Rob Brodey has been running, travelling and writing about it for Outpost for two decades. He’s logged thousands of kilometres on trails, ran marathons and undertaken multiday alpine runs. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not the most experienced trail runner — but he has learned a few things along the way. Here’s the next installment in his How-To-Do-It series: Once you’ve got the running bug, what comes next?
Text and Photos by Robert Brodey | Outpost Travel Media
It’s hard to believe a gift copy of a book on running could change the trajectory of someone’s life and travels for more than a decade — but that’s what happened to me in 2010. (Thanks, Ewan Otto!)
The book was Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. Its romantic prose on running in the wilderness seduced me to leave behind the paved road and seek a deeper connection with the landscape I plodded through.
I could write for days about why I think trail running is so special — at times even a spiritual undertaking. As proof, I could tell you about the Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei in Japan, who attempt to run 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days in their quest to reach enlightenment. I could also tell you that running has been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol, while stimulating the production of endorphins, a mood booster. And I could get downright giddy citing the research on the connection between running and the formation of new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, a brain structure associated with memory, according to the American Physiological Society.
All this to say, I love how trail running makes me feel.
But let’s change gears, get practical, and take a deeper dive into the nuts and bolts of trail running, some techniques, and some things to be aware of.
As mentioned in my previous post, one of the keys to a runner’s longevity is remaining injury-free. One way to mitigate issues is having good running form, which also creates an efficient flow of movement and energy transfer to the ground, propelling you along the trail.
One of my favourite take-aways from McDougall’s Born to Run was a catchphrase he popularized: easy, light, smooth, fast. The mantra points to a more gentle, effortless, and swift movement on the trails —not the heavy plodding steps of a lumbering forest Gruffalo (Gruffalo? What’s a Gruffalo? Google it!).
A faster leg turn-over (around 170-180 footsteps a minute) also means a shorter stride, which not only decreases the impact force on the ground but also brings your centre of gravity over the feet, enhancing stability on the trail. And a shorter stride facilitates a forefoot strike.
Now, if you don’t know, there has been a years-long battle in the running world between proponents of heel striking vs. forefoot striking (landing on your heel vs. the pad of the foot). Some researchers point to the fact that societies that don’t wear shoes tend to run with a more neutral forefoot strike, because of its lower impact. Certainly, there are a great many pro runners who are forefoot strikers, but there are also a whole whack who are heel strikers. In the end, you have to figure out what works for you. (Also: on steep downhills, even forefoot strikers tend to become part-time heel strikers!)
My last piece of advice on form is to pay attention to your body position. Are you bleeding energy because you’re slouching? Are you prancing on your tippy-toes? Is your pelvis tilted too far forward or back? Is your posture erect but relaxed? Are you engaging your core muscles as you run?
OK, enough questions. Let’s get social.
If you’re anything like me, I run by myself 99 percent of the time. But years ago, I dialed into a local race series in Ontario (5 Peaks), which not only gave me regular goals throughout the season to focus on but also a social outlet, where I could meet people and share my passion for trail running.
If you need a more regular social running experience, definitely check out running groups in your area – of both the road and trail variety. And in the spirit of being connected to the wider trail running community, there are plenty of international trail-running chatrooms and Facebook groups, which can be informative and even inspire new projects for life’s running bucket list.
So let’s just say you’ve signed up for your first ever trail race, but now you’re thinking about training so that you not only survive the distance but thrive through it. There are plenty of professional and online resources to help you tailor your running schedule, which generally spans months and builds weekly volume for a few weeks, before backing off the mileage for a week to give your body a chance to rest and adapt.
I tend to build my training schedule backward from the target date to figure out what mileage I need to be covering along the timeline to prepare for the race/running project, including a taper in the week or two leading up to the big day(s). My weekly training schedule usually includes a variety of runs, including an LSD (Long Slow Distance), which keeps the heart rate comfortably in the aerobic zone, builds base endurance, and trains the body to burn fat for fuel (I’m going to circle back to energy systems in my next post on nutrition).
My running schedule also includes at least one hill-repeat session a week to build the climbing and descending muscles and fortify cardio fitness and recovery. If, say, I’m training for a 12-kilometre trail race, and I want to run it fast (for me), I will generally add some speed workouts a month or two out from race day — in the form of sprints at the track or on the hills.
Over the years, I’ve spent many hours doing LSDs, so doing speed workouts not only builds fast-twitch muscles and trains the upper end of the heart rate, but I find it an exhilarating change of pace (A 2019 study published in the journal Sport Sciences for Health found sprint interval training even improves vascular health in older adults (60+)).
Of course, after big demanding workouts, don’t forget to schedule in rest days. Now rest doesn’t necessarily mean lying in bed all day. It can include “active recovery” workouts like low-intensity walking, cycling, or swimming, which can help with blood flow and muscle repair and rebuilding.
Finally, if you’re training up for a particular race, try to train in similar conditions, at least some of the time. If the race is hilly hard-pack dirt, try to find some to train on. Of course, when I was training for the mountainous 82-kilometre MYM ultra-marathon in Whistler in 2013 and for a marathon in the French Pyrenees mountains in 2016, I didn’t have an opportunity to acclimatize to the altitude or train on 1,000 metre climbs (I live in Toronto, in flattish southern Ontario!). Nonetheless, I increased the focus of my training on hills, hills, and more hills to help take the sting out of the relentless climbs and descents.
There’s lots to think about, I know. But if you approach your training with a spirit of experimentation, there’s lots to learn and enjoy during your trail-running evolution!
- Disclaimer: my opinions are no replacement for professional advice. And my experiences are based on many factors, including age, gender, locality (city guy), VO2 max, propensity to get injured, and state of mind.