The Need for Speed in Big Mountain Races


I find it so interesting that the short high-intensity flat training I do benefits and compliments my ultra-mountain distance running. I am always getting told to try and find the speed while I am young and to stop running such long distances, the reason being the amount of fast twitch muscle tissue we have when we are young starts to decrease as we age – I have learnt I can do both!

I am still learning to enjoy the really hard sessions. I do two x HIIT (high-intensity interval training) a week and it takes all the motivation to get to the oval or to the flat area and run back and forth with my legs hurting and my heart in my ears. The “elevation and GPS maps” also suck when I look at my Strava and Movescount accounts, however it’s when I finish these sessions that I feel the most satisfaction and I see the biggest improvements.

My training is varied. I struggle to repeat sessions often because I get bored. I swap between training variables such as; time, distance, HR or pace. The only time I can continuously find motivation for these sessions is when there is a competitive element; this includes park run as much as main races and events. I love the idea of trying to beat myself, experiencing that heavy leg lactic feeling and pushing through it. It is these 5km Park run races early on a Saturday morning that motivate me to train with speed. Because I am competitive and I always want to be better and now I see the effects of this training on my mountain racing.

I feel the need for speed! (But only once or twice a week)
I feel the need for speed! (But only once or twice a week)

This year I have focused on the mountain races around the marathon distance. With this distance comes the inevitable need for strength and speed, either on the ups, on the downs or on any small section of flat.

Bogong to Hotham, Shotover moonlight marathon, Northburn and Buffalo stampede are incredibly hilly races with typical ascents and descents around 2000 – 3000mtrs. This required me to come off a descent or an ascent and open my stride and run (un)comfortably fast at any given point in time.

When I trained for these races I first pushed for leg speed on the flat, I then moved this new skill onto a gradient, running undulating courses and pushing the ups and floating the downs still maintaining stride rate or cadence. And finally putting it all together to maintain this tempo across all terrains (not quite triple threat)

It’s a lot like a car with different gears to call on. When I run with Dad he’s like a big truck which has to change slowly through the gears to pick up speed, I see myself as a slightly sportier racing car. I change gears depending on the terrain. It all starts with building the engine on the flat where sometimes I needed Dad to give me a push start due to having nothing left. Once you have the engine, you; like any car lover can sense and feel the need to change gears before the almighty embarrassing stall. The fuel you put in the car has to high grade, but that’s another story.

Here are some example sessions I use within my weeks of training. I believe the trick is to keep the body guessing because come race day it’s never going to be a straight road.

Training off time:

  • 10min warm up;
  • 1,2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1min pyramid with 1minute recovery jog in between
  • 10 minute cool down

Training off distance:

  • 10minute warm up
  • 6-8x1km intervals with 500m jog recovery in between
  • 10 minute cool down

Training off HR:

  • 10minute warm up
  • 8x400m with recovery until HR drops below 100bpm (this is considered recovery)
  • ** here it is fascinating to watch not only your 400m time but also over a period of time to see the recovery time reduce!
  • 10minute cool down

My favourite session for mountain addicts:

  • 5km easy tempo warm up
  • 10x 200m sprints with 100m recovery jogs
  • Easy jog to nearest hill
  • 10 x 200m hill sprints on tired legs
  • 10 minute cool down.


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Lucy Bartholomew
Lucy Bartholomew is one of Australia's most recognised female ultra and trail runners. She's a member of Team SALOMON, SUUNTO, CLIF bar and STRAVA

3 thoughts on “The Need for Speed in Big Mountain Races

  1. The myth that speed work is not needed for ultramarathons is just that; a myth. Speed work helps on the trails (agility via foot speed), on the downs (not going up forever), and so on. It is similar to the vanished long tempo runs (the 18-20 milers at what might be called marathon pace)–they still matter. Nicely written article, thank you for writing.

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