Tackling the Trails
As featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine and written by Max King
If you’ve spent most of your running career training and racing on roads or the track, transitioning to trail running can have its challenges. Experience running cross country can be a plus, but it’s still not the same as running on technical trails.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years — often the hard way — that can help make your next trail experience more enjoyable from the perspective of safety, training and general comfort. And you’ll find many of these don’t only apply to trail running but will be valuable wherever your running and racing take you.
1) Did you choose the right shoe today? There is a fine line between too much shoe and too little shoe when trails are involved. Generally speaking, the lower the shoe midsole profile, or lower to the ground your foot is, the more natural stability it will have on the trail. The balance point between too much and too little depends on how much your foot can handle and how unforgiving the terrain is. Selecting a shoe that will have the amount of trail protection you need while still being stable will keep your ankles as safe as possible from the all-too-familiar crunch of a sprain. This often means having a collection of shoes that are appropriate for a variety of trail surface types or choosing carefully when you purchase a pair of shoes, making sure they will work in conditions you have planned for them. When you travel to a road race or go for a road run, you know beforehand that the road surface you ran on in Chicago will be pretty much the same as it was in Los Angeles. Trails create much more of a challenge when selecting what pair of shoes to go with. Keep this in mind and keep an open mind when planning your trail adventure.
2) Specificity? What’s that? One lesson I’ve just recently learned is specificity, or looked at a different way, lack of specificity. Trails come in different shapes and sizes; that’s the beauty of trail running — every trail is different. This means training for specific trail races if you want to maximize your performance and training on a variety of terrain to be ready for anything. Contradictory, yes? If you have a variety of trail races in your plan, then adding in difficult elements of each specific race to your training will make you a well-rounded runner and able to handle many different trail elements. On the flip side, Kim Dobson, the 2011 Pikes Peak Ascent champion and one of the best climbers among U.S. trail runners, recommends, “If you want to run well in a particular trail race, know the course well (distance, terrain, elevation gain/loss, altitude, etc.) and trail specifically for the race.” So, specific training targeted at adapting to a particular race will increase your success during that race. The main point is that to maximize your racing performance, simulate terrain during your training that you will see in race situations.
3) Nutrition. I’m not here to lecture you on your lifestyle eating habits, but I can suggest a few helpful tips for what to take in during exercise to keep you going. Generally you can count on trail runs taking a little longer to significantly longer than a comparable distance on the road and requiring a higher energy expenditure as well. There are three elements that you’ll need as you increase your time above about an hour and a half: water, carbohydrates and electrolytes. A good place to start is about 20–30 oz. of water (depending on temperature, weight, and humidity), 200–300 calories of carbs per hour, and 100–300mg of sodium along with calcium, magnesium, and potassium in smaller amounts. I say start here because everyone is different and it takes some experimentation to figure out what is right for you. If you’ve figured out your nutrition for a known distance on the road, take that amount and add 30–50 percent to it. And if you’re thinking about seeing how far you can push it, just remember you can kind of fake it by shuffling through a flat road run, but there’s no faking it on a climb out of a canyon during the last 5 miles of a 50K, trust me. Nutrition means the difference between a death march to the finish and an upbeat, pep in the legs, “I feel like I could run forever” feeling.
4) Baggage? No, I don’t mean emotional baggage. What do you carry for your long trail runs? Carry? you ask. If you have a road or track running background like me, you probably don’t carry anything, but as you continue to run longer and longer out on the trails and have more nutritional requirements, you’re going to need somewhere to stuff all the stuff. And you can’t fit it in a key pocket anymore. This really is a personal preference but there are great products from many trail running gear companies that include handhelds, waist packs and back packs. You’ll just have to check them out and see what works best for you. Just like shoes, you’ll have different needs for different conditions, which may require flexibility and several options for carrying necessities. Are you going out on a long run without fill-up points that might require 50 to 70 oz. of water? If so, you probably need a backpack. Are you running a race in which you can easily refill at an aid station? If that’s the case, you might opt for two handheld bottles. The main point: Find something comfortable and appropriate to carry some water, food and maybe a lightweight shell jacket on longer runs.
There’s a lot of trail to cover out there and the beauty of it is, every trail is different from the last. There are flat, smooth trails to hilly, technical trails just waiting to be run on. Energize your running by choosing a nearby trail to experience and get out on it.