8 Dirty Little Secrets of Trail Running

Here, coach David Roche cuts to the heart of important issues all trail runners may face at some point, so, take heart—you’re not alone in your struggles on and off the trails.

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News flash: Social media does not show the full truth. However, everyday, we see images and stories of joyous romps in the mountains and perfect recovery meals, all with big smiles or clever witticisms. Even though we all know that these social-media snippets are not the complete story, trail runners look at their feeds and wonder why their lives aren’t as idyllic as everyone else’s.

Here, coach David Roche cuts to the heart of important issues all trail runners may face at some point, so, take heart—you’re not alone in your struggles on and off the trails.

Probably the most accurate portrayal of running in popular culture was from the TV show Parks and Recreation. In the show, the lovable goof Andy Dwyer starts to train for a fitness test with a run at the track. He does one lap before he strips off all of his clothes and lies on the ground. His conclusion? “Running is impossible!”

What Andy would have learned is that with consistent work, running would go from impossible to doable to transcendent. It’s all due to a series of biomechanical and aerobic adaptations: At the cellular level, the body adds mitochondria and capillaries that make us more efficient at endurance exercise. The bones and joints get stronger. The brain improves at transmitting signals about what the heck you should be doing with your hands and feet. Everything improves, little by little, until running is second nature.

But that takes time. It can suck when you start or when you come back from injury or just randomly even when you’ve been running for years. Not only that, top performance will almost always be uncomfortable.

In the face of the suckitude,
the answer is consistency and patience. The body adapts to low-level stress over time, so start by increasing the frequency of your runs. Five runs of 30 minutes a week are better than three runs of one hour, even though that’s less time on your feet.

Slow Down

Slow down until everything feels easier. Workouts matter, but what matters the most is low-level aerobic development from easy running, which builds
capillaries and improves slow-twitch muscle-fiber efficiency.

Think long term. Studies and theory indicate it will probably take 10 to 15 years to find your potential no matter when you start. Set up a framework to invest in yourself for the long haul. No one day or week really matters. Heck, no month matters that much.

Embrace the Pain

Finally, re-conceptualize discomfort. Studies suggest that by embracing discomfort, rather than trying to avoid it or distract ourselves from it, we perform better and are happier in the process. What you think is pain from running up a hill is just a few synapses worried that you are going to do this until you die. Quietly reason with the synapses, “No, brain, I am not going to die from this hill, I promise.”

You might get a response. “Oh, thanks for telling me. We’re all good. Keep running!”

Running training is the accumulation of stress. All of those positive aerobic and biomechanical adaptations only happen if the body is under load, releasing the stress hormone cortisol and occasionally feeling pain. Usually, we bounce back from that stress to become stronger. Sometimes, the body can’t absorb it, and we break down.

What does it mean that bones get stronger? We all start out with a baseline bone density based on our background. When the skeletal system is under load, bone cells are stressed. In a perfect world, that makes stronger bones. Sometimes, there is a glitch in the system and that same load leads to a stress fracture.

The line is thin between successful training and injury. And that line is not just influenced by your running, but thousands of other variables, from your sleep to your genetics to your diet and everything in between. Every runner that gets even close to their potential gets injured. Sometimes, they get injured a lot.

The 80/20 Rule

While we can’t control the chaos of our physiology, we can influence how the body experiences and adapts to stress. Run mostly easy, which limits how much stress the body experiences. A good general rule is that at least 80 percent of your running should be relaxed and conversational, with little resistance at all.

Eat Up

Eat well. Inadequate calories relative to energy expenditure is a key predictor of injury rates.

The Devil Is in the Details

Do the little things outside of running. Foam roll daily. Seriously, do it every day for the rest of your life, even in the nursing home. Not every study comes to the same foam-rolling conclusions, but tons of runners swear by it (and it likely cannot hurt), so cover all your bases.

Work with a physical therapist or do your own at-home PT focused on mobility, flexibility and strength. Remember that it’s the times when you aren’t running that your body adapts to the training stimuli.

Running requires emotional investment. If you don’t care about it, nothing will make you get out the door at 6 a.m. on a random Tuesday in January. People who occasionally run might not need to care. But people who become lifelong runners must, by definition.

And caring about something means that you are vulnerable enough for it to hurt you. Loving running will mean that the down times that we all experience may make you feel pretty bad about yourself.

Running is a long-term process of growth, and the ups and downs along the way smooth out over time. The calamity of today will be the funny story of tomorrow, I promise.

