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Trail Tips

4 Training Tips for Busy Non-Elite Runners

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Quad Dipsea is a legendary race for a reason. If we were playing Family Feud and you had to guess, you might say it’s the 9,000 feet of climbing in 28 miles, or the thousands of uneven stairs, or its storied place in the history of ultrarunning.

But none of those captures what makes it truly special.

What makes Quad Dipsea legendary is that it is a double out-and-back. In other words, every racer sees everyone else at least three times.

Quad Dipsea throws a few hundred crazy folks onto a narrow ribbon of trail for half a day and says, “Sort it out amongst yourselves.” Over the years, that sorting process has helped create a community based on shared suffering and sweaty smiles. The community sets Quad Dipsea apart.

In the 2016 version this past weekend, I got to race my first Quad and my cheeks are still sore from smiling almost the whole time. It rained 1.36 inches at the race start in Mill Valley, California, so at times I wished I could swap out my trail shoes for a snowboard (the downs), an ark (the flats) or crampons (the ups). Through the adversity of rain and mud, I got to see lots of people suffering in their own way. Some would grimace, others would stare vacantly ahead and a few delightfully deranged souls would laugh maniacally.

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Racers got to take mud home with them as a souvenir. Photo: Tiffany Trevers

Two racers stood out: Donnie Blameuser and Jeff Pace, who could be heard yelling “Woohoo!” from a few switchbacks away. They seemed happy and in control. As their coach, I just wanted them to be so prepared that they’d be able to enjoy the experience.

They did more than enjoy it—on a day when the course was significantly slower than the year before due to the rain, they both ran massive course PRs and had stellar finishes of 15th and 47th, respectively. Both have been running for many years, but like most trail racers, they compete against themselves and the course, rather than shooting for the podium. And they do it all while balancing other things that are higher life priorities.

Here is how they made it all work together for a breakthrough, and what you can learn from these two busy professionals.

1. Focus your training week around the workouts that count.

If your to-do list is so long it needs to be written on a scroll, then it’s important to limit how much focus you need for running. Donnie, a 38-year-old IT professional from Palo Alto, found it helpful to use his mental energy carefully.

“With my busy schedule, focusing on nailing one solid workout during the week and then a weekend long run was essential,” Donnie says. Each week, we’d chart out his long run and one structured workout. Then, he fit them in whenever he could.

During the build-up, Donnie did four runs of 20 miles or farther, all with significant elevation gain. “I think that was the most long runs I have ever put together,” he says. (It is, by a lot). “They become much less daunting when they become part of your routine. Running 20 became no more stressful then 8 or 10 and felt just as comfortable.”

With flexible planning, Donnie just looked for a three-hour window each week, no matter when it fell, and used that time for his long run. As a result, he didn’t miss any of the big long runs for what was his first training block ever.

Each week, Donnie had one secondary workout consisting of short intervals. While it was less important than the long run, it gave his body one more positive stress to use for Quad Dipsea-crushing adaptations. “Those two workouts made me comfortable pushing through fatigue,” he says.

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Donnie Blameuser with his family on a hike. Photo courtesy Donnie Blameuser

2. Emphasize consistency over volume if you need to make tradeoffs.

Over the last month or two, every so often I would wake up to an email or text along the lines of “In the office at 2 AM, will jog later.” It was Jeff, a 49-year-old biotech engineer at a Silicon Valley startup, always ready to adapt.

Similar to Donnie, Jeff had one key long run and one interval workout each week. The rest of the time, he had easy runs on the schedule. Usually, I asked for 60 to 90 minutes, but that was often not possible with his demanding work. Instead, on days when a longer run wouldn’t work, Jeff promised to fit in something shorter.

“Don’t let great be the enemy of good, and don’t let good be the enemy of O.K.,” I tell all my athletes. “Even 10 minutes counts, just keep putting bricks in the wall.” Both Jeff and Donnie lived this motto, emphasizing the long run and a workout, and filling in the rest with whatever they could make work.

Run at least five times a week (and preferably six), even if you are crushingly busy, and even if some of the runs are so short and sweat-free you can do them in your business clothes at lunch. That consistency will be rewarded down the line.

3. Don’t let a little niggle become a big injury.

Looking back at their training logs, both Donnie and Jeff had the courage to take a couple unplanned days off due to minor injuries during the build-up to Quad Dipsea. While I want my athletes running as much as possible, I demand that they never run through abnormal pain, even if it means losing a little bit of fitness. Our motto is a few days off is no big deal. A few weeks off will set you back. A few months off and you’ll have to start back at Go without collecting $200.

Donnie and Jeff left their ego at home with their running shoes and rested when they needed it. As a result, they were healthy for their big workouts and the race itself.

4. Train and race with optimism.

When I interviewed Donnie and Jeff for this article, it sounded like they were reading from the same script. Jeff’s goal: “Focus on having fun! Loving the trails is where it starts.” Donnie’s focus: “It’s hard not to feel great and push yourself when there is lots of positive energy.”

I think what I saw on the trails at Quad Dipsea was that positive attitude transubstantiated into two athletes. Combine flexible, focused training with smiles and what do you get?

As Donnie and Jeff show, there’s a good chance you get personal breakthroughs.

David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.