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Taking To The Trails – How It Will Help You Be A Better Runner

Taking To The Trails – How It Will Help You Be A Better Runner

Recently the Sweat Elite Podcast has featured ultrarunners Jim Walmsley and Tom Evans, and just this week we sat down and had a chat with the undisputed king of the mountains, Kilian Jornet. These three strong athletes have many things in common, but a standout is that a huge proportion of their training is on trails. They do most of their competitions in the mountains, so that makes sense… but all three of them, along with many other athletes, agree that running on trails offers myriad benefits the road cannot.

Getting off sealed surfaces doesn’t mean you have to immediately direct your focus towards running a mountainous hundred miler, it can form an integral part of training for shorter distances on the road and track. Many athletes who have seen great success in more traditional running have also spent a great deal of time running off road.

The Ethiopian greats Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele have spent hundreds of hours running the uneven, hilly terrain through the forests surrounding Addis Ababa. Many of Kipchoge’s runs are along muddy, rutted roads and paths through the Kenyan countryside. Nick Willis recently wrote the following in an “Advice to my younger self” letter posted on the World Athletics site: “Based as you are in Wellington, you are surrounded by hills and the city is home to several world mountain running champions – so why then are you so terrified of running hills?”

What is it about getting out onto the trails that can be so beneficial? Here we will look at just a few ways that it can help you to reach your running goals and become a more well-rounded athlete in the process.

Tokai University – Training for Hakone Ekiden

Tokai University – Training for Hakone Ekiden

The ekiden is what lies at the core of the Japanese prowess in long distance running. Ekidens are long distance relays, which can take place over multiple days and have legs of varying lengths. The most prestigious of all is the Hakone Ekiden, a race which sees the top universities of the Kanto region around Tokyo compete, captivating the nation every January. Hakone Ekiden was inaugurated in 1920 by Shizo Kanakuri – known as the father of the marathon in Japan – with teams running from 108km from Tokyo to Hakone on the first day (January 2) and 109.9km back to Tokyo the next.

Tokai University took the crown in the 2019 edition of the race, with the ten athletes covering the whole course in a stunning 10:52:09. That’s 3:00.2/km, the fastest time ever run on the current version of the course. This year’s iteration of the race, the 96th time it has been run, saw a demolition of the records. Seven of the ten segment records were beaten, and Aoyama Gakuin University was the winner with a total time of 10:45:23, Tokai came in second in 10:48:25, also well under their old course record.

During our trip to Japan this year Tokai’s assistant coach – Noriaki Nishide – kindly invited us to join a session taking place on the university’s royal blue track. It was an absolute pleasure to watch Nishide working closely with head coach Hayashi Morozumi, overseeing the orderly procession of their athletes ripping through mile repeats.

Morozumi was one of Japan’s most successful high school coaches before moving to Tokai. Suguru Osako, the national record holder for the marathon (2:05:29 – set at the Tokyo Marathon 2020, the day after the session we watched), rose to prominence under his tutelage, among many other top athletes. Under Morozumi’s guidance the Tokai team have made steady improvement over the past few years.

Jim Walmsley – The Road to Atlanta

Jim Walmsley – The Road to Atlanta

His training is heavily volume based. Jim’s huge aerobic base that has served so well in the ultras is the foundation for his performance in these shorter road races too, with the speed work and increased leg turnover serving as the icing on top. At the end of a 283km/175 mile week in December, balancing heavy training with the stresses of having family in town over the holiday season – think, fitting in Christmas celebrations around a 49km run… – was becoming a bit much. Despite feeling strong, the accumulated miles were amassing in the legs, leading to feeling slower and entering the realm of overtraining. It was decided to abandon the plan for a 300km+/186 mile week and hold constant at the 175 mile mark. All of this was relatively slow running, with few structured sessions – but finishing each session with some strides to work on “hidden speed”.

Following this he started to lower the mileage and ratchet up the speed work, preparing for a half marathon in Phoenix. With only three weeks of speed sessions, sometimes two sessions in a day, he jokingly says he was “cramming for the half marathon”. He decided to take to the track, wanting to see some fast times on the watch. “Before the half marathon I was trying to stay on the track a bit more to get the leg speed up, and my confidence with running that speed a little higher.” A lot of these sessions were on a track down at Sedona (4,300ft/1,320m) rather than Flagstaff (7,000ft/2100m) where Jim lives and does most of his training.

How Fast Do You Lose Endurance?

How Fast Do You Lose Endurance?

