Specificity: Trail vs. Road

Posted by relhats in Blog, Commentary, Uncategorized on Feb 13, 2013

Marathon Cartoon

Americans are obsessed with status, acknowledgment/approval, comfort and excess. Acknowledgment isn’t limited to Americans, that is a very human motivation and a colossal incentive for progress. Status and excess are also desired by other peoples, though it is typical of American culture and something that we are defined by. It then isn’t a surprise that Americans are becoming more and more interested in running farther and farther. Ultra-running satisfies all of these obsessions. If you can cover 31 miles in one day, you certainly deserve praise and you will be revered as super-human, elevating your status. The distance itself is excessive, and the long naps you allow yourself round out the comfort aspect. So, now that we snobby Americans have established a regard for these long distances, shouldn’t we focus on how to train for them?

Running a race isn’t always a simple jaunt on a fixed course–it requires specific training. Many of us are trail runners, we are familiar with the up-and-downs and searing quad burn as you blaze up a hill or tear down it (it still hurts either way). Maybe you’re an experienced trail marathoner and you have had success with quick times and top placings so you decide to take your chances at dominating a big road marathon. It’s the same distance so all of your trail running training should translate nicely and be adequate, correct? No, not quite. Though you have the endurance to finish, the energy allocation is quite different and pacing is key. Road training and trail training are specific. To be an excellent sprinter, you have to train specifically for sprinting. To be an excellent mountain runner, you have to run those hills repeatedly. Training for a road marathon or ultra is the same concept; you must simulate the course during your workouts to obtain optimum performance.

Trail marathons and ultras are characterized by the extreme elevation gains and technical elements (ie. rocks, roots, ruts). The undulating courses oblige your inconsistent, ever changing pace and the recruitment of more muscle fibers to power you up the many hills. It is important that you don’t take off like a bat out of hell because once you’re 20 miles in, the mere thought of another hill will lead to intestinal discomfort and possible vomiting. In training and racing a trail event, you have to run at a moderate, efficient pace and conserve energy where you can. Hike up the hills using your hands to push on your quads to alleviate some of the work from your thighs. Hill training in general is usually thought of as a trail training element and ignored by road runners. Weight training is a fantastic cross-training activity for trail runners as it helps build the muscle necessary for getting over the mountains and fine tuning neuro-muscular ability to navigate the boulders and stairs you may face. Use a weight that allows a 12 repetition maximum but only do 10 reps. Do exercises that use more than one muscle: squats, push-ups, lunges. Treat hill and stair workouts in the same way you would a weight lifting session and be sure to take in sufficient protein afterward.

Trail ultras take much more time and you cannot burn all of your matches too soon. It’s about building strength and conserving energy. You don’t have to run 80-mile weeks to be a good trail ultra-runner. As long as you keep one long run (~20-28 miles depending on your distance) every other week and adhere to the 2 week build phase followed by the 1 week recovery phase, the workouts in between can be 1-2 hours in length and include hill and speed work.Road marathons/ultras require more speed training and doing consistent runs based on miles rather than time. As I’ve mentioned, hill training is typically for the trails, but road runners can boost their speed if they do a short hill workout once a week or every other week. Heavy weight training should be kept to a minimum for road runners. It is better to do core workouts and use your body as the weight for resistance training. If you are using free weights or a machine, aim for a weight that allows you a 25 rep maximum but only complete 20 repetitions. If you are new to lifting, start with 2 sets and move up to 4 sets by adding another set every 3 or so weeks.

You have to train on the road if you want to do well. Find a course that has the same profile as the race you are going to run and play around with different paces. You should be definite in the miles you are running that day and build on them with shorter-mile days separating them. Sometimes it is beneficial to have a back to back heavy mile block. Find a mid-week day and run 18 miles followed by another day of running 23 miles. Take two days of recovery after such blocks: easy running or a short, concentrated workout of sprints and other speed work. It is important to capitalize on tempo days and work on increasing your lactate threshold. Being able to work at a high intensity for a long time is the backbone of a successful road marathoner.Your body will adapt to whatever kind of stress you are placing on it. It will become most efficient for that specific activity. So, stimulate the change by training specifically for what you want to accomplish. If we train appropriately we can feel justified in being a snobby American consumed by excess…as long as it is excessive distance that creates feelings of appreciation for everything else we already have.

  • Lovetorun

    Good article with great training advice! I think that is a common mistake that most new ultra marathoners make. They train mostly on flat roads do to their convenience and time constraints, but that is not doing them a lot of good for the 50 miler with 9000+ ft of elevation gain they are training for. Simulate the race terrain as much as possible in training.

  • acguitarte

    I’m a BQ hopeful and I’ve done 30 road marathons in the last 9 years before transitioning to trail ultras. The only thing I remember adding more to my training regimen are the hills, both going up and down fast. All the rest of my tempo, speed, and interval, strength activities remained the same. It’s that simple. Less than a year when I started, I’m now training for my first 100. Which means, simply more hill (mountain) training.