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How to Optimize Your Training Time For Trail Racing

Do more with the time you have before your next trail race.

As we become busier and busier, we all fall prey to the excuse that we “just don’t have enough time” to train for an upcoming race. We try to do things as efficiently as possible and sometimes that means skimping on a few important details—like stretching or recovery. Because we’re busy, we’re also tired from our everyday routine and previous training sessions. That often means the last thing we want to do is a hard workout, so we slog out the door for an easy run down a flat road or trail just to get a few miles in.

I could tell you to just buck up and do the work, but instead I’ll give you a few tips to help optimize your training for that next trail race.

The goal here is to do more with the time you have—not to add in extra things. Sometimes this just takes a little more motivation and planning so you can optimize the quality of your training. To some extent, it becomes quality over quantity.

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Trail Race vs. Road Race

A road is a road. There isn’t much that will change from road race to road race, other than a few exceptions, and thus training doesn’t need to change much either. The training plan that worked for Marathon A will most likely also work well for Marathon B. Getting ready for your next trail race, though, can be a different story. You can get more out of your training if you do your course homework and find out what you’re in store for when you get to your next trail race.

At the very least, a trail marathon is going to take you an additional 30-60 minutes (or even longer) to complete than most road marathons. Executing your training plan for any road marathon better than you ever have before may result in a huge failure for a trail marathon. For example, the Moab Trail Marathon in Utah, which involves slick rock, off-camber running, significant elevation gain and heat, can cause all sorts of problems for even the most fit runners in the race.

The Course, Get Specific

First off, do some homework on the course. Getting the most out of your training sometimes means doing very specific workouts that will simulate the course you’re going to race. If the course has significant elevation gain and some massive climbs, make sure you’re getting in a few days a week of climbs lasting 10-15 minutes. If it’s a shorter distance trail race with a few big climbs, do your VO2 max workouts (hard intervals in the range of 2-5 minutes) on an incline similar to what you’ll see in the race.

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If you’re racing a course with many short ups and downs, you will not only benefit from easy runs with significant elevation gain, but also from tempo runs on undulating terrain. If you don’t have a course like that, no worries—most of us can find at least one short hill for multiple repeats. Monotonous as it might sound, these types of workouts are going to prepare you for trail racing. Plus, they’re way more fun than than running on a treadmill.

Everything from the surfaces you run on, to navigating roots and rocks, as well as grade and length of the hills you run, will be important to how you go about your training. You’ll get more out of your training time if you can specifically address as many of these variables as possible.

Strength Training

One of the most important things runners often overlook is the importance of strength training, typically because we don’t have the time to fit it into our schedules. Find the time. You will save injury and rehab time down the road if you can find time now to fit strength training into your weekly routine. We’re all reluctant to skip a run, but the benefits of reduced injury risk and reduced recovery time from strength training far outweigh your 45-minute easy run on Thursday. By substituting that run with a strength training session, you’ll optimize your overall and long-term fitness.

Heat and Altitude Training

Heat and altitude are two conditions that many of us forget about when training. Many trail races have both, sometimes in excess of what we think is humanly possible. Heat is an easy one to train for, in the sense that you can make yourself hot, not that it’s easy training. Luckily it only takes about 10-14 days to acclimate to a hot environment, so don’t start heat training more than about two-and-a-half weeks out from a race. To do it, it’s pretty simple: just wear more clothes. Don’t compromise your hard workouts, however, and be very careful of overheating. Make sure you’re taking in more fluids than normal to account for excess sweat loss. To kill two birds with one stone, get in the sauna at your local gym and do some strength training. You might get some funny looks, but you’re going to make onlookers envious of your rock hard abs. You’ll also probably be the only one in the sauna with abs.

RELATEDAltitude Training 101

Elevation is a bit trickier to train for unless you already live at altitude. Running and training at altitude isn’t a viable option for most of us due to drive time to a trailhead or lack of anything over 7,000 feet in close proximity. Jeff Browning, an ultrarunner and friend from Bend, Ore., uses an intermittent high-altitude tent system while working at home. He gets some work done while acclimating his body. Many people use a tent to sleep in to acclimate to a high elevation race. While purchasing your own tent may be out of the question, tent rentals may be available in your local area, making it a viable option for avoiding headaches and nausea of altitude sickness. The nice thing is that altitude training doesn’t take up much extra time as long as you can multitask.

With a little planning, motivation and execution, you can get more out of your current training without adding more time to your routine. We’re all looking for an easy performance benefit and using the preceding tips to your advantage are an easy way to gain a bit of an edge during your next trail race.