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Trail Tips

From Zero to Trail Hero: Part 3

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Welcome to Part 3 of Zero to Trail Hero. Time to pick up the pace—and have fun doing it.


Whenever a runner is starting out, I ask him or her to walk past a playground and watch the kids running around. That effervescent joy of movement is the first thing they notice. But after that, they might notice how natural the kids look when they run. They bound forward with a big smile and effortless form—it’s not exercise to them, it’s play.

Structuring training to be a bit more like recess can reinforce form and efficiency in a way that makes all running easier.

Run tall and employ high turnover

1. Focus on Form

Good form is all about minimizing energy loss and maximizing power transfer. Developing good form isn’t intuitive, though, especially since most of us learn bad habits as we get older. The most important elements of good form stem from the three hinges where most power is transferred or lost—the feet, the knees and the hips.

While no particular footfall is most efficient for every runner, there is some evidence that heel strikes in front of your center of gravity can increase injury risk. Also, heel striking slows you down, like a brake on a car. Instead, focus on light footfalls on the mid-foot. You want your weight to be over your foot when it strikes the ground. This is where the knee comes in—knee drive lets you move your center of gravity forward for more efficient energy transfer.

Most power comes from your hips and glutes, which you can unlock by relaxing your hip flexors and encouraging passive motion with a strong rearward flow through the hips.

While there are tons of tips and tricks that can help you develop good form, two simple tips usually help everything else fall into place: run tall and employ high turnover. Running tall helps you engage the power center in your glutes while minimizing energy loss in the hip flexors. High cadence reinforces landing under your center of gravity.

Tip: Run tall through the hips, with a quick and soft stride.

To run tall, think about when you were a kid and you measured your height against the door frame. Remember how you’d try to extend your spine as much as possible to get an extra eighth of an inch? Do the same while running, but without straining.

For cadence, count a single footfall (right or left) for 30 seconds. A good goal is 42 or more, which equates to at least 168 footfalls per minute with both feet. You can go higher, but going lower reinforces bad habits for most runners.

Cate Airoldi takes a moment to cool her legs during the Fat Dog 120 at the Pasayten River crossing.

2. Improve your running economy

Running economy is the amount of energy it takes to run a given pace. If running economy improves, even if every other variable stays the same, you will get faster. At first, your running economy will probably be poor. But as your body adapts, a constant emphasis on improving running economy can unlock levels of performance that seemed impossible at first.

Countless physiological variables influence running economy, but the main ones are neuromuscular and cardiovascular. Smart training can teach your brain to better transfer neurological signals conducive to fast running, reducing ground contact time and speeding you up without an increase in effort. Increasing the amount of running you do will improve neuromuscular efficiency, but the big gains come from short bouts of faster running, like strides. Simultaneously, a mix of easy running, hills and strides can actually expand your heart’s stroke output, meaning you get more bang for your buck with each pump.

Tip: Do fast “strides” one to three times per week.

Strides make you faster and stronger at all distances by improving running economy.

In the second half of a normal easy run, do 4-8 x 20-to-30-seconds fast, focused on effortless speed like a kid at recess. A good general guideline is to go as fast as you can without straining—relaxed, sustainable speed using long-distance running form rather than pumping your arms like a sprinter. Between each stride, run for one- to two-minutes easy. Strides aren’t too taxing on your body, so you can do them often.

3. Work your lactate threshold

As you start running, you’ll see massive improvement almost instantly as the body kicks into gear (VO2 max, or maximum aerobic capacity, increases rapidly at first before settling at a stable level). When that improvement begins to level off, most of the rest of your development comes from improving endurance, running economy and lactate threshold.

Endurance comes from miles. Running economy comes from miles and shorter speedwork, like strides. Lactate threshold—or the energy system when the body goes from aerobic to anaerobic exercise, about an effort you could hold for one hour—comes from smart, not-too-hard intervals.

Lactate threshold is highly trainable and can keep improving throughout your development as a runner. The key is to run easy most of the time, and harder some of the time, mixing in workouts that target threshold in a sustainable way. Just 20 minutes at threshold effort once a week can work wonders for fitness.

Tip: Introduce controlled intervals once per week.

Once per week, do longer intervals starting at one minute and increasing over time to tempos of 20 minutes and even longer. The key on intervals is to not go too hard. If it hurts and you dread it, then you’re doing too much. The goal is to gently prod your body into adaptations, rather than stressing it to the point of breakdown and burnout.

How can you put it all together to translate consistency into speed? Establish a simple routine.

The Rinse-and-Repeat Week

Running progression is about developing a sustainable routine you can do almost every week. Since the body adapts to repetitive stress, it’s essential to think about a plan you can repeat over and over, rather than a plan that has you teetering on the edge of injury.

Here’s one way to structure a week after building consistency for at least six months. (Include a “down week” every three to four weeks, where you do shorter runs and strides but no workout.)

Monday: Rest and recovery

Tuesday: 1 hour easy with strides 6 x 20 seconds fast/2 minutes easy

Wednesday: Workout (See “Workouts that Work.”)

Thursday: 1 hour easy

Friday: Rest or 30 minutes easy

Saturday: 90-120 minutes easy/moderate with 6 x 20 seconds fast/1 minute easy included

Sunday: 1 hour easy

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play

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