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Trail Tips

Build Strength and Speed for Sub-Ultra Trail Racing

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On Sunday, my wife Megan won the North American, Central American, and Caribbean (NACAC) Mountain Running Championships, leading Team USA to victory in a friendly competition with Mexico and Canada.

Coaching Megan is like “coaching” a Saturn V rocket—you just point it in the right direction, and the rocket will do all the work. Leading up to the race, we just needed to figure out which direction to point her training, so she could rocket herself to the podium.

First, here is what we knew about the race:

1. It is a 9K race at altitude in Mexico, climbing from 7,000 to 8,900 feet elevation;

2. It is net uphill, with only one small descent around halfway;

3. It would take around 50 to 60 minutes for the top women.

Megan, a full-time med student at Stanford, had previously had two major races this year, winning the Way Too Cool 50K on March 5 and the Don’t Fence Me In 30K on May 7, both of which took 2.5 to 3.5 hours. In two months, we would need to shift her focus from long and hilly to short and intense.

Megan’s journey to the NACAC Championship can provide insight into how any of us can train effectively for shorter, more intense races.

The key is to hone your speed while simultaneously building your strength, which is important for all trail runners focusing on races half-marathon and below, no matter what their training background.

These three lessons in particular stand out.

1. Stride It Out

In training, you only have so many matches to burn each week. For ultra training leading up to Way Too Cool, Megan spent her matches on focused long runs with vert and lactate-threshold workouts, improving the way her body performed over three-plus hours.

However, that same type of training would have been sub-optimal for a 10K. Even though she was fantastically fit at Way Too Cool, if she went into the shorter NACAC Championship as the same athlete, it would likely have resulted in a very unpleasant experience.

So we had to spend those matches in a way that would let her burn it up for around 50 minutes, instead of three hours. The faster pace would require strong running economy—how much energy it takes to sustain a given speed. Since exertion levels are higher at shorter distances, there is less margin for error; wasted energy can push you over your lactate (or even anaerobic) threshold, causing massive performance deterioration later in the race.

We targeted economy with workouts focused on fast, short “strides.” Strides improve economy without stressing the body as much as longer VO2 workouts (like one-kilometer intervals) or lactate-threshold workouts (like two-mile intervals).

In general, Megan did one striding workout each week, then added a few strides near the end of her runs on two other days. For strides, the goal is effortless speed—running fast, but smooth, like a gazelle listening to Barry White.

A striding workout consisted of something like 12 x 200 meters with a slow jog back for recovery. On other days, Megan would do 4-8 x 20-30 seconds fast at the end of an easy run, either on a hill or flat ground.

Burning her matches efficiently with stride workouts left more matches for other key efforts during the week. You can use strides as a low-risk, high-reward addition to training that can make every pace seem easier. Start by adding 20- to 30-second strides two to three times per week after easy runs, to give your training some afterburners, then add longer workouts consisting of 40- to 90-second intervals once your body adapts.

2. Polarized Training

Training is like permanently being in the beginning of a relationship. You need to balance doing too much, like texting a string of hearts-for-eyes emojis every two minutes, and doing too little, like texting an eggplant emoji once every four days.

Megan achieved the training balance by using her heart-rate monitor. On easy days (which usually numbered three or four a week), she capped her heart rate at 150 beats per minute.

That resulted in far slower runs than she would do without the external accountability. For example, on June 28, she ran 12 relatively flat miles at altitude at 7:35 minutes-per-mile pace. While that run is impressive, she was able to stay under 150 beats per minute the entire time (except when she saw a rattlesnake at mile 11). For comparison, prior to enforcing the heart-rate cap, Megan might have done the same run at 6:35 pace and called it “easy.”

For many of us, perceived exertion is a broken metric because our brains have difficulty calibrating effort. If that describes you, slow down on easy days.

The flip side of enforcing easy pace is working very hard on other days. At NACAC, Megan would race at around 185 beats per minute (or more) for nearly an hour. The strides would make her economical, but we still needed to prepare her body to handle that level of exertion. That is where long climbs came in.

Each weekend, Megan would do a key workout focused on unstructured efforts lasting between 20 minutes and 90 minutes. At sea level in California, she would generally do tempos over rolling terrain (e.g., 10.3 miles with 781 feet of climbing at 6:17 pace). During a month-long medical-school break spent in Colorado, she climbed big mountains (e.g., 14 miles with a 3,000 foot climb up Boulder’s Green Mountain). On these runs, she homed in on “moderately hard” effort—somewhat difficult, but sustainable.

A good rule across most race distances is to make your easy days easier, and your hard days harder.

3. Cross Train Strategically

Cross training is an area of hot debate, but Megan has found that she is stronger and more resilient when she cross trains; that allows her to run faster.

She did three things in the build-up to the NACAC Championships. First, she rode the stationary bike, focusing on high-cadence intervals (often 110-120 rpms), which gave her extra high-end aerobic work (similar to climbing) without injury risk. For example, on June 21, she did a 15-minute warm-up, followed by 30 x 1 minute on/1 minute off, then a 15-minute cool-down.

Second, she used the stair mill, which built strength for hard climbs. For example, on June 16, she set the stair mill to its highest-speed option and did two 20-minute and two 10-minute intervals.

Third, she did 30 minutes of strength work every two or three days, focused on core stability and leg strength. Her routine involved lots of planks, some lunges and the Jane Fonda-esque hip myrtl circuit.

For most runners, cross training can have benefits. Just don’t do it at the expense of your running time if you are doing lower running volume. Although Megan cross-trained, she still averaged around 60 to 70 miles per week, which she has found optimal for her health and performance. If you are not at your optimal mileage, focus on building running volume before you add cross training.

The Race

At the NACAC Championships, Megan truly gave her full effort, maxing out around 195 beats per minute on the final summit push.

In shorter races, there are many different ways to train, with Megan’s build-up being one example. Training hard (and easy, when she needed to) gave Megan the ability to lead Team USA to the gold.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.