Running the Life of a Trail Runner
Running is one of those activities that is so boldly animal and inherently human; an unthinking exercise that is uniting and creates community under a guise of simple common interest. Irrespective of talent or speed, the body is built to run. Similar to meditation or religious fulfillment, running can emancipate the spirit through bouts of physical struggle and suspension, and taking this action to the trails increases our awareness of the self and connection with our environment. Though many of us have lost this pleasure, or are not even privy to it because of contemporary culture and technological convention, there often comes a time when our minds quiet long enough to respond to the beckoning trails outside. Getting over the negative forecast that a run is arduous and, at best, exhausting is the first and only real challenge. Once you are out there, you are swiftly rewarded by the accomplishment of having moved and perspired for more than 5 minutes and, more importantly by the rich satisfaction of connecting your working body to the breathing trees and hills around you.
Trail running is addicting. Like other sports, there is a deep, supportive community that envelops you and encourages you to be the runner you want to be and have fun while training. After making the transition from couch-potato to recreational runner, or cyclist to trail-runner, or gym-rat to 30ker, and you’ve been training enough to the improvements in your fitness and pace per mile, you may feel the incentive to race. When you do a web search for trail running or trail racing, what comes up can be overwhelming and demoralizing. You see the heralded, well-known races, how many participants attended, the popular ultras, the many hours people run. If you’re a beginner, this information creates a comparison that is difficult to obviate. It requires some sifting and patience that everyone starts somewhere and, with effort (and enjoyment), you’ll reach your goals. What you really need is pertinent information and the right training plan. Refine your online search. Don’t be embarrassed by the designation of being a newbie. It’s an exciting place to be because the trail ahead of you leads to so many possibilities.
The following are some training tips for beginning trail runners who would like to embark on their racing career and reminders for seasoned racers. I want to emphasize that the most important training tenet should be safety and health. Depending on age and health history, you should see a doctor to be cleared before starting any new training program. Begin with a modest workload that you can build on and be sure to include recovery days and weeks. Trail running is a strenuous sport and including too many hard days or running for too long will over-stress the body and you’ll take a longer period to recover. The trick is finding the optimal load that will stress the systems enough to stimulate change and enhance performance. For most runners, training 3-5 days a week is sufficient in bringing about physiological adaptations.
Whether you are looking to complete your first 10k or make it through an ultra, you don’t have to put that many hours into training. What is more crucial to success than hours run is consistency. Developing a routine to your day is beneficial for anyone, and committing to getting a scheduled run in, re-fueling and sleeping are the elements to success in trail racing. Not everyone has identical schedules or can dedicate the same amount of time to training, so remember to balance your schedule in a way that allows for you to be comfortable with the hours put in while also maintaining personal relationships and other obligations. As long as you keep one long run each week and 1-2 intensity/skill focused workouts separated by easy days, you will be training enough and avoiding injury and illness. Be specific. If you have the elevation profile for an upcoming race, simulate the course during your training runs. The week before your race, keep most runs easy and short. Do give a few short sprinting efforts the day before the race as it will open up the legs and prepare you for the challenge the next day.
Find what time of the day you feel you have the most energy and when you are more inclined to commit to running. We all have certain hours where we are in a slump or not as thrilled about moving as we could be. Recognize when you are most dedicated to getting out on the trails or even on the treadmill. If you are a morning person, set your alarm for 4am. Some runners love the dark and quiet hours of beginning a run at 5:00 am and they know they will have the rest of the day for other commitments if they get it done first thing. Other people have jobs and life constrains that allow them only an hour in the evening. If this is the case, hit the streets where there is ample light and wear a reflective vest. Or invest in a headlamp and running group that goes for night runs. In the future, we are wonderful people. We foresee ourselves getting up to hit the gym and make the run, but the trouble is we never get to live in that future, we always live in the present, and in the present, we are not exactly those wonderful people. You may have the intention to get up when the alarm goes off, but the immediate feeling of being warm and on the precipice of slipping back into quiet slumber can dominate the other will. Joining a running group, hiring a coach, recruiting the support of your family, and being accountable to someone else are all great motivational strategies. Break up the workouts if you don’t have a long block of time. If you need to get in two hours, do an hour of tempo during lunch and then an hour of easy running or another focused workout later on in the day.
The next step would be recovery. This process starts immediately after your workout. Take a shower, sit down and relax, replace fluids with 20 ounces of water or an electrolyte solution. The recovery period is when development take place. This is where you actually get better and your muscles become stronger. If you neglect this phase, you will impede improvement and suffer some potential over-training symptoms. Sleeping is the best form of recovery. It is when the human growth hormone (HGH) is released, cells divide, muscles are repaired, and your lungs increase in their number of cilia (hairlike structures which sweep fluids and foreign particles out of the airway so that they stay out of the lungs), and the cardiovascular system adapts. Without adequate sleep, your performance will decline and you will have wasted time and effort. Try to aim for 8-10 hours of sleep, which for most working adults can be very difficult, but you’ll be treating your body (and your mind) kindly if you consistently are well-rested. If you can, take a nap. Napping for just 10 minutes at a time can increase the HGH in your body which will assist in building muscle strength and endurance.
Another form of recovery which is best suited for more experienced athletes is active recovery. Going for a walk or an easy hike, spinning around town on a cruiser, doing yoga or taking a dance class are great ways to stimulate blood flow and bring oxygen to the damaged areas. Finding something that is enjoyable will produce the reward hormones in your brain, such as dopamine and you will have rejuvenated vigor for your next workout. It is also notable that you should make sure to prioritize. Finding balance will reduce stress and you will get the most out of your workouts. Make time for your family and work obligations, enjoy other interests and check in with yourself to confirm your admiration for the sport, not just for the asceticism of training.
