting that long-term fulfillment is my goal as a coach.

Q | Dude, cop out! You know that’s not how I roll. So let me put it out there.

Assuming that race day conditions are at least average, here’s what would make me happy:

  • At Boston, sub-2:33;
  • Sub-20 hours at Bighorn, which is usually on the podium;
  • Top 15 at UTMB, with a possible readjustment to Top 10 based on Bighorn and summer training.

I suspect you’re ready to get me there. Thanks for doing this interview. Hope readers get something out of it.

Have a question for David or me about training or racing? Leave a comment!

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6 Responses to From ultra(slow) runner to 2:3X marathoner || Training methodology, with coach David Roche

  1. Bruce Lemieux March 11, 2017 at 11:36 am #

    I enjoy following both of you guys. There’s a lot of useful info here. I’m sure that David’s assessment of your potential is encouraging (a revelation even?) — “what you previously considered to be your genetic limits was actually a limitation in how your brain and body work together to move fast…” I wish you the best over the season — I know you’ll put the work in.

  2. GZ March 12, 2017 at 7:01 pm #

    While I enjoyed the exchange here, this is clearly some sort of Duke love fest. GO HUSKIES.

    Seriously, nice read and glad to see you getting some benefit out this. You two are some of the nicest and smartest folk I have met on the trail.

  3. Justin LaFrance March 15, 2017 at 5:45 pm #

    Has this experience given you any new thoughts on training for backpacking?

    • Andrew Skurka March 15, 2017 at 8:51 pm #

      I don’t think anyone has ever trained for “peak backpacking performance.” The motivation is just not there: the difference of 10 percent, which is the difference between Galen Rupp and me, means nothing in the world of backpacking, which is far less cutthroat in its performance metrics.

      It will be interesting to see how I do this summer when I load up a pack, given how intensely I’ve been training for running. I suspect it’s specialized to the point of being a detriment to hiking. Not enough vertical, not enough strength training.

  4. Dave Eitemiller March 20, 2017 at 2:56 pm #

    Great interview guys, really helpful. David R, been following your published advice on trail runner for the last year – it is by far the main source of my current training approaches.

    You aren’t having your athletes do any weight lifting? I’m surprised by that – or maybe it just didn’t come up with Andrew – even once a week back, core and leg strength reps (not body building reps)? I introduced this to my training this year and am seeing noticeable difference in uphill climbs and downhill confidence. I’m working on running economy also which is helping speeds at same HR. Reduced miles relative to last year and predominantly at low aerobic rates; but introduced weekly strides, tempos and weights – still keeping the long runs – most of that is from reading your advice. So thanks!

    So question is, what’s your view on weight training for ultra runners?

  5. Jimmy March 30, 2017 at 1:45 am #

    Thanks for this interview and all the detail. I’ve been seeing the Strava runs but didn’t understand the rationale behind them until now. David Roche knows his stuff!

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