Five Surefire Ways to Move Up in Your Trail Races
Let’s imagine the scene at the end of your trail race. You hear a half-hearted whoop as you turn down the last bend in the trail and come in sight of the finish banner. A small knot of people (the race director and her friends) give you a spartan little round of applause. Someone jots down your time on your finish tag, which is stuck at the end of a long messy line of tags on the finish board. Runners are standing around the snack table laughing and swapping stories. No one manages to look your way. Your elation at finishing fades pretty quickly. You look around for the winner. He or she, however, has long since showered and shampooed and is now standing around in jeans and a sweatshirt, so he or she is not too obvious. Let’s face it. Your finish is not front-page news.
Or, imagine this. You run a 50K with about 50 other runners. As the race unfolds, you find volunteers at the aid stations telling you your place. “You’re ninth,” they say. “Doin’ good. Still top ten!” Maybe near the end you catch a couple of people, or maybe you drop a few places. But when you cross the finish line, there’s quite a bit of commotion. The cheers are more expansive. People you don’t know are clapping and smiling. Your name gets passed around. The handful of runners at the snack table are looking your way, waiting for you to join them. And lo and behold, the guy sitting at the picnic table having a hotdog is actually the winner! He’s still wearing running clothes. His legs are still caked with dirt. Your girlfriend jumps into your arms. “Wow, honey! You really did great.” Big kiss.
Okay, if you’re like me, your experiences are more like the first scene than the second. You run hard, but not too hard. You mostly enjoy yourself. And you usually finish in the middle of the pack. Nothing wrong with that. Why go through the pain and agony of training harder just to finish higher up in the standings? But what if moving up from that mid pack position to the top 10 or 20 percent of finishers were not that hard. In fact, what if you could make just a few adjustments to your daily workouts and get much better results? I run trail races and ultras around Northern California and always considered the competition very formidable. But when I added some quality training techniques to my usual routine, I suddenly went from always finishing halfway down the field to cracking the top 10 and 20% of runners every race!
Here are five things I did to sharpen up my running. But don’t get me wrong, they actually didn’t amount to that much more effort than I was already putting into my running. Try incorporating two or three of them into your weekly routine. After six or eight weeks, you might be surprised how much better you do in your next race.
1. Do Speed Work
You knew that was coming, but speed work doesn’t have to mean death by a thousand intervals on a mind-numbing track. Start small. During one of your usual runs, throw in some pick ups. Spot an object up ahead and pick up the pace until you reach it. Then fall back into your standard pace until you’ve recovered. Then do it again. Work pick ups into two or three of your runs during the week. If you‘ve fallen into the habit of running everything at a slow even pace, pick ups will encourage your body to build the capacity for greater effort. Otherwise, in a race, you’re stuck with one level of effort, the slow and steady kind.
Another speed work option is to make one run a week a tempo run. Start one of your typical runs with an easy mile to warm up and then cruise through the rest of your run at about 80% of your 10K race pace. Leave a mile at the end for a cool down. Tempo runs are a tremendous way to build anaerobic capacity and give you an extra gear at the end of your long runs.
Or you can bite the bullet and do the intervals. Half mile or mile repeats worked for me. Try a two-mile warm-up and then a series of six to eight half-mile intervals run at your 10K pace. Jog or walk a quarter-mile loop between each half-mile. Then do a two-mile warmdown. You can add or subtract some of the half-mile repeats depending on your level of fitness. Nothing builds your fitness as fast as intervals. But remember to increase your speed and level of effort gradually to avoid triggering an injury.
2. Attack the Hills
Do hills. The more hills in your standard workouts, the more strength you will build each and every day. Being stronger generally translates into better performance in a race. And try “bounding” up the last section of each hill just before the top. Right when you would normally be chopping your stride down and tucking in to finish the incline, stretch out your stride, lift your knees high, pick up the pace, and bound up to the top. You can recover while you’re cruising back down. Hills can turn an average daily run into a quality work out that will produce a decided advantage on race day, especially if the racecourse is hilly.
3. Cross Train
If you haven’t worked cross training into your running routine, you’ve missed out on a lot of useful fun. When swimming, weight lifting, road biking, or mountain biking, you work different sets of muscles than you do just running, leading to enhanced overall strength. More strength translates into better performance over a long race, especially for older runners who tend to lose overall strength with age. All these activities also have the advantage of less impact on areas critical to a runner’s longevity: feet, ankles, knees, hips. So you’re less likely to develop overuse injuries. But cross training has more than just physical advantages. It opens up a series of new goals and challenges, with lots of new skills to learn. You meet new people and tap into a new frame of mind. With the varied workouts, you avoid that endless series of junk miles that tend to pile up when just running. Each week, I traded two runs for hilly mountain bike rides. The rides were exhilarating, plus I looked forward to my next run more since I wasn’t just running all the time. I even jumped into some mountain bike races and triathlons and thoroughly enjoyed the new experiences these events offered. I credit cross training with completely refreshing my enjoyment of running and exercising in general.
4. Try Some Adventure Runs
I’m assuming here that you do the long, slow distance runs that are the stock in trade of trail running. Adventure runs are generally your long runs with some added dimension. For example, skip the morning run with the mild temperatures and instead challenge the heat of the day. Slather on sunblock, dress for the heat, take lots of water, and learn what kind of pace will keep you going. If it is pouring rain, get out there and discover what it takes to stay dry and comfortable. Run at night with lights. Run different trails than you are used to. Tag along with better and faster runners on their turf. Get in over your head. Go for extreme conditions. Trail runs and ultras are full of trying and unexpected conditions. Train to deal with disaster. Cultivate an attitude that adversity is adventure, and adventure is a good thing. Then, as will inevitably happen, when things get tough, you will be prepared.
5. Run with the Leaders
It’s race day and you want your best performance. Start with a solid warm up routine. Avoid the temptation to use a slow start to warm up. Then run the first mile or two hard. You don’t need to go out with the front runners, but run hard enough to stay with the second tier of runners. The idea is to place yourself among runners that are going to do well in the race. After the first mile or two, come off your starting pace and gradually find your comfort zone. You won’t have spent that much energy in just a mile or two. At this point, a few runners will go by you, but chances are you will settle in with a relatively fast group of runners. Slower runners will be well behind you. Now you need to key off the runners around you. Match their pace on the hills and over the rolling sections of trail. Keep up on the downhills. Tuck in behind a fast group and let them pull you along. Even if you struggle to keep up and find yourself dropping a place from time to time, you will be maintaining a better overall pace than if were keying off slower runners. Finally, just hang on and see where you finish.
The beauty of these techniques: speedwork, cross training, hills, adventure runs, and fast starts, is that they don’t have to add extra time to your exercise routine. Work them into runs you were planning anyway. Plus with different goals on different days, you might find, like I did, that the change of pace reinvigorates your training. And when you finish your next race, you can ask the winner–who will still be around–for some more tips.