Make long-term and short-term attainable goals. You can make some heavy goals that may take years to achieve, but as long as they remain realistic, it can be a great way to constantly be moving forward and stay committed. Humans have this insidious ability to create stress when there isn’t a need. It is corrosive and will hinder your overall welfare. Examining your life and weeding out unnecessary stresses will anchor you to happiness and success. Take a look at what is the most important factor in your running career. Is it to win? Is it to set a PR? Is it simply to finish? What your goal is will shape the way you invest in your training.
When you are burning thousands of calories in one workout session, you need to eat a very nutrient dense meal. If you do not replace the calories burned, you will not recover adequately and you risk experiencing malnutrition. Dietary intake requirements vary depending upon the athlete’s biology, state of health, energy expenditure, etc. Optimal nutrition is an integral part of peak performance; eating the proper amounts of each macro-nutrient will maximize your training benefits. An example is the 60% carbohydrate, 20% protein, 20% fat diet. The best diet includes foods in their whole state. Eat lots of produce, aiming for 5-10 servings per day of rich, vibrantly colored fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meat, eggs, skim milk, nuts, olive oil, coconut, and vitamin supplements.
The body needs carbohydrates which is converted and stored as sugars in the muscles and brain to provide energy. Depending upon the training routine, athletes need to consume at least 50%, but ideally 60-70% of their total calories from carbohydrates. Depending on the length of training sessions, an athlete’s carbohydrate intake should be between 2.5-6.0 grams per pound of body weight. Before exercising you should consume a meal with 150-350 grams of carbohydrate 3-4 hours beforehand. To avoid stomach upset, the carbohydrate content of the meal should be reduced the closer the meal is to the workout or race. Delaying carbohydrate intake after exercise will reduce muscle glycogen stores and impair the ability to recover. The recommended intake is 0.65 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight that should be consumed within 30 minutes after exercise. This should be followed by an additional carb-meal two hours later or sooner if you feel hungry.
Consume adequate amounts of protein to foster the growth of muscles and repair soft-tissue damage. It is critical to intake higher than normal amounts of protein if you are looking to lose weight. It will prevent losing too much muscle as your over all body weight decreases. Our body needs protein to make enzymes, rebuild injured tissues (ie. muscle), and create new cells. Protein comes from the Greek word proteios, meaning “first” or “of primary importance”. Trail runners do a number on their muscles after a hilly workout or race, and after 2 hours + running there is quite a bit of muscle damage. There is no general agreement within the nutrition field regarding appropriate protein intake for trail runners. A rough guideline is as follows: 1.2-2.5g/kg daily
It is best to immediately consume around 20 grams of a complete protein after a long or very intense workout. I would suggest that all 30-50k runners consume this amount after one of our races as it will repair the damaged muscle. Signs that you may need more protein in your diet include frequent colds, slow recovery following workouts, being irritable, slow hair and fingernail growth, poor focus, sugar cravings, and amenorrhea. You can play with what works for you. The best forms of protein are “complete”, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids. Here are some fantastic sources which can be consumed by vegetarians as well: whey powder, eggs, peas and corn, and rice and beans.
Fat is the major, if not most important, fuel for light to moderate intensity exercise. The body needs fat to dispense energy, cushion your organs and allow the body to absorb necessary nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Athletes that consume high-fat diets typically ingest fewer calories from carbohydrates though no attempt should be made to cut out fat completely. Following a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is important for athletic health.
Trail running and ultra-distance athletics takes a lot of energy and demands a nutrient dense diet to support muscle repair and depleted electrolytes. As runners, we feel the normal hunger once you regain an appetite after a long or intense run, but we don’t always focus on the mineral content of our food. It’s easy to consume meals heavy in carbohydrates and protein which are necessary to make fitness progress and maintain health, but it’s just as important to take in adequate iron. Iron deficiency can occur from excessive sweating and will mimic over-training symptoms leaving you limp and no amount of desire can force those muscles to get stronger. Spinach, meat (especially organ meat), pumpkin seeds, lentils, blackstrap molasses, and fortified cereals are all great sources of iron. If you take a supplement, drink some orange juice to wash it down as the citrus helps the body assimilate more of the mineral. And avoid drinking coffee or eating wheat when you ingest iron as caffeine and wheat impedes synthesis.
Sometimes there is ambiguity regarding whether you are training too hard or not hard enough. Some runners like to wear heart rate monitors to document and receive live updates on their efforts. I think rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and feeling what your body is going through is a better gauge for training intensity. Though there are some advantages, heart rate monitors can be deceiving since your heart rate is affected by how much water you’ve had to drink, daily stress, illness and other factors. As your fitness increases, your heart rate will decrease as it adapts and doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood throughout your body, but it will also lower if you have fallen victim to over-training. Trying to get it up to a certain training zone could actually be setting you further back from your goal. With RPE, you are measuring your own feelings of effort, strain, discomfort, and/or fatigue and adjust your level of intensity based on what you are experiencing. Regardless of what method of intensity measurement you use, when you monitor some aspect of your physiological response to training you are taking a peek into your body through only a small window. You have to couple the monitoring with other quantifiable data. If you know how many miles you’ve run along with how long it took you and you consider how you felt during the workout, you will have insight into how you are progressing. You can use a GPS device and download the data after to see how you’re improving.
If you can revisit these ideas throughout your training program, you are well on your way to meeting your goals. You are in control. Make decisions that are prudent and conducive to crossing the finish line safer and faster. It takes commitment and a little flexibility to be a great trail racer. Eat, drink, run, sleep, enjoy your family and friends, and make time for other interests outside of running. It all comes together if you want it to.
Writer and trail runner