Three Rules to Keep Your Running Simple
One writer’s advice after two decades of trail running: Run regularly. Not too fast. Mostly trails.
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One of my most memorable runs took place in Costa Rica when I was wearing sandals, board shorts, and a bathing suit after river rafting, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to run through a rainforest full of birdsong and howler monkeys.
My watch couldn’t find the GPS signal to measure distance, but I didn’t let that, or the lack of running shoes, stop me. I ran for 30 minutes, energized and entranced by the surroundings. That joy-filled run is a powerful reminder that we don’t always need a planned workout or gear to reap the benefits of a run. We just need to break into a run and go.
Having run trails and ultras for two decades, I sense that runners are overthinking and over-complicating the relatively simple act of trail running more than ever before. We have way more access now to information and commentary about ultra-distance running, and more biofeedback due to sensors on smartwatches, phones, and gadgets. We follow elite runners online and try to train like them. It’s easier than ever to fall into the comparison trap, feeling that our training is inadequate compared to the others we follow on Strava and social media.
I’d encourage you to tune out those messages and tune into the reasons you chose running long distances on trails in the first place: because it’s healthy, beautiful, adventurous, and it makes you feel better. It’s motivating and rewarding to train for an ultramarathon. And it’s relatively cheap and simple, especially compared to gear-intensive sports like skiing or cycling. Just lace up your shoes—it’s OK if those shoes are designed for road running!—and find your way to some dirt path somewhere, then go.
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Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good
During the many years I coached runners, the most difficult-to-coach clients tended to share a perfectionist streak that made them research the heck out of the sport and ask all sorts of questions, ranging from foot strike to electrolytes. Paradoxically, they often skipped workouts, or on race day, they DNFed. I suspect these high-achievers spread themselves too thin to fit in their training, plus they wanted each workout and race to be planned and executed to an extremely high standard. They couldn’t adapt to a “good enough” or “some is better than none” mindset to just get out and get ’er done, and their seriousness sucked much of the joy out of the process.
Coach Liza Howard, a highly accomplished ultrarunner, told me she had a similar experience with some of her athletes. “I’ve had a lot of ‘come to Jesus’ talks where I say, ‘You just need to get out and run.’” She says they’ll send her articles about certain hill workouts to add to their training, or ask what their stride length should be, and she’ll reply, “I don’t want to talk to you about any doodad unless you start getting at least six hours of sleep.”
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Three Basic Rules
The food writer and journalist Michael Pollan famously distilled all his research into a single line of nutrition advice composed of three short phrases that are rules to follow: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Could we come up with a similar line of basic advice for our sport? I’ll try: Run regularly. Not too fast. Mostly trails.
“Regularly” means consistently and frequently, following a sensible pattern that gradually increases the amount you run over weeks and months, depending on your goals. Carve out time to run at least three, preferably more, times a week, even if it’s only for 20 minutes on some days. Sometimes, generally once a week, push the duration of a run to a point that feels challenging and fatiguing. Prioritize a good night’s sleep to recover, and make sure you don’t stack too many extra-long or hard-effort runs on top of each other so that you can adequately recover from the stress.
“Training is not always exciting, and in some cases, it may even be boring,” says competitive ultrarunner Jade Belzburg, who coaches with her partner Nick de la Rosa at Lightfoot Coaching. “How many easy eight-mile runs have I done in the last eight years? Too many to count. And yet, I find these simple, consistent runs are what have made the biggest impact over time.”
We don’t always need a planned workout or gear to reap the benefits of a run. We just need to break into a run and go.
“Regularly” also suggests naturally and normally. This can be accomplished by paying attention to your internal cues—breath rate, fatigue and sweating—to determine how hard you’re running and to find a sustainable effort level that allows you to keep going for the duration of your run, ideally with more joy than stress.
Howard advises the athletes she coaches to focus on their breathing to determine an appropriate pace and to ignore their watch mid-run, then review the watch’s data afterward rather than while running.
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Not Too Fast.
This brings us to the next rule: “not too fast.” Most of your runs should be at a steady “tortoise” pace that feels sustainable and allows you to talk in full sentences. Running in the aerobic zone (less than 80 percent of your max heart rate, or, put simply, at an effort level that allows you to talk) has numerous benefits and develops your aerobic energy system for long-distance running. If you get so winded running up a hill that you gasp while trying to speak, then downshift to hiking.
