Becoming an All-Terrain Runner
by Shawn McDonald
Reaching your potential in each of the ultrarunning disciplines (road, track, trail) takes specific training, thoughtful planning and some imagination combined with trial and error. Many runners choose to run road races in the fall or winter because trail conditions are not conducive to staying upright throughout the run. If you live in an area of the country where winters are less extreme though, perhaps you are contemplating a few hilly trail races this winter or early next spring. In the column this month, we will examine how a runner can transition their training to prepare well for races on a different surface and/or terrain.
Change of surface
The base-building phase of your fall training plan is the best time to transition to a new surface. Your weekly mileage is at moderate levels during most of this phase so your body can more easily adapt to the stresses of the change. Start by running one or two of your short runs each week on this new surface – rough trail, cambered road, or maybe a track with tight turns. After a couple of weeks, do part of your medium run and part of your weekly long run on the new surface. Aim to switch about 80 percent of your weekly mileage over to the new surface after a month, maintaining about 20 percent of your training time on the old surface. This plan will make it easier for you to transition back to the prior surface after your winter or spring races.
A well-rounded, patient transition takes not only a gradual change in where you train but also how you train and the addition of supplementary training activities. For trails, ramp up the difficulty (number and length of climbs/descents, footing, “twistiness”) of medium and long training runs gradually. Combined with one or two sessions per week of agility drills (hopping, balance board work, skipping rope) or weight-training (upper and lower body) will help you develop the balance, strength, and run/walk knowledge to power up and cruise down the hills. For roads or the track, focus your training on running a variety of paces and efforts each week. With practice (see tune-up races below) you will become adept at judging how fast you are running and what is the “right” effort for each distance, terrain and weather conditions. Conducting form drills one or two times per week (see November 2007 UltraRunning Training article on proper running form) will pay dividends in running more efficiently on flat/ smooth terrain, saving several minutes or more in a typical ultra.
Change of terrain
Most trail races are held on rolling to hilly courses, while most road races are contested on flatter ground. Consider the terrain in your upcoming goal races and seek to match those details (such as grade and spacing of uphills or downhills) in some of your long training runs. Transition gradually and continually to the new terrain, using a similar month long plan as detailed above for a surface change. Aim to run on “race-similar” terrain two to three days per week during the strengthening and sharpening phases of your training program to learn your strengths and determine areas that need work. Run weekly hill repeat or hill fartlek sessions in this period to prepare for hilly races. For flatter races, complete a weekly tempo or interval run to improve your “cruising” speed. Also work some walk breaks (two to four per hour, one to three minutes duration) into flat, long runs to substitute for the variance in musculature use that would have occurred during hilly runs. Likewise, practice walking on uphill portions of long mountain runs so you can become a more powerful, efficient walker.
Footwear and equipment
Rough, hilly trails require the use of different footwear than runs on smoother, flatter surfaces. You may want to purchase a new pair (or two) of running shoes and work the new shoes into your footwear rotation during the base phase of training as you build up your mileage. Trail shoes generally place your feet lower to the ground, are more stable side-to-side and have more toe and underfoot protective features than road shoes. Shoes for flatter terrain and smoother, harder surfaces should offer more cushioning, a bit tighter fit to prevent foot slide and blisters, and are a little lighter as efficiency is a higher priority on the flats than is foot protection.
Your needs for other equipment can change as well with a change of surface and terrain. A heavy running pack for carrying gear and water on trails may be more than you need for roads where aid stations or resupply points are more frequent. A small, lightweight pack that works well on the roads may flop around too much when running downhill on trails and may not hold enough supplies to go two hours or more between aid stations. Winter running may necessitate use of spikes to grip the ice; gradually build up to using modified footwear for icy conditions, as the modifications can change your foot strike and gait.
Also consider the running venue in terms of ultraviolet load and how much shade is present, and adjust which hats, protective clothing and sunscreen you use. Chafing and blisters can be more of an issue on flatter/smoother routes due to the more repetitive nature of the stride you employ. In this case, use smoother fabrics such as lycra shorts to lessen thigh rubbing, liberally/frequently apply lubricants to areas that are prone to chafing and change shoes once or twice during long training runs to a different make/model, which will vary the pressure points on your feet.