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A slow start and even pacing is the secret to coming out ahead

After 25 years of training athletes, I have determined trail runners’ number-one mistake (drum roll please…) …

After 25 years of training athletes, I have determined trail runners’ number-one mistake (drum roll please…)—starting out too fast. Drivers have AAA to ensure they safely reach their road-trip destination, and trail runners need Even Energy Expenditure (EEE) to carry them to the finish line. EEE involves running at an even pace or intensity level from start to finish, leading to faster times, reduced injuries and a more comfortable race experience. EEE is a simple premise for optimal performance; however, it is also one of the hardest for trail runners to grasp.

Finding themselves bursting with anticipation and energy at the starting line, they are tempted to put the hurt on the competition—now! What was planned to be a 9-minute-per-mile pace, once the race is underway, is more like 8:45. Then suddenly, out of the blue, a monkey jumps on your back. No, make it an elephant. Previously effortless strides become a death march as legs turn to granite. Sensing discomfort and fatigue, your brain sends signals to your body to slow down and mitigate the damage. It’s too late to revert to a 9-minute pace, and you slow to a discouraging survival shuffle.

Top Off the Tank

The solution to this potentially disastrous race scenario is EEE. Visualize a tank hanging on the wall. Months of sound training and long runs developed your base strength and fitness, filling the tank with energy.

To top off it off, you add judicious speed and strength workouts. In the period immediately prior to a big race or trail run, rest and short, easy recovery runs maintain your tank’s maximum stored energy level and allow your body to recuperate.

Turn On the Juice

When the big day arrives and you’re on the start line, open the tank’s spigot to let your carefully stored energy gradually flow out, envisioning yourself moving in smooth, relaxed motion. Resist the temptation to open the spigot too wide by running too hard, which would run the tank dry before the finish. “Hitting the wall” is the term mostly commonly used to describe feelings associated with depleted muscle glycogen stores, blood glucose or muscle damage caused by pushing beyond your fitness level.

However, don’t let a conservative starting pace lead you to worry about opening the spigot too little, which is rare. Simply open the spigot just the right amount and you’ll naturally find your ideal race pace, or “zone,” using up all stored energy by the time you reach the finish line.

To maintain a constant level of exertion, monitor your breathing rate or use the talk test (ensure that you aren’t breathing so hard you can’t speak), and aim to maintain a constant balance between comfort and discomfort (see sidebar for more exertion-monitoring techniques). Every five to 15 minutes, take a mental account of your posture, stride count, muscular strength and hydration and fuel intake levels.

Through EEE, your fastest times will feel the easiest. Savor the adrenaline rush of passing runners in the closing miles. At the start of your next race, repeat the EEE oath: “Never go out too fast.”

Monitor the Machine

Choose one of these three methods to monitor your exertion level:

  • Monitor heart rate. In your first few races, err on the conservative side, aiming to keep your heart rate 10 beats per minute below your regular training heart rate. You will have to slow down on uphills to maintain an even rate, but this strategy will leave you plenty of fuel in the tank for the flats and downhills. Once you have a feel for EEE and tracking your heart rate, run the next race at five beats below training level and the next at training level, while still maintaining EEE. When you are ready to attempt a personal record, aim for a heart rate five beats above your training heart rate.
  • Use the Borg Scale. This system rates perceived exertion (PE) levels to help athletes hit pace targets. Runners assign a number between 6 (no exertion at all) and 20 (maximum exertion) to the intensity level of physical sensations such as increased heart rate, respiration, breathing rate and muscle fatigue. These numbers, when multiplied by 10, provide an approximate heart rate. For example, 13 on the Borg Scale, when multiplied by 10 equals 130, which means the heart is beating around 130 times per minute.
  • Train in negative splits. Divide the race into equal segments (measured in time) with the goal of running the last segment as fast—or faster—than the others. Running loop courses in training is an excellent way to practice EEE. For example, with a loop that takes 30 minutes to run at your fastest goal pace, design a workout in which you run three loops, the first aiming for 35 minutes, the second 32 minutes, and the third in 30 minutes. Progressively faster splits condition you mentally and physically to start out slower that your actual fitness level so that you can recruit surplus speed and energy when you need it most. Making the last loop the fastest is also an important confidence boost to set you up for race-day success.

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