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Ian Sharman

Ian Sharman

12:29 AM on Friday, November 30, 2018

Why the half marathon is a great distance for ultra runners, by Coach Ellie Greenwood

This month Sharman Ultra ( is the Coach of the Month for Strava and our fifth post is from Coach Ellie Greenwood. She's one of the most accomplished ultra runners in history, whose wins include Western States 100, the 100k World Championships, Comrades, CCC, Templiers, Chuckanut 50k and too many others to list them all.

Why the half marathon is a great distance for ultra runners.

As someone who has run many races from 50 to 100 miles it might seem odd that I believe that half marathons can be one of the toughest distances to race, but I firmly do. And, because they are so hard, I feel that the half marathon distance should be incorporated into your ultra marathon build up.

Even if you are aiming to ‘just’ finish your ultra (which believe me is a feat to be applauded!), race day is going to be much more manageable if you have worked on improving your speed. Sure, you don’t need to be in 10k PR shape to do well at an ultra but if you have worked on improving your easy, cruising pace then regardless of the distance of your ultra, you’re going to feel the benefits. The best way to improve your easy running pace, is to do some not-so-easy running!

With ultra training it’s easy to get tied up in big miles, lots of vertical and course specific training runs, and whilst those are essential components of your training, they alone might not lead to race day success. In the earlier phases of your build up it is better to focus just as much on working on your speed as on longer efforts. When you combine that speed with longer and slower runs you’ll become a much more efficient and thus faster ultra runner.

In the context of ultra marathoning, the half marathon is the perfect race distance to work on your speed. Although I’m very well aware that a half marathon doesn’t equate to speed work for most athletes, for an ultra runner it can feel like a sprint. It’s perfect training as it’s about being able to maintain a moderately high intensity effort for an extended period, rather like the final two hours of a 50 miler if you are gunning for a PR or an age group placing. In the half you can practice being comfortable at being uncomfortable for a sustained period - a pretty essential skill for an ultra. In your next ultra, when many of the other runners are fading in the final miles, you will have both the physical and mental capacity to dig into that half marathon intensity.

The winter can be an ideal time to focus on half marathon training. If your key ultra races are not until June or later, you don’t need to be logging super long runs and accumulating massive vertical gain in November to February. Instead those months can be used to bring in some half marathon specific speed sessions when your legs are fresher and more able to handle those type of workouts. You can find lots of example workouts online if you’re stuck for ideas. Spring is the perfect opportunity to actually race a half marathon. You’ll have built up your base speed and can now get the benefit of a tough racing experience, before you move onto more specific (longer and quite possibly hillier) training runs come late spring or early summer. It might seem obvious but it can be easy to forget - if you can’t run 13.1 miles hard, it’s going to be tough to run 30, 50 or 100 miles well.