I’ll admit I have a bias on this topic, since when I first started running ultras in 2005, I also got hooked on road marathons. However, one thing I noticed was how effectively sub-ultra road races prepared me for many aspects of longer races. It’s also clear that many top level men and women have great success on both roads and trails of varying distances, so I asked a selection of them about what benefits they get from faster road races. I picked the brains of Magda Boulet (Olympic marathoner and Western States 100 winner), Mike Wardian (is there a race this man hasn’t done?) and Pam Smith (US 100k team member and Western States 100 winner).
Improved Pacing Ability
The discipline of a half or full marathon with a mainly uniform course means that when mile splits vary by even a few seconds, it’s obvious. Learning to assess your sustainable effort level for different distances is a key skill for ultrarunning. A road race takes away some of the variables seen in a typical trail ultra, since the terrain is generally f lat and completely non-technical. It’s a chance to focus on some of the simpler elements of racing without distractions. Mike says it offers “the ability to lock into a pace and ride it to the finish line.” Another benefit Mike mentions is learning to surge against competitors: “There is nothing like battling with someone during a road race and throwing in surges to try and break the other person, and this relates well to trails where you can run fast on some sections.” Mike also adds, “I find that in most trail races there are really ‘runnable’ sections. Those are chances to really push, if you know how, and I love that and think having the knowledge of what certain paces feel like is a huge advantage.”
However, Magda points out the undeniable value of specificity: “As much as I like to incorporate road running in preparation for trail races, I believe that specificity in training helps my ability to pace in trail races, rather than road races. When I race trails I listen to my heartbeat and my effort as opposed to per mile pace like I do in road races. There is a good deal of art and science in trail racing.”
It goes without saying that shorter races allow faster speeds, but the race environment also makes it easier to push the body and get a really hard workout. Simply put, halves and marathons are great speed work for ultras. Magda states, “I find that running on trails all the time forces me to maintain a slower pace due to more elevation difference and the terrain itself. Incorporating regular races and workouts on flat roads allows a runner to practice a quicker leg turnover over sustained distance.” Mike adds that roads help him to “become a more efficient and faster runner, and I feel [that] allows me to be a better trail runner.”
Pam mentions, “People tend to push themselves at a much higher heart rate in a 10k or half marathon than in an ultra, so shorter races have great cardiovascular benefits.”
Mike summarizes this well: “There is something very comforting in knowing your 5k, 10k, half marathon or marathon PR, since road races give a nice measure of where you stack up against the best in the world; whereas trail races are subject to weather, terrain, altitude and circumstances. Knowing your road times, you can use that knowledge to gauge your fitness.” Pam adds, “Some of the short races give me confidence to finish a race strong. I know I can run a 10k while still hurting pretty bad, so if I get to the last aid station, I know I can push to the finish hard even if I don’t feel great.”
Change Of Scenery
Finally, variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes. Yes, we all love the beauty of majestic mountain trails, but road races can provide a quick and exciting tour of a city. Some of my favorite city getaways were to race classic events like the Rome and Paris marathons, where I saw places I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to explore otherwise. This keeps things interesting, so that each time on the trail feels fresher and more exciting, raising motivation levels.