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Strength AND speed: 100-mile ultra training philosophy || Interview with David Roche

Finding my climbing legs near Glencoe, Scotland, on an early-morning “run” of Sgor Nam Fiannaidh

On Friday I toe the line for my second race of the year, the Bighorn 100 in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. Like the Boston Marathon, Bighorn is an endurance running event. But the races are different animals in nearly all other respects.

Most notably, Bighorn has 100 miles of singletrack and jeep roads, features 20,000 vertical feet of climbing, and reaches a high point of 9,000 feet above sea level. In comparison, Boston is 26.2 road miles, climbs a mere 650 vertical feet, and finishes at sea level.

To better explain the underlying philosophy of my Bighorn training, with the context of a recent spring marathon, I interviewed again my coach, David Roche*. Transcript below. To read the two other interviews with David, go here and here.

By this time next week, we’ll know if the increased focus on speed — in addition to my historic focus on strength, i.e. volume, volume, volume — produced better results. I’m optimistic.

* David is deeply engaged with and wildly supportive of his runners, but he’s also a badass in his own right. Yesterday he represented the USA at the World Trail Championships in Italy!


Q | Boston was a peak race for me, and I ran it hard. Physically, my legs felt fatigued for at least a week afterwards. Mentally, several weeks passed before I fully embraced Bighorn training. Was my recovery experience normal?

Your recovery was a bit quicker than expected. A marathon is always physiologically hard, but having a breakthrough marathon effort — which Boston was for you — is almost incomprehensibly stressful on the body.

Looking at your data, you ran at a higher percentage of lactate threshold than you ever had, for longer than you ever had, at a faster pace than you ever had, all in scorching heat. That type of stress causes breakdown at the cellular and systemic levels. I’m sure that post-race bloodwork would have shown off-the-charts creatinine and cortisol, which are indicative of muscular breakdown and an extreme stress response.

That type of physiological breakthrough also comes with psychological costs. Like King Henry asking his soldiers to plug a broken line, starting a new training cycle is essentially asking your body to go “once more into the breach.” Getting the drive back takes time — some of that is pure physical healing, and some is a psychological reset.

Normally, I would prefer a month of easy running after that type of breakthrough. But we had just a few training weeks to prepare for Bighorn, so we had to jump back into the breach sooner.

Q | What fitness components (e.g. VO2 max, running economy) from road marathons are most useful for mountain ultras?

It’s helpful to break goal events down into their component parts. The marathon rests largely on your velocity at lactate threshold (vLT; 1-hour pace) mixed with aerobic efficiency.

  • vLT comes from a base of optimized running economy and vVO2.
  • Aerobic efficiency comes from a healthy dose of easy miles and enough aerobic threshold work to make you efficient burning fat at faster paces.

A 100-miler, meanwhile, rests largely on velocity at aerobic threshold (vAT), low-level aerobic efficiency, and a new component — resilience. vAT can utilize your vLT base from the marathon, so we didn’t have to do a full rebuild of your running economy from the ground up (with strides and short intervals). Instead, we did short reintroduction phases of just a few days to get a quick neuro-muscular stimulus before launching into ultra training.

The complication with vAT for mountain ultras is that we aren’t just concerned with horizontal velocity, like in the marathon or a flat ultra. Now, there is a significant vertical component as well. Hill workouts and other efforts are designed to improve vAT as well as ascent velocity at aerobic threshold (vamAT). vam is a cycling metric that we have adopted for SWAP athletes.

The other components of ultra training are more straightforward. Low-level aerobic efficiency and resilience involve using long runs to prepare your body to improve “all-day” pace. Meanwhile, we rely on faster workout paces to ensure that the “all day pace” does not cause breakdown.

Q | Overall, would you say that a winter of Boston training was a productive base for the ultra season, or would I have been better served by a tighter ultra focus?

Speed wins no matter what the distance or terrain, so long as the athlete is strong enough to reach the finish.

The marathon training was not only valuable, it was indispensable. That speed (which at your vLT is about 30 seconds faster per mile) and improved running economy (probably 10+% better), raises your performance ceiling almost immeasurably.

Now, all we need to do is get strong enough to use that speed in a 100-mile ultra. This is actually the easy part.

As a side note, many ultra runners — even pros — fall into a rut because they focus too much on volume and not enough on speed. The farther away you get from your fastest, the stronger you need to be to compensate, and that strength cup can only get so full before performance starts to stagnate and regress.

In a perfect world, we’d have 6 weeks to build for Bighorn (instead of just a few), so the long-term plan is to consider it a big training day for UTMB. Your big training day now is better than your hardest race effort before the Boston build, so I’ll take an abbreviated ultra training cycle after speed development over a massive ultra cycle with minimal speed development every single time.

Q | Is that 100-mile strength delivered primarily by high-volume efforts and high-volume weeks, often with long consecutive days? Are there any less time-intensive tricks to achieve it?

Almost everyone is underprepared for running 100 miles in the mountains. The training goal is to limit that lack of preparation to the bare minimum, allowing an underprepared athlete (i.e. everyone) to finish strong.

Jim Walmsley at Western States in 2016 might be the best (and possibly first) example of someone truly racing a 100 from start to finish (or at least mile 93), in attack mode all day. So his training is an instructive upper bound. Prior to that race, he was putting in 140-mile weeks with runs regularly over 30 miles, often on tough trails in the Grand Canyon.

For the purposes of simplification, that is “max strength.” Most people would break under that type of load. For the rest of us, it’s about finding the balance between that max strength level of training and what we can achieve healthily (which varies based on genetics and background). Unfortunately, that means there are no shortcuts at the 100-mile distance.

What is required: lots of miles, lots of long runs, and comfort with the extremes of human exertion.

Through periodization, shorter intervals, doubles (runs in the AM and PM), cross training, nutrition hacks (limited carbs between some key efforts), back-to-back long runs, and leg strength work, we can reduce the pure mileage needed to get close to max potential. Each of those elements varies in importance based on everything from a person’s gender to their bone density to their job. But, at the end of race day, miles make the woman or man.

Q | About ten weeks separate Bighorn and UTMB, versus eight weeks between Boston and Bighorn (and, realistically, only seven due to personal commitments). Will you add new components for UTMB training, or simply address each component more fully?

Ten weeks in Skurka-time is an eternity! Your talents are like animals on Noah’s ark, with two of the menagerie of gifts being resilience and recovery. So we can pack a lot into short periods of time now that we’ve had six months together.

With a 10-week cycle, we’ll have three deliberate phases: recovery, economy, and mixed hill/ultra.

  • 2-3 weeks of easy running, after nearly a week off
  • 2 weeks of an economy phase very similar to when we started together in December
  • 2 week vVO2 phase with reintroduction of long runs
  • 3 weeks of massive training in a hill/ultra phase, before finishing with a taper.

The training will culminate with those three big training weeks. We will combine your current fitness with a high-volume stress that will ensure that you aren’t under-prepared in Chamonix.

Questions for David or for me? Leave a comment.

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One Response to Strength AND speed: 100-mile ultra training philosophy || Interview with David Roche

  1. Ben Wright June 14, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

    Really enjoy the interviews with Roche. Good luck at Bighorn and UTMB.

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