SCHOOL OF SINGLE TRACK
Keen to hit the singletrack? Here’s an in-depth guide to preparing and training for your first trail running event.
YOU ALWAYS REMEMBER your first. For me, it burst every preconceived notion I had of what was at the time a fringe pursuit. It was harder, the terrain was tougher, I should have put in more training, it took longer than it should have and it hurt way more.
But then my first trail event was also much more fun, way more fulfilling and ultimately more addictive than I could have imagined it to be. So much so that I went on to make a career in trail running – not as an athlete, mind you (no speed), rather I launched a trail magazine, established a series of trail running events and began hosting guided trail run tours across the planet. And when I do get downtime, I run more trails; a healthy obsession sparked by one little jog through the bush.
Yet like any solid singletrack, the journey to becoming an experienced trail runner was challenging. Injury, pain, exhaustion, undertraining, incorrect training, or no training at all… the latter three were significant traps for me as a newbie.
So how can a beginner get on trail and make the physical going as smooth as possible to enjoy the rough going underfoot a whole lot more? Let’s break it down. PICK A TRAIL TARGET Motivation is key to maintaining any training program, so pick a target event that suits your level of fitness and experience. If you’re a regular road marathoner, you might take your first step off-road at the half-marathon distance before tackling the Full Marathon Monty, which off-road is a significantly different challenge to any on-road version. Or if you are not only new to trail running but new to running altogether (more common than you’d think) start out at 5-10km distances.
Pick an event that specifically appeals to your adventure sensibilities – if you like forests choose an event that runs through a few. If you like mountain ridgeline views, scour the calendar for an event that makes best use of one or a few. If you’re nervous about running deep in the wilderness, choose an event based on trails that stick closer to inhabited areas – there are trail events based in and around most big city and regional population centres.
Even better than just picking one target event, enrol in a trail-running series, which exist in nearly every state in Australia and across New Zealand. The beauty of a full series is that you can’t fall off the wagon once you have crossed the line once. You’ll have another target event on the horizon to keep you on track. TOO MUCH, TOO EARLY Ease your way into it. It’s very easy to get swept up in the exuberance the trail community has for trails and it’s all too common for newbies to punch out their first 10-kay event only to eagerly start eyeing off ultras (distances in excess of a marathon) the following week. Hold up! You’ve got plenty of time to enjoy running trails – there are 70-plus year olds knocking off 100-mile events – so take a step-bystep approach to your event targets and your training. Indeed, rather than up distances too quickly, try upping the inherent challenge by choosing same-distance events that become more and more technical according to the terrain. Once comfortably conditioned to a ‘hard’ 10-15km event, then take on the half and full marathons in a gentle increase over the course of a year or two.
Those who do ramp up distances too quickly risk debilitating (and common) injuries like ITBsyndrome, which can quickly (and painfully) curtail your momentum.
Motivation is key to maintaining any training program, so pick a target event that suits your level of fitness and experience.
NO TIME-DISTANCE CORRELATIONS
If you’re coming from a road-running background your lingua franca will be time, as in “my marathon time is 3 hours and 45 minutes”. On road, different events of the same distance generally can be compared. On trail, no two courses, regardless of being the same distance, can be compared, because the terrain and mix of technicality and ascent profile will always be different. And forget comparing road distance times to those on trail. A 3h30m road marathon can still correlate to 5h30m on a beefy trail marathon course!
THE RIGHT STUFF
If you are starting out, you just need a sturdy pair of shoes (yes, road will suffice in a pinch), especially for shorter distances. Sure, a trail-specific pair of shoes with better grip will help, so they should be your first bit of kit, but hold off on all the fancy compression wear and hydro-packs until you have a few trails under your belt. Once you start upping distances, a hydration pack is recommended as many longer events have mandatory gear you will need to carry and there are far fewer aid stations than you’ll find in road-running events. Indeed, sometimes on the really wild ones there are none!
Forget Gore-Tex; your feet will get wet. Don’t try to hopscotch stones across the creek; stomp right in. Wet feet are part of trail running without exception. Don’t complain.
Walking is part of trail running. Yes, even the elites do it. There comes a time where the incline is steep enough that you actually go slower (and waste more energy) trying to run it. Power-walk it instead. It’s more economical, just as fast and it exasperates those trying to run it huff ’n’ puff style while you walk the same speed right on their heels.
In Australia, snakes are everywhere. Hone your ‘radar’ and scan the trail when in season. Carry a snake bandage. Read up on what to do if bitten. And don’t sweat it too much – they are more frightened of you clomping through the bush.
Right, so you have a target or three, you know not to be a bull at a trail gate, you’ve forgotten time expectations based on your flier at the local Park Run, you’ve packed a snake bandage and have a pair of old shoes you’re happy to get dirty and wet.
Gradually build up your weekly training distance. The majority of running injuries are overuse injuries and training should be about adaptation, which requires gentle increments that push your body’s limits in safe margins over time. As a general rule,
As a general rule, increase total distance over an entire week of training by about 10 per cent.
increase total distance over an entire week of training by about 10 per cent. So if you run 50km one week, the following week should be 55km in total.
Strength and conditioning training is just as important as pure mileage. Essentially, running is hopping from one leg to the other and balancing each time you land so leg strength needs to be good, as does your core. Incorporate squats and lunges (quads and glutes) plus calf raises as minimum. Throw in some sit-ups, plus the dreaded burpees.
Train for the type of trails you are aiming to run. Most trails – indeed the most fun trails – feature technical terrain: rocks, roots, potholes, uneven ground, tree branches to duck and never-ending ascents and descents. If the event has a lot of steep inclines, you’ll need to train on some hills, or at least some steps (noting that the action of going up steps versus a hill incline is actually different). Also, it can take those used to running generally flat roads a while to adapt to the constant rollercoastering of a trail. You’ll feel out of breath with a high heart rate and struggle to find a happy rhythm. This is just down to practice and adapting your aerobic and muscular fitness to embrace a state of constant flux where the demands keep swinging between intense (climbing) to less so (descending).
The technical skills of ascending and descending are important for improving overall speed but also for safety and preventing injury. Find those hills (again) – however short – and run up and down them. Descending is about quad strength, balance and confidence, the latter coming with repetition. You’re also looking to develop better proprioceptive ability and equilibrium by doing exercises that develop peripheral coordination. If the trails are going to be technical underfoot, train on rough ground with lots of underfoot obstacles (rocks, roots etc.) so your foot/eye coordination improves. Climbing is about holding off the lactic burn using a powerwalk technique that can involve pressing hands on knees. Other times (pending steepness) it is about eyes and head up, chest out and forward and, importantly, remembering to breathe deeply.
Train as you race. Depending on distance and remoteness, trail running will at some stage mean wearing a hydropack and, for longer runs, having to refuel with some form of nutrition, such as energy bars, gels and general snacks. The golden rule is always train with what you’ll rely on for event day. It’s best to sort out any technical issues or sore rub zones before you line up to race. Also train with the electrolytes and nutrition you will use on race day, to avoid potential stomach upsets. * Chris Ord is the editor of Trail Run Mag AU/NZ
(www.trailrunmag.com) and owner of trail running event and tour company Tour de trails (www.tourdetrails.com).
The variety of terrain – and scenery – you encounter is what atttracts all types of athletes to the sport.