The majority of runners training for ultra marathon events lasting 4 hours or longer have no trouble getting in miles or long runs. This is the most intuitive and specific training that usually occurs. But many runners will take this to the extreme, running too long and too easy, thinking this will provide drastic improvements in their race performance. Long training runs are important, but what tends to be missing from ultra runners training repertoire is attacking the neuromuscular system to ‘improve’ race pace endurance.
When a muscle becomes stronger in response to traditional endurance training, the gain in strength is usually attributed to an improvement in the size or quality of the muscle. The truth, however, is that strength upgrades can occur without any change in the muscle at all. Many upswings in strength are actually the result of alterations in the way the muscle is controlled by the NERVOUS SYSTEM. And this can lead to great gains in race performance at the marathon and ultra distances, not just in short, explosive events.
Specifically, the nervous system can do a better job of recruiting muscle fibers and are more accomplished at stimulating muscles which aid the primary muscle in carrying out force production during a long endurance race, thus producing more forceful movements more efficiently, causing less fatigue. While this by itself does not upgrade force production, it allows forces to develop more rapidly, converting strength into power. To put it another way, if you are a strong ultra runner and your nerves learn to activate your leg muscles more quickly, you would have not only improved your strength to scale the various climbs on the race course but also the power to climb those hills and mountains very quickly.
The nervous system can also learn to activate motor units in a way which will produce not only the desired level of strength and power for your long endurance event but also the most energy-efficient production of strength and power. The nervous system enhances coordination (skill and efficiency during technical single track), thus conserving energy and allowing competitive levels of effort to be tolerated and sustained for longer periods of time, which is ultimately the goal for long races.
Typically neuromuscular efforts are very hard intervals ranging from 8-15 seconds in duration either done on hills and/or flat terrain. I like to take this concept and design workouts that are specific to ultra distance events, helping the runner improve race pace endurance and to give the runner an understanding of what an appropriate race pace is for their ability at their chosen distance.
Here is a great back to back workout for a Saturday/Sunday run I like to assign during the Specific Training phase of the runners I coach, or during the 6-8 weeks leading up to the goal race.
Saturday: After a good warm-up of 30-50 minutes, perform 10 X 30 second hill repeats where you increase your pace as you go, nearing a max effort by the end of the 30 seconds. Take plenty of recovery after each, 2-3 minutes in length. Once you have completed this set, run 60-90 minutes at a self-perceived steady race pace, adding a 10-15 second very hard effort every 8-10 minutes. After completing this steady pace effort, finish the run with 10 X 15 second very hard efforts with the odd numbered on hills and even numbered on flats. Again, with 2-3 minute recovery between each. Then start your warm down.
Sunday: After a good warm-up that includes several short pick-ups. Run easy for two – three hours (based on your target race distance) and then finish with a 20 minute steady effort at faster than self-perceived race pace.
It is important to monitor your effort by HR, pace, and perceived exertion during your race pace effort on both days, in an effort to gain valuable knowledge to establish what is an appropriate pace for you come race day and to evaluate fueling needs.
I hope this detailed explanations peaks your interest to start training your neuromuscular system and helps lay the ground work in answering the question: When training for long endurance events of 4 hours or more, how do I train to keep my intensity high for that entire time. And how hard can I push myself during such a long event?