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Learn to run by effort, not distance

Some of us runners like to calculate things. We like splits, our average mile pace and measurements …

Illustration by Jeremy Duncan

Some of us runners like to calculate things. We like splits, our average mile pace and measurements down to the fraction of a mile. We are always trying to outdo ourselves and notch another accomplishment on our training totem poles.

While these numbers can be excellent tools for measuring progress, tracking and quantifying them becomes elusive on trails with varying terrain and elevation. This can be a hard concept for a newly christened trail runner to choke down, especially if you come from a training background based on pure mileage. Bulldoze past this obstacle by forgetting about distance, and base your run on effort.

Kirk Keller of Keller Coaching (www.kellercoaching.com), a USATF certified running coach in Three Forks, Montana, stresses his concept of “TRT” (total run time) to trail newbies. “It’s important for runners to readjust expectations,” says Keller. “You cannot transfer the same measurements to the trail that you would use around the 400-meter track or pavement.”

To do this, Keller suggests dissecting the trail you intend to run. This involves understanding the type of terrain you might encounter—is it in the mountains, flat, packed trail or a heavily forested, hilly and root-covered trail? Then, determine your objective for that run—is it an easy recovery run, race-pace workout or long run? All these factors help determine your TRT, which will vary depending on the trail you choose. (See Transferring Your Road Miles to Trail Time).

Why does this matter?

Trail running requires training flexibility. Each day on the trail is different. You may run an hour on a clear, sunny day and it feels effortless, but you come back the same week after a storm, slipping in the mud. On the second run, you use way more energy to cover the same distance, and it takes 20 minutes longer.

Says Cynthia Lauren Arnold, of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the 2009 USATF Trail Marathon champion, “Being able to realize when I’m breathing too hard, or not hard enough, is essential to gauging my effort. There is no point in saying, `I’m going to run that mile at this pace,’ because sometimes you don’t know what that mile is like.”

Gauging perceived effort can be much harder than it sounds. It takes practice to know the appropriate effort level needed to finish a given trail run or race. Dave Mackey of Boulder, Colorado, who, at 41, is still winning most races he enters and recently broke the course record at the Bandera 100K, explains that easy recovery runs should be just that. If you can’t hold a conversation, you are going too fast. And during hard efforts, “Your muscles will tell you when to take a break,” says Mackey. “If your quadriceps or hamstrings start to feel overly tired on uphills, it’s time to back off.”

Geoff Roes, who set the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run course record in 2010, does not follow a set training plan — instead he runs based on feel. “I go out each day and simply do what feels right,” says Roes. “When you go with the flow and just run how you feel, you end up having an easier time accepting your efforts and not second guessing them.”

Says Mackey, “I am notorious for not using any measurement devices to calculate my effort level or distance. I don’t even keep a training log. I wear a watch, but sometimes forget it at home.”

What about a GPS?

Of course, in an era when GPS devices don the wrists of many runners and smart-phone apps track training and running routes on online programs (see Trail Tested, “Mobile Mania,” Issue 71, March 2011), it is possible to more accurately log your miles, pace and vertical gain/loss. But trail miles are different than road miles. While pavement offers the same even surface, mile after mile, trails’ uneven terrain and often more abrupt elevation changes and obstacles make distance less important.

Gene Meade, 47, of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, recently began trail running after many years of pavement pounding. With his crossover, he purchased a Garmin Forerunner 305. “I really enjoy being able to track my distances, time and pace, but I’ve also realized I can easily become obsessed,” says Meade. “To break free from all the stats, I leave my Garmin at home at least once a week, and just discover what my body will give me. If I’m feeling good, I pick up the pace. If not, then I hold it or slow down.”

Keller tells his athletes to “take and receive what the trail gives you.” Part of trail running’s beauty lies in its raw element of exploration—something you simply cannot measure.

Measure Up

Here are the results from our online poll, asking how you how you track your training.

  • 64%—I measure everything with my GPS device. I want my mileage as accurate as possible.
  • 7%—Trail maps and markers give me a good idea of mileage.
  • 23%—I just track my total run time. Exact mileage doesn’t concern me much.
  • 2%—I use a heart-rate monitor to measure my effort. I might also time my run, but I don’t worry about mileage.
  • 4%—I don’t track my training, because I run to enjoy nature.

Transferring Your Road Miles to Trail Time

Matt Fitzgerald, author of, Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, provides the numbers below to help you equate your workload on the roads and trails.

Chart A is based on a one-hour road run. For example, assuming the same run intensity as the road, on a hilly but not mountainous trail, you would only need to run for 48 minutes.


Trail Type Percentage of road time Trail time in minutes
Flat, groomed trails 100 percent 60 minutes
Hilly but not mountainous trails 80 percent 48 minutes
Mountainous trails with extreme elevation gain 60 percent 36 minutes

Chart B provides an estimate for transferring total weekly road miles to total weekly trail time. These numbers are based on a 40-mile week at 9-minute per mile pace on the road.


Trail Type Road weekly Miles Trail Weekly Time
Flat, groomed trails 40 6 hours
Hilly but not mountainous trails 40 4 hours 48 minutes
Mountainous trails with extreme elevation gain 40 3 hours 36 minutes

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