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Q&A: Alex McDaniel On Technical Trail Running

”Forget your PR, forget your GPS and just run fast in the woods.”

”Forget your PR, forget your GPS and just run fast in the woods.”

Sometimes you’ll hear a trail run or trail race described as “highly technical.” My mind, lacking in serious off-road experience but well attuned to cynical responses, interprets this as a euphemism for “extremely challenging” or “beyond the limits of a runner’s coordination, willingness to hurt, or both.”

True enough in my case, but the word “technical” literally translates to “using tools,” and if you’re to succeed as a trail racer, you need to have immediate access to a variety of well-honed implements, some of which you may never consider as a complacent road hog.

Alex McDaniel is a seasoned trail racer from New Haven, Conn., whose descriptiveness when it comes to technical trail running is such that it makes an experienced competitor like me wonder just how much he’s failed to analyze properly in almost three decades in the sport.

“Trail skill,” McDaniel says, “is the combination of your ability to pick good lines through technical trail, your dexterity and proprioception [the sense of how moving parts of your body physically relate to one another in space], and the muscular fitness of those muscle groups that get used on the trail but not as much on the road.” On the last point, he notes that it’s not unusual to have sore abs in the aftermath of a serious trail effort.

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One critical aspect of trail skill, McDaniel emphasizes, is that its relevance in competition is a function of both general fitness and the race distance. That is, a less-skilled racer can perhaps get by on strength alone if the trail is forgiving enough and the distance is sufficiently great; take the same runner and pit him or her against a highly skilled trail racer in a short (say, 10K or below) event featuring a lot of extracurricular mayhem — hand-over-hand climbs, extremely steep climbs and descents, loads of water and mud — and the fitter specimen is far less likely to prevail.

Given McDaniel’s combination of experience and eloquence, I found it facile to probe his mind with a series of questions aimed at determining just what “technical” trail running implies. Here are some snippets from our conversation:

Do you ever practice running fast on trails specifically to get ready for trail racing, or is that just a matter of being willing to take more risks in a race situation?

Racing a super-technical 10K is very different from a road 10K or from ultrarunning on trail. It requires coordination, balance and explosive movement on top of a deep base of fitness.

I recently raced a trail 10K in Connecticut where only the top 12 out of 250 runners broke an hour (I was 10th). It was VERY technical. It really taxed every system. My pace varied from under six minutes a mile on short runnable sections to literal hand over hand climbing up a series of boulders. You had to take risks on downhills and shoot your heart rate through the roof on the short, intense climbs. If I was training specifically for it, I would do a combination of mile training, half-marathon training, and intervals on the course itself.

Do you always scout a race course beforehand? If you don’t have the chance, what questions do you ask?

If the course is not technical it doesn’t matter. Then it’s just cardio. For a short (half-marathon or shorter) race I ALWAYS want to scout the course and preferably with someone who is local and at my fitness or above.

As you scout the course, ask yourself, what sections give you trouble? Is it mud? rocks? Technical descents? Roots?

Watch the local runner: What line does he take when running fast? Don’t be afraid to “practice” technical sections until you find the right line and the combination of speed and safety that feels right to you. Learning these lines means you won’t have to find them when you’re mentally taxed in the race. It may only save you a single second per section, but if there are 30 tricky sections in a 40 to 60 minute race, that’s a big difference and may save you a face-plant or a sprained ankle. Course knowledge is huge in trail running and allows you to run both smartly and aggressively. Also, your perception of fatigue (at the same speed) will be lower if you know exactly where you are on the course.

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If you can’t explore the course ahead of time, ask about rocks, roots, mud and descents. This may influence your shoe choice and can allow you to find a local (to you) trail that mimics these conditions.

In the two weeks leading up to a short, technical trail race, doing specific work will greatly improve your confidence and performance in the race.

– Do intervals through technical terrain that matches the course at or above race pace.

– If you are primarily a road runner, work on picking up your feet and identifying “lines” through a technical trail.

– Practice being extremely alert and focused while staying physically relaxed. Imagine being jacked on espresso; make sure your eyes and your mind are faster than your feet.

– Practice surging and recovering. You’ll rarely run a consistent pace or effort in a technical trail race. By practicing this, you’ll let your brain know that it’s OK and also learn what the “right” amount of discomfort is and what is “too much.”

Sounds like a lot to deal with. What’s the reward in putting yourself through this kind of grind?

The beauty of a short technical trail race is that you finish feeling that every part of you, legs, lungs and mind were all challenged. Forget your PR, forget your GPS and just run fast in the woods.

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