Most of us started out running roads before we ventured into trails. Some of us still do both. But, training to race trails is not the same as racing roads, unless you’re running wide, flat, groomed trails. Anything gnarly with elevation, the training doesn’t translate across genres. Still, the most common mistake I see in those transitioning is trying to do exactly that. Why? Because we’re creatures of habit. And let’s be honest, understanding how to train is not an easy task.
I’m five weeks into my training plan for an August mountain race. The plan I follow was developed from years of testing out training until I found a number of components that came together well, learned from reliable coaches where I saw that their knowledge worked in practice across a spectrum of athletes – not just elites or new runners. Want to know if a plan works? On race day, it shows up. This blog summarizes my best efforts to pass along nuggets of learning that have stood the test of time. It looks very different than most road training plans. It probably should.
For the record, Todd follows a similar (but not exactly the same) plan, even though he is a much higher performing athlete. There are reasons that he and I follow similar plans, but they’re not the reasons you’d think. This blog will talk about our training plans, why they’re similar, why they don’t look like road training plans, and the variables that affected these choices.
Trail Training Strategies
- Train for weekly mileage, not once-a-week long runs. Road plans typically have a weekly long run that progresses incrementally through a rotated schedule. If you are training for a tough trail race, this plan may get you to the finish line but will not produce your best results. Instead, look at your weekly mileage, thinking about more and shorter runs that add up over the week.
- Don’t train for crazy mileage. Because Todd does 100-km and 100-mile races, I frequently get asked about his mileage. Many are surprised to hear that he has never run more than 60-km at one time before a big race. His current weekly mileage as he’s building is between 40km and 55km per week. This will eventually peak at a couple 100-km weeks before race day. That’s it. Many make the mistake of trying to replicate the distance of their race before race day. The problem is that your body may peak too soon or you’ll fatigue from that many long runs, or worse, injure. If you have a proper training plan, the accumulation of the right runs each week will be more than enough to show up in performance on race day.
- Train for specificity. This is a tried and true concept whether you are a trail runner or a road runner. If you are running a mountain race, elevation should be a big part of your regular training schedule. If you are running gnarly trails, you shouldn’t be doing most of your training on pavement. Similarly, it’s very hard to train for a road marathon and a mountain ultra in the same season. The training is too different to experience your best performance in either race.
- Trail runners should train to be strong. While strength training is important for any athlete, a regular heavy lifting routine is critical for attacking tough terrain. This is not a “hold 5-pound weights while doing walking lunges” workout.
Lift. Heavy. If you don’t know how that should look, hire someone. Most runners don’t lift heavy enough and don’t do enough core work. A coach will make sure you are getting the right training.
- Trail runners should train to run strong. Every run should have a purpose. Be less concerned about the pace on your Garmin and instead choose terrain that will work a variety of joints and muscle groups so that you have whole-body fitness. Challenge yourself to do intervals on a hilly course. Find opportunities to increase strength rather than speed. Yes, this means your Strava data won’t look as “cool” as that of your road running peers. Commit to setting aside your ego in place of true performance on race day. After all, the only one who cares most about how you do is you. Train for your race.
How much does lifestyle matter?
Remember how I said that Todd and I have similar training plans, even though he is usually in the lead pack and does major ultras while I often land mid-pack and don’t run much beyond 50-km races? There is a reason for this, and it is important to evaluate a broad spectrum of factors before committing to a plan.
- What is your current fitness level? I follow a training plan that reflects over a decade of training. Even though I’m returning from injury and regaining fitness (I have Hagland’s Deformity aka high-heels-make-me-taller-but-kill-my-achilles), I know that my muscle memory and previously strong joints will sustain the training I’m putting them through. So, I modify my distance runs (which are only once every four weeks) to safely re-build my mileage, but the intensity of my workouts is fairly high. Someone new to trail running should be focusing on building joint strength more than anything, because they will injure otherwise (stats tell us so). Intensity should be measured by how the body parts feel, knowing that anything new – even being an experienced road runner moving to trails – takes time. Be patient.
- What is your job? Todd has only been running for five years but can do much higher mileage than me and at greater sustainable intensity. There is a good reason for this, but it’s one we often overlook when looking at the right training plan for ourselves: Todd’s job has a high fitness component. As a contractor, he is not only on his feet all day, but he’s lifting heavy all the time. This is in sharp contrast to an athlete who may be the same weight and athleticism as Todd but who may need to do more strength and running in order to be at the same fitness level. And if you have a sedentary job, you will have to be very intentional about your training plan. Expect to need more strength and consistency to achieve your goals.
- What is your weight? We as a North American culture need to get more healthy in having this conversation because it’s an important one. Being in a good weight range as a runner is integral to your best performance. This has nothing to do with how you look; it has everything to do with your body’s ability to run like a well-oiled machine. If you are carrying extra weight, your body will have to work harder to move. This doesn’t mean that you have to lose any extra weight: you simply have to understand the correlation and adjust your expectations for performance accordingly. This includes having too much muscle (usually more an issue for body builders). Alternatively, being too light is a problem, especially as a distance runner. Without healthy nutrition at the cellular level (eating enough of the right foods) and enough fat stores (important for regulating energy in an ultra), you will also see performance suffer. If you have a healthy relationship with your body, it’s valuable to assess your goals against your body’s weight and nutritional habits. If you’re not sure how to do that in a healthy way, hire a nutritionist or a therapist, or both. Training to run well is truly about whole health well being.
While this blog is not meant to replicate the advice of experts, it is meant to pass along what I’ve seen and learned over the years by paying attention to those who know what they’re doing, listening to great coaches, and applying sound strategies. This is something we all can do: Be curious, ask questions, hire a professional. And don’t assume that what you read on the Inter-Web is truth. Remember that online sites are a resource but share as much fake news as truth.
Most important in all of this is to listen to your body. This week, I turned two of my tempo runs into easy runs because my body was begging for a break. Doing that occasionally will not kill your plan; in fact, it may strengthen your fitness as you won’t injure or burn out. Just remember to make breaks exactly that: a break from your regular routine. Find the balance between healthy listening and looking for excuses, because when you’re in the middle of your A race, finding excuses will be easy. Learn to listen well to your body now so that you’re tuned into your limits when you’re racing.
For a list of resources in your community, ask those whose training is working. But always check credentials, not popularity votes, and make sure you’re hiring the right fit for your training goals.
For an interesting article on transparency in “peer reviewed evidence”, click on this link: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/unusual-move-judge-grants-crossfits-request-unmask-anonymous-peer-reviewers .