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You are an incredible machine.
Your pistons can push you over the gnarliest mountain peaks. With a handful of fuel, you can run all day. And what you lack in horsepower, you make up for in endurance. If the race is long enough, you can even beat a champion race horse.
This article is about making sure you don’t squander your Maserati machine with Model T training. To get the most out of your potential, you need to engineer a season-by-season approach to trail running. The principles behind a well-designed season—also called “periodization”—started to be understood around the time of Henry Ford, and they’ve evolved over the ensuing century. By putting season-based principles to work, you can leave older models of yourself in the dust.
1. Pre-Season methods / fun, fitness-building pre-season adventures / strength-building circuit
2. Early Season methods / structuring your early-season week
3. Mid Season methods / setting goal peak mileage / mid-season workouts with a purpose
4. Late Season methods / race-specific workouts with a purpose
5. Putting It All Together rebuilding based on time between goal races / the long view
Pre-Season (a.k.a. Off-Season)
Before you can eat the cake, you have to clean and pre-heat the oven. An unstructured pre-season (usually falling right after your final race of the previous year) is essential to prevent mental burnout, reduce long-term injury risk and prepare your body for the training to come. Execute a fun—yet disciplined—pre-season, and you’ll be ready to start cooking when it counts.
Goal: “To reset, both physically and mentally,” as Stephanie Howe, Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition and winner of the 2014 Western States 100, puts it.
Duration: Two to 12 weeks. Generally, if you are racing 5K to half-marathon, your pre-season can be shorter since there should be less long-term muscle damage to heal. If you are racing ultramarathons, the pre-season should be longer to account for the physical and mental demands of all-day trail adventures.
A good pre-season should be chiller than a character played by early-career Matthew McConaughey, but it is important to apply some basic principles if you want your body to be “alright, alright, alright.”
Minimize pounding. “My main goal is to prevent any additional musculoskeletal breakdown,” says my wife Megan Roche, the 2014 U.S. Trail 10K and 50K Champion and a medical student at Stanford University. “I want to start each season knowing that my body is fresh. That translates to no hard downhill running or runs over one hour.” Megan runs consistently, but avoids longer, faster running for a few weeks.
Ditch the compulsion. Pre-season is the time to empower your inner child and remember that running is not a chore that earns you an allowance but a recess to get a little muddy before returning to life’s responsibilities. “I try to ensure that my mind gets a break,” says Howe. “I don’t force out any activities and try to keep things fun. That can mean that if it’s really cold and snowy outside, I’ll do warm yoga. Or I’ll bake cookies!”
Get outside and play. Find new ways to indulge your love for nature while you scale back your running (see Pre-Season Adventures, below), like skiing, mountain biking or (if you’re one of our Canadian readers) taking a curling class at your local pond. Scratching your outdoors itch through other activities increases strength for the season to come, without stressing your body in the same way running does.
Work on your weaknesses. If you’re like most runners, your hips are tight, your core is neglected and your glutes are beautifully toned but not operating at 100-percent efficiency. Get your rear in gear with yoga or simple strength routines (see Strength-Building Circuit, below).
Evaluate body composition. If you are carrying around a few extra pounds, the pre-season gives you a chance to hone your nutrition without going into workouts under-fueled, according to Maria Dalzot, a registered dietitian and the 2014 U.S. Half Marathon Trail Champion. “Experimenting with different dietary styles is a process of trial and error, so it is good to have flexible training so you can adjust your activity to meet your energy levels,” she says.
Fun, Fitness-Building Pre-Season Adventures
1. Ski Mountaineering. “Ski-mo” is the off-season choice for trail-running luminaries like Kilian Jornet, Rob Krar, Chris Vargo and Alicia Shay. In ski-mo, you trek up a mountain for a massive aerobic workout, then ski down.
2. Mountain Biking. There are few things in life more exhilarating (and sometimes humiliating) than bombing a downhill on a mountain bike. Plus, the bike builds aerobic capacity and muscular endurance. Multiple-time U.S. Mountain Running Team member Chris Lundy is also a top cyclist.
