Should Mountain Runners Do Speedwork?


I recently heard someone comment on a social media post about how they prefer marathons over trail races because they “like to train to run fast, not become a fast walker in the mountains”.  I believe this is a common misconception about training for trail races or longer distance ultra marathons. When you picture someone doing a mountain race, you often picture someone power hiking up steep terrain or descending over technical trails.  When you picture someone racing a road 5k or even a marathon, you picture them running fast. While it is true that you will spend a greater amount of time at slower than road race paces for mountain races, it is a mistake to think, then, that you don’t need to incorporate any faster running or “speedwork” into your training as a mountain runner.  When I write custom trail race training plans for clients in my personal run coaching business, you can bet there is going to be a block or two of speedwork built into their overall macrocycle. The type of speedwork and how many weeks are involved will depend on the individual, their goals and the distance of the race. Even for 100 mile distance races when you spend the majority of your time in your Zone 2 “easy effort” throughout the duration of the race.  

The mindset i’d like you to consider is what fitness gains happen during speedwork.  Without getting too sciencey on you, there are two basic goals of speedwork: increase your VO2max and increase your lactate threshold.  In a nutshell, your VO2max is the amount of oxygen your muscles can utilize during exercise. More oxygen = faster top-capacity speed. Lactate threshold is the speed at which your body can get rid of lactate (that burning sensation during higher intensity exercise).  The faster you can dump the lactate = the longer you can tolerate discomfort before having to slow down your pace. Now here is the key: the increases you can make in these specific areas of fitness do not only transfer over to running fast on the road. Think about climbing a steep hill that lasts for 20 minutes.  That person that blows by you, still power hiking, but going at a faster rate likely has a higher VO2max or lactate threshold that keeps them going. It’s very likely that they did some speedwork to get to that point, and if they didn’t it’s even more likely that they could have gone even faster had they done some speedwork.  If you are looking to get faster on the trails, adding in some speedwork could be the key to hitting those goals.