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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 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 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.