Life Goals , Not Race Goals

Emphasize process over results. Results are dust in the wind, and almost meaningless over time. I coach some of the top runners in the world, and something their journeys have shown me is that nothing changes at the finish line no matter how glorious it is.

So never let your self-worth get wrapped up in finish lines. Instead, make goals based on the daily grind, with races and similar benchmarks just serving as an excuse to live the life you love.

Give Your Inner Critic a Chill Pill

Practice self love. Everyone, no matter how certain he or she seems, is fighting entropy. The universe is dark and cold and that is the baseline that we are all pushing back against. In the face of that uncertainty, the best thing we can do is practice cutting ourselves some slack.

You are a collection of trillions of cells that come together to run! To love! To smile and cry and play Sudoku! That is pretty darn cool. You are pretty darn cool. And try not to forget it no matter what happens along the way.

Training is annoying because adaptation is non-linear and characterized by chaos theory. Chaos theory is the study of complex, multi-variable systems. Running adaptation and exercise physiology might not be a perfect fit, but they are close. There are hundreds of physiological variables, thousands of genetic ones and millions of environmental considerations that go into how training influences running fitness.

In chaos theory as articulated by Edward Lorenz, a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane three weeks later. Fitness can sometimes seem to work similarly, with small perturbations in initial conditions causing massive changes in outcomes.

You might feel like you are doing everything right, and you may get slower. You might be winging it in the mountains each day, and have the race of your life. In each hypothetical, there are reasons for the outcomes, but it’s impossible to know them with certainty.

Optimize Aerobic Volume

While training is complicated, some facts are settled. Usually, you want to optimize the total amount of aerobic running you do. Run easy a lot, and your body will get better at using energy to put out power over long distances. Less is rarely more.

Insert Spurts

Run fast sometimes. Just slogging around at one easy pace will make you really good at slogging. The magic of easy running volume is that it allows your body to absorb a higher volume of intensity later. So after you build your easy running base, introduce short and fast running a couple times a week.

It can be as simple as 10 x 1-minute fast with 1 minute easy recovery or as complex as long marathon workouts. There are tons of approaches that can work.

For my athletes, most are doing lots of strides—short accelerations around mile race pace (something like 6 x 20-seconds fast/2 minutes easy), combined with specific training and longer intervals. But that is just one approach. Familiarize yourself with the building blocks of training theory, and it’ll be fun to fill in the blanks like a game of running training Mad Libs.

Don’t Connect the Dots Too Closely

Most importantly, don’t judge. It’s tempting for the brain to conflate correlation and causation, tying every recent success and failure to recent training. But the body doesn’t work like that. Training accumulates over many months and years, and what you did last week has a relatively minor effect on how you feel today. So it’s good to notice patterns and chart things out. Just don’t let normal ups and downs of training make you rethink everything all the time.

Most runners eventually reach a point where they want to be as good as they can be. Often, there is some mission creep, when your initial goal transforms to excelling relative to others. Excelling at a race may have been the original goal, which becomes being the best in the state, and the country. Maybe the whole freaking world!

The problem is that success in running past a certain point has to do with things outside of your control. You almost certainly won’t be the very best runner in the world unless you won the genetic lottery (and work your butt off for many years).

The same goes for the best in the country, the state or your next race. There is a large amount of luck involved in getting really good at anything. People who excel often think they work harder than those slower than them, while people that are slower than them think that the fast people just got luckier genetically. The truth, like most things in life, lies somewhere in the middle.

Stop Comparing. Now.

Teddy Roosevelt is attributed with the quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” That’s true. But it goes further than that. Comparison may sabotage your love of running and your progress.

We’ve learned from GPS tracking devices that comparing and judging have a physical result. There are places where GPS measures long or short. Where it measures short, runners will think they are going slower than they are, putting them farther down on the totem pole relative to others. Where it measures long, they get some performance-enhancing satellite signals. Now here’s the cool part. The people who think they are going slower often get slower, while the faster people get some added zooms.

Comparison is like choosing to be one of those people with the slow watches. As you develop as a runner, you’ll get constant reminders that others are better than you, that your speeding fast 10-minute pace is a bit slower than the 9-minute runner next door. A fun run becomes a slog, and eventually those slogs might add up to make all of your running a bit slower. It’ll definitely be less fun.

There is a ton of science behind the comparison trap, but it can mostly be summarized in the idea that the neuro-physical context of training matters. Feel like crap about yourself and your run, and you probably won’t adapt as much over time. And if you compare, you’ll usually feel like crap eventually. Your best will never be enough unless it’s always enough.