3. Hiking. Howe fills her off-season with long hikes with her dog. Hiking prepares your legs for structured trail training and delivers a surprisingly good aerobic workout. Kick it up a notch by power hiking steeper climbs to build strength.
4. Bouldering and Scrambling. If you’re feeling adventurous, add bouldering or scrambling to your next hike. Both activities build full-body strength. Top ultrarunners Anton Krupicka and Joe Grant, among others, are famous for their epic run-scramble outings on the iconic rock faces of Boulder’s Flatirons.
5. Stair Climbing. If you are stuck in a city or short on time, stairs are a great way to build strength without much injury risk. 2014 U.S. Mountain Running Champion Allie McLaughlin is famous for grueling stair workouts on the Manitou Incline in Colorado. On a set of stairs at least three stories high, alternate running every step with power walking or running two steps at a time for at least 10 minutes. Run down easily for recovery.
1. Lunges. Alternate front, side and rear lunges for one to three minutes to open up your hip girdle, increase range of motion and build trail-ready strength.
2. Leg swings. Thirty seconds each of side-to-side and forward-and-back leg swings will increase range of motion and dynamic flexibility, improving your stride.
3. Hurdles. Start with your foot on the ground behind you and imagine a low hurdle at your side. Lift your foot up and over the imaginary hurdle, bringing it down on the other side. After 10 repetitions, start with your leg on the other side of the “hurdle” and do 10 more in reverse. Hurdles work your hips, glutes, and back.
4. Back bridges. Lying flat on your back, thrust your hips toward the sky 30 times to work your back and glute strength. Do them in public to increase your embarrassment threshold.
5. Planks. Do two one-minute sets each for front, left-side and right-side planks to strengthen your core.
6. Push-ups. Push-ups strengthen your arms and core.
7. Chair dips. When sitting on a chair or bench, put your hands on the edge and move your butt off the front. Then, dip down and up to work your back and shoulders.
You are ready to start your season when you feel injury free, mentally refreshed and possibly a pound or two heavier from pre-season ice cream.
There is a saying about successful running that aptly describes the early season: “You’ve gotta put the hay in the barn.” In other words, you have to do the work, little by little, to reap the benefits, however unglamorous it may be. The early season is all about simplicity: Understand the best way to shovel the hay, and you’ll be ready for your best season yet.
Goal: Build your durability, aerobic threshold and neuromuscular efficiency.
Duration: Four to 12 weeks. If you are building mileage for a longer race, it’s important to spend more time in this phase. If you’re in a rush to get to hard workouts and peak performances, the early season can be shorter.
Apply these four principles to fill your barn with the highest-quality hay:
1. Build your base. Start at 40 to 60 percent of your sustained weekly mileage from the middle of the previous season, emphasizing frequency of runs over length.
Howe cautions that runners should anticipate the soreness that may result after a proper off-season: “The return to running can make you feel like King Kong plodding along on the trail.” After she gets over the initial sluggishness, Howe increases her mileage by no more than 10 percent per week until reaching her goal weekly mileage.
In general, the more miles you run per week, the faster you will race, so the early season could be the most important block of all. The mileage should all be comfortable, which doesn’t necessarily mean slow. If you feel frisky, pick up the pace at the end of base-building runs.
2. Stride it out. Nate Jenkins, a 2:14 marathoner and Team USA runner, swears by the power of strides to build running efficiency and economy. “I personally use them after every run, and I recommend athletes use them two to four times per week,” he says.
On strides, start relaxed and accelerate to the fastest pace you can sustain with smooth, comfortable form. Four to eight intervals of 20 seconds are enough to push you to a speed breakthrough.
3. Maintain your strength and flexibility. Keep doing the little things you started in the pre-season to avoid muscle imbalances that could lead to an injury.
4. Get to your fighting weight. With increasing mileage but no formal workouts, now is the time when it should be easiest to operate at a caloric deficit and lose weight without risking injury. As Dalzot says, “Stop complicating things!” Focus on eating whole foods and lots of vegetables and hydrating adequately.