“Learn the rate of perceived exertion”—a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being maximum unsustainable effort and speed—“and keep most runs at what feels like an easy pace of 4 to 6,” advises de la Rosa. The beauty of the rate of perceived exertion is that you follow your body’s cues, not your watch’s pace or heart rate reading.
Some high-intensity workouts with bursts of faster running are beneficial for any runner, to boost cardiovascular fitness and develop quicker leg turnover for speed. Hence, most runners fit some form of speedwork into their weekly routine. But most running should feel relatively slow and easy.
OK, so why the final rule: “mostly trails”? The inherent variability and enjoyment of trail terrain can help you accomplish the first two points—to run more regularly and intuitively, and not too fast. If you’re an urban dweller in a flat region who can only get to a trailhead occasionally, don’t despair. Run wherever is most convenient and motivating, and try getting creative using stairways or a treadmill’s incline to simulate hills.
Stay Safe, Simply
After you purchase the most basic and essential piece of gear—your running shoes—you’ll face decisions about clothing, gear, hydration, and fueling. These aspects of trail running quickly become expensive and complex. To simplify, ask yourself, what do I need to stay safe?
The riskiest, most potentially life-threatening scenarios of trail running involve getting too hot (heat stroke) or too cold (hypothermia), dehydration or overhydration without adequate sodium (hyponatremia), getting lost, or getting hurt and not being able to get help. Start by planning your clothing, gear, and hydration now to avoid those scenarios in the future.
Use layers of clothing to regulate your body temperature and to provide sun and wind protection. A lightweight, breathable wind shell that repels rain can be a trail runner’s best friend. Investing in gear such as a headlamp and a GPS tracker with an SOS button (in case you’re out after dark or in the backcountry out of cell range) are wise investments for mountain runners, as is a basic first aid kit.
Carry plenty of water, along with some form of electrolytes such as salty snacks or tabs that dissolve in fluid, to replace fluids and salt you lose through sweating. Drink to thirst and do “the spit test” to determine if you’re hydrating adequately. Is your mouth too dry to easily form spit? Then you need to drink!
You’ll need something to carry your gear and hydration. As with shoes, a comfortable hydration vest or waist pack is a highly individualized choice. Try some on, read reviews, and look for bargains such as sales on last year’s models.
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Tips to Fill Your Tank
Eating before, during, and after a longer run is vital, too, but it’s more of a performance matter and rarely a safety issue. If you bonk from low blood sugar or puke, you’ll still have enough stored energy in the form of fat to keep slogging through your run. As long as you’re adequately hydrated, you’ll be OK when you get home, or to the next aid station in a race, where you can regain some calories. You just won’t run well or feel good, so let’s avoid that scenario with proper fueling!
The amount and type of food you should consume mid-run depends on your fitness, body size, and the intensity and duration of your outing, so you’ll need to experiment to find what works for you.
Generally speaking, you don’t need to consume calories during everyday lower-intensity runs that are shorter than about 90 minutes, as long as you start your run with a “full tank” from healthy and satisfying eating throughout the day. Don’t forget to refuel post-run, to restore the burned energy. Nonetheless, it’s wise to carry a simple snack such as an energy gel on any run, and use it if you feel weak, or in case you end up on the trail longer than expected.
For runs and races that go from several hours to a full day, aim to eat around 200 calories per hour after the first hour. Don’t demonize carbs, as they’re your best energy source mid-run. Whether simple sugars from gels and sports drinks or a picnic-like buffet of sweet and starchy snacks, what works best for you during a long run can depend on many factors, including your stomach and palate. The best advice I got for parenting my two kids also applies to mid-ultra fueling: “Do what works!”
In addition to trying specialized gels and powders on the market, I also encourage you to experiment with everyday options on longer trail runs that are available from any grocery store, including potato chips, trail mix, a banana, or a good ol’ PB&J. For sugar, try a cookie or some candy.
Most of all, try to remember that food is an athlete’s fuel and friend, and it’s best to eat a variety of food in quantities that leave you feeling truly satisfied. Runners who develop an adversarial or overly controlling relationship with food are doomed to suffer negative consequences in the long run, literally and figuratively. Ultimately: don’t overthink it, and do what works best for you.
Sarah Lavender Smith lives and runs near Telluride, Colorado, and publishes a weekly newsletter about mountain running and midlife grit at sarahrunning.substack.com.