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Training Basics Every Trail Runner Should Know

Whether you're training for your first 10k or 10th 100-miler, you need to know how to structure a training plan.

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CONSTRUCTING A TRAIL RUNNER

When constructing a trail runner, the goal is to build up in a way that prevents breakdown. It helps to think of your running training like building a house. You start at the foundation. Yet far too often, trail runners skip this essential step, and they are left thinking that injuries and burnout are common, rather than preventable.

The Foundation—Aerobic Development

The foundation of trail running is aerobic development from consistent, easy miles. Aerobic running is lower intensity, meaning the muscles have enough oxygen to perform using aerobic metabolism. Primarily, aerobic running burns fat, rather than carbohydrates, allowing the body to become more efficient with this readily available fuel source. At aerobic paces, you should be able to hold a conversation.

The benefits of aerobic running are threefold:
• First, it improves how efficiently your body pumps blood and oxygenates working muscles, which will make you faster at all effort levels.
• Second, it builds strength in muscles, tendons and bones. That strength is essential for preventing overuse injuries.
• Third, it is fun and sustainable—since it shouldn’t ever hurt, it’s easier to stay on target and train consistently.

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THE CONSTRUCTION MANUAL

If you are starting from scratch, you’ll be thinking about your foundation for an extended time. Each season, as you progress, you’ll start with the foundation, before moving up to the rest of the house. By going through the cycle each season—aerobic development and running economy, followed by endurance and resilience, followed by workouts—you’ll build higher and higher, turning a single brick into a big neighborhood that you can be proud of.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, we need to delve into what it means to build a base to support an outstanding trail runner.

Laying the Foundation

At its simplest, trail running training is all about running the most miles you can sustain while staying healthy, happy and motivated. Laying a rock-solid foundation is what lets you reach great heights.

Miles make the woman or man, because mileage induces running-specific aerobic development and strengthens the musculo-skeletal system. Think of aerobic running training as a nearly endless positive feedback loop. Stronger muscles and joints let you run more miles, which improves the aerobic system, which lets you run faster and longer, which strengthens muscles and joints more. There is really no stopping this merry-go-round of progression other than genetic limitations (which take many years to discover) or injuries.

 

Principles of Building the Base

How you build your base depends on your background and goals. The idea is to start safely, focusing on short, relatively slow and sustainable runs. Emphasize frequency, rather than volume—three 20-minute runs over three days is better than one 60-minute run and two rest days. This frequency phenomenon is because running is weight-bearing, unlike sports like cycling or swimming. Because it is weight-bearing, you are more susceptible to injuries and the body needs to adapt to the stress. Bending, and not breaking, over and over again, is the primary goal of trail training.

If you are starting from scratch, do a short run every other day. Even 10 minutes counts, and it can be at walking pace—just use running form. The goal is to build durability, not to build speed.

Over time (or if you are a more advanced runner to start) progress to running almost every day—ideally you will run five or six days a week almost year round. Some of those runs can be short—10 minutes still counts when you are advanced—but the general goal is to spread out training volume so your body adapts and thrives off of consistent daily running.

 

Determining Total Running Volume

Now, the million-dollar question: how much should you run? As a trail runner, you should think of it in terms of time, not distance, since different types of trails of the same distance can involve lots more or less running. Total steps are pretty consistent over time, not distance, so time is the best quantification of total stress.

At first, you might just start with 30 minutes or an hour each week spread out over three or four runs. From there, a good first milestone is five hours a week spread out over five runs, with two days off. After you can sustain that without lower energy levels or lingering injuries, you can bump it up to seven to 10 hours over five or six runs, which is the sweet spot for most trail runners during the base period. If you are really advanced, you can aim for 10 to 14 hours over six (or more) runs, but such high volumes are best pursued at the direction of a coach.

 

Principles of Building Running Economy

Once you reach the five-hour milestone, congratulations! You are on your way to trail-running breakthroughs. That is the time to add short strides to improve running economy, muscle strength and durability.

There are two types of strides to think about: hill strides and flat strides. As your introduction to faster running, start with hill strides, which have less pounding on your muscles and joints. Find a gradual hill between four- and eight-percent gradient, and after a 15-minute warm-up, run 20 to 30 seconds moderately hard up the hill. While you are running, focus on smooth and sustainable form—in other words, use long-distance running form, and not sprinting form. Jog down easily for recovery, and repeat four to eight times two or three times per week.

After your body adapts to hill strides over a few weeks, add flat-ground strides, which involve slightly more stress on your muscles and joints due to increased impact forces, but also involve greater economy gains due to the faster pace. Use a similar protocol, aiming to hold the fastest speed you can without straining for 20 or 30 seconds, with one to two minutes easy running to recover between each. Do these strides one day a week at first, and eventually replace hill strides altogether with flat strides two or three times per week.

While the strides are an element of the foundation, it is important that you do them year-round. Speed can be learned, and it can also be forgotten. By doing strides in the context of your normal easy runs, you can constantly reinforce running economy. Better running economy leads to better running at all effort levels, from easy aerobic running to hard workouts and even races. In that way, aerobic development plus fast strides form the basic building blocks necessary to reach your running potential.

 

Length of Foundation Period

This foundational period can last as long as you’d like—most of your fitness development comes from this phase, so it’s OK to linger. If you are just starting running, do six months to a year of building up your base. If you are a normal runner starting a new season or trying a new approach, spend two or three months in this phase, ideally reaching higher training volumes than you ever have before. If you are advanced, you may only need a month rebuilding the foundation. In general, you are ready to move to the next training phase when you feel strong at the highest volume you plan to sustain all season long.