Become a Cheerleader

Instead of comparing yourself to others, root for them. We are programmed to cheer on members of our tribe or pack, to get joys in their successes (at least for the most part). Over time, make the choice that your pack is the whole running community. Do that, and your journey can remain independent from that of others with different genetics and life circumstances. You can have all of the fun without any of the self sabotage.

Trail runners have a unique training consideration. Our really fun runs with tons of hills are slower by necessity. While they are slower, they aren’t easier. Often, you might find yourself hiking up a steep hill and your heart rate might be close to maximum. It’s simultaneously hard and slow—a dangerous place to be too often.

Why is it dangerous? First, let’s look at why it’s hard. Your body is putting out lots of power, with each contraction of your quadriceps muscles powering you up the steep slope or over the tricky rocks. On flat, non-technical ground, that power would correspond to fast paces. But on the tough trails, you’ll look to your right and your dog will be walking casually beside you.

To put it another way, tough trails improve your aerobic system and musculoskeletal strength. However, the specific adaptations required to go fast also require a developed neuromuscular system (transmitting neurological signals into fast running) and biomechanical system (preparing the body for the impact of moving fast). Eventually, a runner who just focuses on technical mountain passes might be an aerobic monster who can’t run fast at all.

Stay Balanced

If you over-specialize in any one direction, you’ll be backing yourself into a corner, failing to realize your full potential. There are tons of ways to do it, but it may be helpful to chart out the stress your body experiences.

On one side, there are technical, hillier runs. They are slower.

On the other side, there are smoother, flatter runs. They are faster.

The 50/50 Rule

You can start at 50/50, with about half of total stress falling on each side of the spectrum. Over time, play with the breakdown to find out how it works for you. For the pros I coach, I generally like weekdays smoother or flatter, and weekends hillier and more technical.

Sometimes, another weekday will be more technical (and possibly even two or three if the athlete only competes in technical mountain races). Or it’ll go the other way, with a speed demon doing almost all their training on faster terrain.

Easy Means Easy

An added complication is that going up hills is usually hard by definition. It’s close to impossible for many runners to go truly easy up a 15-percent grade no matter what speed they go. That’s how unstructured mountain time often puts an athlete at risk of overtraining. Hold yourself accountable to easy days, making them flatter as needed.

What is a running injury other than a reminder of your own fragility? What is slowing down with age other than noticing where the regression line ends? If you’re a runner, and if you think about it deeply enough, you’ll come face-to-face with your own mortality.

There is No Solution to Death

… Though that would be a wonderful Easter Egg to reward you for reading Trail Runner. There is no solution to contemplating death either, unless your spiritual perspective is immensely strong and sure. But understanding that it’s OK to think about death might give you the tools to not take yourself so seriously. And to be good to others. And to keep things in perspective.

Go With It

Contemplation of mortality as a means to spiritual epiphany is a played-out trope, and I get that. While you are running, though, let yourself think about the hard stuff. Talk to people about it, especially loved ones and mental-health experts. Maybe thinking about your own fragility may actually make you feel way stronger.

Laugh in the Face of Failure

The strategy I like runners to practice is to try to laugh whenever they confront running failure, whether that failure is physical or mental. If we can anticipate and learn to love all of our failures, we lose a lot of what we fear. And losing what we fear makes our biggest dreams possible.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

That’s the true connection to the discussion of mortality. Our running natures, just like our spiritual natures, can be complicated and messy and uncertain. That’s OK. You’re human, homo sapiens, an ape that learned to tell stories and write concertos and figure out how to use a GPS watch.

When faced with these big questions, we might all come to completely different answers. That’s cool! Running can give you a window into existential questions that tons of people don’t think about until a mid-life crisis, or a death bed.

Everyone is dealing with the same stuff as you are.

The Twitter person you disagree with is probably just as concerned about death (unless it’s a Russian bot that will never die). Life isn’t always easy, for anyone.

Social Media Is a Medium, Not a Mandate

In the running community, strive to let that bring you closer to everyone else without letting it rule your life. Be there for others, let others be there for you. Cut others slack; cut yourself slack. Smile at the pretty pictures and fun stories, provide support through the bad times that someone had the courage to share.

Let the Bummers Become Beautiful

Let social media be a source of positivity. In fact, that’s the whole idea of this article. Running comes with a lot of negative crap that you probably can’t avoid no matter how many magazine tips you read.

You know what’s the most empowering thing a trail runner can do? Smile and embrace the journey, knowing that everyone else shares those same little secrets you do.

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.

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