Structuring Your Early-Season Week: The 3:2:1 Method
On the triathlon website Slowtwitch, the “BarryP Method” is spoken about in reverential tones. The man behind the method, Barry Pollock, is a former elite runner whose coaching methods have guided countless athletes to personal bests. Pollock created a system that distills running down to its simplest.
Here is how it works: Each week, do three shorter runs (the “1” in the 3:2:1); two medium runs, each twice as long as one of the shorter runs (the “2”); and one longer run that is three times as long as a shorter run (the “3”). Thus, if you’re running 20 miles per week, you’d do three two-mile runs, two four-milers and one six-miler.
Barry explains why the method has resonated with runners and triathletes alike: “It’s a good way to stay consistent on a weekly basis, while still getting in a variety of efforts throughout the week … The six runs per week approach is preferable to running less frequently, as it provides a safer way to increase the total training volume while minimizing the risk of injury.” Add some strides, increase your volume each week and you’ll be ready for your best season yet. 3 … 2 … 1 … GO!
You are ready to move into the mid-season when you feel comfortable at your goal peak mileage per week.
As Mario Mendoza, the 2015 U.S. Trail Marathon and 50 Mile Champion, says, “I wait until I have built up my mileage and feel like my body is absorbing the training before I start adding intensity.”
You should now be strong enough from aerobic training to run long distances, and you should be fast over short distances from strides. Mid-season is when you put those two elements together. During mid-season, adding structured workouts and races allows you to use your aerobic strength to prolong your speed.
Goal: Improve lactate threshold, VO2 max and specific endurance (the ability to do long runs at race effort).
Duration: Six to 10 weeks. If you are running ultras, spend less time in mid-season and more time in early season. If you are running faster, shorter races, focus more energy on mid-season workouts.
The purpose of training is not to run hard; it is to run fast. Those are two distinct things: Running that is hard and painful is often not sustainable. These four principles make fast feel easy.
1. Practice progressive overload. Sustain the peak mileage that you reached in the early season, with “down” weeks every three to four weeks, where you decrease mileage by 20 to 50 percent, depending on energy levels. Maintaining your mileage while adding workouts that get progressively harder as you get closer to a big race will overload your aerobic system. That is good—strategic, progressive overload leads to adaptation. Be patient, though! As Stephanie Howe cautions, “Going from zero to crazy is a recipe for disaster.”
2. Work it out. Now is the time to kick it into high gear with one or two “workouts” per week, depending on your background. (Keep it at one if you are newer to running, running fewer than 30 miles per week or have a history of injuries.) Mid-season workouts are designed to prepare you for more taxing future workouts. Thus, as Mario Mendoza emphasizes, workouts need to be designed to improve certain running attributes (see sidebar for workout ideas). During the mid-season, you can race to your heart’s content, but approach each race as a focused tempo run, rather than a season-defining effort.
3. Run long. Each week (other than the “down” weeks) do one long run that is 20 to 45 percent of your weekly mileage, depending on the length of your goal races. For marathons or ultras, you should be at the higher end of that range, and each week should focus more on the long run. If you are racing shorter, focus more on the mid-week workouts.
View each long run as an important, focused workout. Instead of just logging the miles, focus on simulating your goal race effort (or slightly easier) for large portions of the long run, and practice fueling. Perhaps most importantly, as recommended by 2015 Leadville Trail 100 champion Ian Sharman, run the downhills in your long run with purpose. Practicing the pounding now will save your quads when it counts.
4. Prevent injuries. Your primary mid-season goal should be staying healthy. Log how you feel each day, while continuing to maintain your flexibility and strength. Never hesitate to take a day or three off to prevent a minor problem from becoming a major one. Sharman recommends “switching to a day of walking or light cross-training to test things out, then a test run is appropriate as long as the injury is improving.” Also, fuel the machine—mid-season is not the time to restrict your diet, which can impede healing from the routine muscle breakdown that occurs during training.
