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Down & Dirty: Running Camps Offer Fun, Focused Training

This one time, at running camp …

This one time, at running camp …


The word evokes images of kids roasting marshmallows, sleeping in bunk beds and swimming in mountain lakes.

Training camp?

That’s for professional athletes, pre-season fitness and football players.

Well, what about running camp?

Why should kids and professional athletes have all the fun? Sure, pro runners and cross country teams often go to training camps, but so can age-groupers, newbies and lifelong runners looking to break out of a plateau or revive their passion for the sport. There are hundreds of adult running camps and clinics in the U.S. and Canada, offering a chance to work on your running form, prepare for a specific race, try something new like trail running, train at altitude or provide an opportunity for an exploratory running vacation. For those who think they don’t run enough to warrant attending a camp, think again.

Whether it’s for half a day or a week, committing to a running camp gives you the opportunity to focus on you and your running—no work commitments, no walking the dog, no interruptions. Think how often a run ends up as a footnote to your day or something sandwiched between every other activity in your busy life. Attending a running-focused program lets you explore your interest on many different levels, such as mechanics, technique, nutrition, recovery and more. It may not sound like a “normal” vacation, but the experience ideally will leave you energized and excited about your running possibilities.

I recently traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for a three-day mountain trail running camp led by Eric Orton, a personal trainer who served as Chris McDougall’s coach as he was writing the bestseller Born to Run. Orton last year penned his own book, The Cool Impossible, and used it as a launching pad for his Jackson Hole-based Mountain Running Academy. His focus is developing strength from the feet up, natural form and running efficiency. We had a group of five runners with Orton as our coach, and the experience was everything I wanted in a camp—intense instruction in a stunning locale with a group united by their passion for running.

My primary goal with camp was to improve on technical descents, and I did. But my biggest discovery came when Eric suggested I use a heart rate monitor. I’ve been running based upon feel for years, and, as it turns out, I’ve been stuck at an effort plateau for much of that time. Focusing on longer and longer efforts at a higher heart rate resulted in a quicker cadence and made me feel like I was interacting with the mountain, not just running on it. But it wasn’t pretty. When everyone else hiked the uphills, I ran them until exhaustion. Yet, as hard as it was, I loved it because I started to see improvement.

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Post-camp has been a welcome opportunity to delve deeper into what we learned and work on the recommended foot strengthening exercises. Some runs have been fantastic and speedier, while others have felt awkward or slow—to be expected in a normal training cycle, but even more so when working on your stride. As for hill repeats with a heart rate monitor, they aren’t quite as much fun as having a coach encouraging you from the top of the hill, but they work!

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Here are five tips about selecting the right running camp for you and what to expect once you go.

Do Your Research

The first step is to decide what you want to gain with the experience. From previewing the course for a goal race to improving your technique on gnarly trails, having more of a vacation with daily group runs or learning new strength and flexibility drills, programs vary widely. Speak to camp organizers and be honest with them and yourself about goals and abilities. Once you decide on a camp, familiarize yourself with the weather and topography of your destination. Also, if you are going to be practicing a new-to-you method, familiarize yourself with it—not to say you should try to become an expert because that’s why you are going to camp, but at least be familiar with the terminology and theory behind it.


No, this isn’t a race, but it’s still a good idea to treat it as a goal event with regards to training and gear. You may be signing up for long miles, multiple runs a day, creek crossings or lots of climbing. Is the weather going to be hot and humid or possibly snowing? Do you need a pack, gloves, warm clothes or handhelds? Knowing before you go ensures you’ll be prepared both mentally and physically and will help you get the most out of the experience.

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When runners get in a group, they want to share stories, re-live races and compare gear. And that’s great, but save it for happy hour. Running sessions are the time to listen, learn and ask questions. Show your coach what you can do, don’t tell him. Remember, you are there to learn from an expert, as well as benefit from the collective experiences of the group.

Push Yourself

This is a prime time to step out of your comfort zone. You have a coach to encourage you and give advice. They can also be your guide for exploring new (to you) and exciting trails. Plus you have the safety net of the group to encourage you and possibly stoke your competitive drive. Use the opportunity to get uncomfortable, mix up your running and go harder than normal. All you have to worry about is running, so make it count!

Be Realistic

The intense instruction at a camp should encourage and inspire you. But remember, running is a sport of gradual improvements seen over time. Once you get home and go running without the supportive energy of the group, it can feel anticlimactic. Focus on the drills and exercises you did, slowly incorporate what works for you and be patient. Not only do you need to mentally and physically recover from camp, your body and mind will take time to adjust to new demands. Try experimenting with or mastering one technique at a time. And don’t forget your support system. Staying in touch with your fellow campers can help keep your enthusiasm going strong.