From Zero to Trail Hero: Part 1
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We have all been there. It’s that moment in the primordial ooze of being a non-runner when something happens, and suddenly you’re given life as a runner. No matter how that origin of runner-life transpires, it’s a long way to evolve to running long distances on trails. But through a few tips and tricks, you can speed up that evolution from new runner to seasoned trail creature.
The journey isn’t easy. There will be days when running is difficult; it may seem like eons pass as you stagnate trying to reach your running potential. Stick with it, though, and there’s no telling where you might end up. The miracle of your new runner life is that through a smart approach to training, you can go from a single step out of the primordial ooze to 100 miles in the mountains, and anywhere in between.
Maybe you’re starting to run for the very first time; maybe you’re coming back after a long layoff, like those caused by injuries or life circumstances. Whether you are building from scratch, or rebuilding after a break, a few principles can help you set up a fast-and-fun running future.
1. Prepare your musculoskeletal system for the pounding of running.
Running is different than cycling, swimming or couch surfing, because it involves impact forces with each step. The body absorbs and retransmits those forces through a biomechanical chain that starts at the foot and ankle and goes all the way up through the hip and back. Every spot along that chain is vulnerable to breakdown with repetition. Stress injuries, like knee tendinitis or shin-bone fractures, usually start with a small weakness that gets exacerbated over time with continued impact.
Gradually introduce consistent stress in the form of easy running and strength training, so that your body can adapt to a strong, healthy running future, rather than immediately breaking down.
2. Gradually improve aerobic capacity and endurance
The aerobic system starts with the heart and lungs, which supply working muscles with oxygen and nutrients. As you start running, your body undergoes numerous little adaptations that make you more aerobically efficient: your heart gains the capacity to pump a little bit more with each beat, you grow capillaries to transmit blood more efficiently and your body pushes back the threshold when it needs to use anaerobic energy processes, which are less sustainable.
Aerobic adaptations are the cornerstone of reaching your running potential. If you come from other sports, like cycling, swimming or frisbee, you’ll likely have a pretty strong aerobic system built up. In that case, you’ll need to be careful not to push too much at first, since your aerobic system might be able to write checks that your musculoskeletal system is not yet ready to cash.
If you’re coming from a more sedentary background, your lungs and heart might be the limiter at first.
Either way, don’t go too hard. Hard running can be beneficial in small doses, but it also increases the risk of musculoskeletal breakdown.
3. Create a training plan focused on consistency.
The unifying trait of the aerobic system and the musculoskeletal system is that both adapt to repetitive bouts of stress. If you go too hard or too long, the probability of injury or burnout skyrockets, especially as you start out. And because injury or burnout stop the repetitive stress adaptations from taking hold, it’s essential to prioritize putting lots of little bricks in your running wall over time, rather than trying to build the whole wall in a day with a few back-breaking boulders.
At the outset, set goals that are focused on long-term development. By zooming out to a multi-year time horizon, you’ll be able to make better decisions—ones that focus more on consistency rather than lots of big, epic runs.
A Sample Week When Starting
At first, to avoid injury, make your training boringly simple.
Monday: Rest and recovery
Tuesday: 10-20 minutes easy (run-walk is great if needed)
Wednesday: Rest and recovery
Thursday: 15-30 minutes easy over hills
Friday: Rest and recovery
Saturday: 20-30 minutes easy over hills
Sunday: 10-20 minutes easy
This is the first of a five-part series and originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Trail Runner Magazine.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play