Setting Goal Peak Mileage
There are no hard-and-fast rules for setting your mileage goals, but you can use these guidelines to find what works for you. For context, most elite trail dudes train 50 to 90 miles per week, while most elite dudettes train 35 to 70 (with outliers in both directions). Most of the athletes I coach are between 20 and 50.
1. If your main goal is reaching the finish line, 15 to 25 miles per week is usually enough for races up to a marathon; 30 to 40 for marathons and shorter ultras; and 40 to 50 for just about any distance.
2. If you are aiming to maximize performance but have been running for less than three years, shoot for 30 to 40 miles per week up to half-marathon distance; 40 to 50 for marathons and shorter ultras; and 50 to 70 for any distance.
3. If you are aiming to maximize performance and have been running three years or more, aim to run at least 45 miles per week up to half-marathon distance; at least 55 for a marathon or 50K; and at least 65 for longer ultras.
Mid-Season Workouts With a Purpose
1. Climb Hills. Use hill intervals to improve your climbing ability and anaerobic threshold. Megan Roche does 10 x 90-second uphills at moderately hard effort with jog-down recovery. “It’s enough to really get my blood pumping, but not so much that injury risk increases,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll add a 10-minute tempo at 10K pace after the hills to teach myself to run fast on tired legs.”
2. Prevent the “Fade.” Tempo runs over variable terrain improve your lactate threshold, one of the main indicators of race-day performance. On an up-down tempo, find a loop that has both uphills and downhills. Run between 20 minutes and one hour comfortably fast, powering up the climbs and speeding down the descents.
3. Develop Speed. “Recess” repeats can improve your neuromuscular efficiency and VO2 max. On a slight downhill grade (one to three percent), do 6 to 10 intervals of one to three minutes. Lorraine Young, the second-place finisher at the 2015 JFK 50 Mile, swears by recess repeats. “I am a firm believer that speed can be learned. Teaching your body to sustain faster paces can lead to massive benefits by making all paces feel easier.”
4. Increase Aerobic Threshold. Fartleks (“speed play”) raise your aerobic threshold, translating to faster running across all distances. On a fartlek, settle into your fundamental aerobic pace—moving comfortably fast, or just slower than your marathon pace. Then, every five minutes, accelerate to 5K pace for 30 seconds before settling back into your fundamental aerobic pace. If, unlike me, you can keep from giggling at the name, fartleks will speed up the pace you do at a given heart rate, which is one of the keys to fast endurance running.
Imagine that it’s almost time for Thanksgiving dinner, and amazing smells are coming from the oven. For the last two days, you brined, seasoned and cooked. Now, it’s almost time for the fun part—the feast. But, as any host worth their “Kiss the Cook” apron will tell you, it’s not time to eat yet! You need to finish the cooking at just the right temperature, and then let the turkey (or tofurkey) sit until all of the juices to come together.
The late season is just like that—you’ve done almost all of the work; now is the time to finish it off and let it all come together in time for race day.
The transitions between the other phases are based on how you feel, but the transition from mid-season to late season should be based on timing, taking place three to six weeks from the biggest race of the year.
Duration: Three to six weeks. If you are running ultras, spend just a few weeks in this phase. For shorter races, focus more on late-season sharpening workouts and spend more time in this phase.
Unlike Thanksgiving dinner, it isn’t as simple as sitting on the counter and letting your juices settle. Apply the following principles to get the most out of your final workouts and race taper.
1. Make easy days sacred. Now is the time to let your body heal, and to shift close to 100 percent of your mental and physical efforts to workouts that prepare you for race day. Remove strides completely to emphasize specificity; they improved your running efficiency earlier in the season, but unless you are racing 5K or below, you are unlikely to ever run that fast in your big race. Finally, as advised by Ian Sharman, never run through an injury if it hurts at all to walk.
2. Be specific. In the mid-season, as we covered earlier, workouts prepared you for harder workouts. Now, Mario Mendoza says, is the time for “workouts [that] prepare you specifically for race day.” Break down your races into their core elements and focus specifically on improving each of them (see Race-Specific Workouts With a Purpose, below, for workout ideas).
