Four New Training Ideas to Up Your Trail Running

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At dinner this weekend (at a hip salad joint), my friend (a machine-learning expert) talked about a conceptual framework for thinking about decisions: exploration versus exploitation. Just add the term “synergy,” and that would be the most California sentence ever written. But the principle is important to think about, because it could help you shift your training paradigm to disrupt the running space.

First, some definitions. “Machine learning” is how computers can understand tasks without being explicitly programmed for them (think recommendation algorithms on Netflix that seem to know you a bit too well). “Reinforcement learning” is a subset of machine learning inspired by behavioral psychology that addresses how actions maximize cumulative rewards. “Exploration” is trying new things, branching out into uncharted territory. “Exploitation” relies on current knowledge to do the same thing that gives some incremental gain. For the full California experience, a “hip salad joint” is where you pay $13 for a bowl of greens, nuts and dried fruit.

What on earth am I talking about? Example time! Imagine an artificial intelligence human program that is trying to learn to walk from scratch. It first finds that by falling on its back, it can do a crab-slide across the virtual room. Score one for the crabman. The crabman could exploit its knowledge—crab-walking around the room like a boss. Or, it could move into uncharted territory in a quest for a more efficient approach. Eventually, it might use exploration to find bipedal locomotion, running circles around the exploiting crab. However, the exploit approach may have accumulated more rewards at first, so its still on its back, wondering why its getting passed now.

Okay, that probably butchered the machine-learning principles. If that’s the case, please forgive me, because I may have a kombucha hangover (brewed with synergy and deep, loving sighs). But all-too-often in running training, it’s easier to be the crab shuffling on the floor than to explore new approaches that could lead to breakthroughs. So if you have stagnated with running, consider exploring these four training ideas to maximize your cumulative running rewards.

Set up a framework for long-term consistency

The total number of runs an athlete does over time is among the most important variables for predicting performance. Consistency is essential because it reinforces neuromuscular, biomechanical and aerobic adaptations that make running easier by reducing the amount of energy it takes to go a given pace (thus, improving running economy). Sometimes, runners focus so much on volume or long runs that they lose sight of frequency, and that could be leaving some big gains on the table.

Work up to running four to six days a week prior to worrying too much about overall volume and intensity. Four or five days works well for runners that are in their first couple years of training, injury prone or over 50. Six days works well for most others. A run doesn’t have to be long, either. Even 20 minutes is plenty, and everyone can spare 20 minutes. You can even say you are going to the “bathroom” and run around the office block during your extra-productive “bathroom” break (just say you went to Chipotle earlier in the day and no one will ask questions).

Consistency requires health, so never run through injuries. But you may find that running more often counter-intuitively makes you less injury prone, letting you explore what your body can do. The body adapts to consistent stimuli, so give it the prod it needs.

Learn to run fast

Imagine a kid playing tag on the playground. What do you see? Probably an effortless, natural form, flowing at a fast pace.

Now imagine a 35-year old runner doing intervals. What do you see? Probably not the same smooth stride, but a herky-jerky, forced effort.

The difference between the fast kid and the forced adult may have to do with running economy. The adult began smooth and effortless, exploring speed, but over time got farther away from running smoothly, with relaxed form, making fast look easy. Essentially, they exploited what they had, rather than developing it further. Bad habits compound so that a few decades later, what was once play is now a chore.

That is why I recommend doing short, relaxed strides (on hills or flats) one to three times a week during runs. Usually, that means 15 to 30 seconds of faster running with one to two minutes of easy running recovery, focused on going the quickest they can without straining. For most, the pace ends up being what they could race for a mile or so—a bit farther for very fit athletes, a bit shorter for less experienced athletes. Those little strides can make a big difference, improving neuromuscular and biomechanical variables essential for running faster for longer. And, at the very least, exploring faster running gives adults some much-needed recess time.

Learn to run slow

As you develop as a runner, it’s easy to fall into lots of same-pace running. But training needs to be polarized to let your body adapt.

The key is to make sure your easy pace is truly easy for your body. At the simplest, you can use the talk test. Can you rap like André 3000 (or Lafayette’s verses from Hamilton) while running easy? Then you got it right. In lieu of Hamilton rap-alongs, you can use a heart rate monitor to calibrate easy pace. Or, you can approximate “easy” using the general guideline of capping it at a good bit slower than marathon effort.

Keeping easy truly easy will let you run more consistently and gradually increase volume (through the “Trial of Miles” approach), which will enhance aerobic adaptations. Plus, you’ll be able to make fast running more efficient, improving running economy and letting your human machine learn to run faster. Finally, you’ll be prepared for 18th century rap battles that could happen at any moment.

Do smart workouts

The goal is not to run hard, it’s to run fast (or to put out more power if on hills). To make fast feel easier, you need to make sure your workouts aren’t so difficult that your form collapses and each interval ends up being a mini-race.

A good general rule is that you should never “go to the well” in a workout without a really good reason. What that means in practice is that each interval should feel sustainable and smooth, like you could keep going at that effort for a bit longer.

For most athletes, it’s helpful to start from the ground up, doing strides before incorporating short intervals, then doing longer tempos. No matter how you do it, the main key is to set yourself up for success by doing workouts that you know you can execute efficiently to build on next time, rather than emphasizing the hard aspect and tearing yourself down.

Michele Dillon is an apt example of all these training (and machine learning) principles put into practice. In October 2017, she was a strong runner, but was leaving some gains on the table by focusing primarily on single-effort trail runs, exploiting the fitness she had. So she shifted to exploring new approaches. She emphasized consistency, running more often, with some runs way shorter than before. She did her first strides and short intervals, breaking out of the emphasis on long hill grinds in the mountains around her home in Boulder, Colorado. Finally, she increased her overall volume after building her body from the ground up. By February 2018, she had set PRs at every distance from the mile to the half marathon in the context of these training runs.

This season, you can make yourself a better machine. Take it to the next level by exploring what you could become, rather than exploiting what you already are.

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

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