In a 1990 study Houmard et al looked at detraining of experience endurance runners who were averaging 81km per week in training (~60km at ~75% VO2 max and 21km at ~95% VO2 max). Over a three-week period of detraining the athletes cut their volume by 70% to 24km, maintaining the intensity distribution with 17km at ~75% of VO2 max and 7km at ~90% VO2 max.

The participants in the study had an increase in maximum heart rate (2.3%), and plasma volume decreased (-5.6%) during the period of reduced training, so some physiological adaptations regressed. However, performance saw no change, with VO2 max and 5km time trial results holding steady. Another significant finding in this study was also that time to exhaustion during VO2 max testing increased by 9.5%, suggesting that the decreased training left the athletes much fresher. These results indicate that being smart with limited time or training capacity can still help massively in maintaining running performance.    

These changes also appear to be less pronounced in older athletes and athletes who have trained for a longer time. Which makes sense, the accumulated progression and adaptations from consistent training over a long time are more entrenched, and therefore more resistant to deterioration than acute improvements in performance from relatively shorter training blocks.      

As Ross puts it, defending physiology requires much less work than earning that physiology, and a little goes a long way. With races off and freedom of movement restricted in many places, despondency is pervasive. But lamenting the situation and the certainty of your lost fitness gains won’t serve you well. These studies highlight that even though it may be difficult to stick to training plans and complete hard sessions, a significantly reduced load of training still goes a very long way to preserving the physiological adaptations for which you have laboured.

Keep Motivated During A Pandemic

Keep Motivated During A Pandemic

With upcoming races off, a huge extrinsic motivator is out the window for many people. And the joy so many take from running outdoors with their friends is being tainted by the uncertainty around everything that’s going on. Is running, even just with one other person, unethical in the current circumstances? Are you opening yourself up to the risk of being infected? And could that ‘harmless’ run you did yesterday end up harming someone else tomorrow? In many places running outdoors alone, or with those sharing your home, is still allowed. However, in some jurisdictions even that luxury has evaporated.

It says a lot about the social nature of us humans that solitary confinement is considered one of the most abhorrent punishments within a prison. Although the social distancing people are experiencing is much less extreme than strict solitary confinement (people are spending time with the people in their home, and online connectivity is blossoming now more than ever), the resultant disconnect is still placing many people under a lot of mental strain. Add to this the uncertainty and disruption and it’s no surprise some are struggling with motivation.    

Even though it may feel like so much is spiralling out of control, and the uncertainty may be fuelling a growing flame of anxiety, it’s time to focus on what you can control. Amidst this chaos there is opportunity. The silver lining on the most ominous of stormy clouds may be very thin, but it will always be there. Much of what’s going on is well beyond your control as an individual. Incessantly checking the growing number of cases and deaths in your vicinity isn’t going to do anything to change the trajectory of the numbers. Worrying about what will happen to the economy won’t change the number of percentage points it fluctuates each day. 

Tom Evans – Pushing Limits in the World of Ultrarunning

Tom Evans – Pushing Limits in the World of Ultrarunning

A few weeks ago we sat down to record a podcast episode with British athlete Tom Evans for some insight into his life as an ultrarunner. Having only recently devoted himself to running full-time – leaving the military to focus on athletics – as we sat down Tom said, “I’m really excited to share some of my knowledge, some of my wisdom that I’ve built up over my very short running career so far.” Throughout our conversation, Tom shared captivating anecdotes of his journey into ultrarunning and a wealth of information on his training that has taken him to where he is now.

Articulate and charming, Tom Evans, an ex-captain in the Welsh Guards, has had an unorthodox trajectory to reach the upper echelon of the ultrarunning world. The now twenty-eight-year-old initially tested the turbulent waters of ultras by diving headfirst into the scalding Saharan vortex that is the 251km self-supported stage race, Marathon Des Sables. What’s more is that this came about from a bet in a pub, where Tom thought that he could outdo some mates who had recently placed in the top three hundred of the 2016 edition of the race.

With six months of preparation – self-coached, with no proper training plan and without much direction – Tom managed to place third in the 2017 MDS. A slew of impressive results followed, with Tom taking out first place at the 2018 edition of the 100km Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc CCC event and third at the Western States Endurance Race hundred miler in 2019 – becoming the first non-American to go sub-15 hours at the event. Tom prepared for some of these mountain races whilst still based in London. When asked about how this worked, he responded “running is running, no matter where you’re doing it.” But he also admits that he had to run some sessions that were a bit “outside the box.”   

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