3. Sharpen the legs. “Taper” is a dirty word to me—all too often, athletes think it means they should lounge around and wait for race day to come. Instead, think of training in the few weeks before a big race as “sharpening.” Different approaches work for different athletes (and coaches have wildly varying opinions on the subject).
A linear, three-week sharpening process is a good option for ultras—decrease total volume by 10 to 15 percent in week one, 20 to 30 percent in week two and 30 to 45 percent in week three. In other words, most (or all) of your late season should be spent tapering. For shorter races, just do the first and second weeks; the rest of your late season should be focused on fast, race-specific workouts and sustained weekly mileage.
No matter what distance you race, the key is to keep the intensity and specific workouts, even during race week, to keep your aerobic system sharp.
Race-Specific Workouts With a Purpose
1. 5K to half-marathon without major climbs: 2 (for a 5K) to 6 (half-marathon) x 10 minutes at goal race pace on similar terrain (with a five-minute recovery jog between each). This works on your lactate threshold.
2. 5K to half-marathon with lots of climbing: 20 minutes (for a 5K) to 40 minutes (half-marathon) tempo at comfortably fast effort with multiple climbs and descents. This works on transitioning from up to down and back to up without frying your legs.
3. Half-marathon to marathon without major climbs: 90 minutes at moderate pace over terrain similar to the race course. This prepares your body to handle repetitive motion without breaking down.
4. Half-marathon to marathon with major climbs: 2 x 30 minutes at moderate pace with at least one long climb and descent in each interval. This readies your brain and body for the specific demands of sustained uphills and downhills.
5. Ultramarathon without major climbs: Three hours at a comfortable yet quick pace with minimal fueling at least 10 days before the race. This teaches your body to burn glycogen more efficiently. The efficacy of this workout is subject to debate, but many elite ultrarunners like Kilian Jornet swear by it..
6. Ultramarathon with major climbs: Back-to-back focused long runs on similar terrain, totaling at least five hours over two days, done at least two weeks before the race. Save this key workout for once or twice in the last six weeks to build your strength and resilience without overstressing your body (you can do this workout near the end of your mid-season as well).
Putting It All Together
With an understanding of periodization, you are equipped to reach an all-time peak when it counts. Ideally, your most important “A” race comes at the very conclusion of the late season, but you’re not constrained to one “A” race, or one season, per year.
Rebuilding based on time between “A” races
Less than four weeks. Stay in the late-season cycle. Shorter-distance mountain runners do this during the summer and fall—but be sure to cycle back to the mid-season (including “down” weeks) if you want to prolong your peak longer than four weeks.
Four to eight weeks. Spend at least one week in early season and two weeks in mid-season to rebuild your base. This is the type of cycle used by athletes who run a World Championship race that is two months after the qualifying race.
Eight to 12 weeks. Spend at least one week in the pre-season to recover, two weeks in the early season to rebuild and three weeks in the mid-season to improve. This should be the bread-and-butter of most trail racers—it gives your body time to recover without having to reset.
Twelve to 16 weeks. Spend at least one week in the pre-season, four weeks in the early season and four weeks in the mid-season. Ultrarunners should aim for three to four months between races to be sure the body completely recovers.
More than 16 weeks. Start over from the beginning. Elite road marathoners use this strategy to schedule two seasons per year; the rest of us usually implement it during the winter when we take a formal off-season.
The Long View
Most importantly, always err on the side of long-term development. So if you have an injury or life gets in the way, instead of trying to pick up where you left off, spend an equivalent amount of time in the early-season phase. For example, a two-week injury equals two weeks in early-season base building, even if you are farther along in your training cycle. Then you can jump right back to where you were in the season before the injury.
The final words of wisdom come from Megan Roche: “Don’t judge. Embrace the process.” What Megan means is that running, racing and life come with transcendent highs and sobering lows. If you always remember that you can’t have one without the other, then every season will be filled with life-affirming purpose.
Now it’s time to go make some singletrack memories.
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.
This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.