As 2019 approaches, it’s time to start examining goals, maybe try something new, or just improve on 2018. Is trying trail running part of the new year’s agenda? Would you like to get off the roads and onto trails, but don’t know where to start? Maybe you want to try your first ultramarathon, but wondering what kind of dedication that requires? We’ve contacted some of the Northwest’s trail running coaches for tips and how they can help you achieve your 2019 goals.
“The first thing I always tell new trail runners is that you need to leave your ego at the trailhead” advises Wy’east Wolfpack’s Yassine Diboun. “Coming from road running or having this idea that you are now going to “be a trail runner”, your identity is so attached to running. Once you start, you feel that if you are hiking that you are failing or no good at the activity. Hiking is a part of trail running especially in hilly and mountainous places like the PNW. To start off I would incorporate hiking some of the uphills etc. and adding in hike breaks in general as you get more into the off-road style of running. Before that, I would say to get some trail shoes, and some maps.” A good book to start is Best Trail Runs: Portland, Oregon which Diboun co-authored, or Best Trail Runs: Seattle, Washington.
“In my Trail Running 101 course, I help people get over the identity crisis of what makes a trail runner a trail runner,” says Shoes-n-Feet’s Adam Stuhlfaut. “Trail running should be assessable to all types of people. The problem is that people get this vision that trail runners are only bearded folk that enjoy running ten miles straight up the steepest mountain.” (Full disclosure: Adam currently has a beard and enjoys running straight up mountains). “I teach that a trail runner is one who attempts to put one foot in front of the other faster than a walk on a dirt surface. That’s it. Trail running doesn’t have to be intimidating.”
“Wherever you are, start by easing into it,” recommends Diboun. “Again, if you are local to Portland, there is a great group called Trail Factor that has weekly group runs that I feel are great for beginners. The group starts on Leif Erickson Drive at the very end of NW Thurman. Leif Erickson is a fire road that has many aspects of trail running, such as rocky and slightly uneven terrain in sections, the fact that you are immersed in the expansive Forest Park, and you have some elevation gain and loss. This is a great way to ease into it as it also has aspects of road running, and the Trail Factor group offers trail options off the main Leif Erickson fire road if you want to progress to that eventually. You can literally start by just doing an out and back on the fire road, and then move up to the shorter 3-4-mile loop option, and ultimately as your confidence and endurance improves the 8-mile option. Trail Factor does the same loop(s) every week and is a great way to build upon the same loop to get familiarity. We (Wy’east Wolfpack) have rotating locations every Thursday night at the same time slot and even though we tend to stick mostly to the west side of Portland, we sometimes venture on the roads and on to some east side trails. Feel free to drop in to learn some new trails! “
What about those who are road runners and want to check out the trails? “In our class, we start people out on a flat and wide dirt park path in a park in the middle of Bellevue, WA.,” states Stuhlfaut “Then over a period of five weeks, we progress to other types of trails. The footwork for trail running can get technical and we spend time working drills for running uphill and downhill, plotting the most efficient route through a winding trail, and practicing moving over technical terrain. We also talk a lot about safety in terms of what to carry with you, what to do with animal encounters or other trail using human encounters.”
“If the runner is local, I definitely get out there w/ them and offer some tips on techniques for uphill running, downhill running, running technical trails, as well as power hiking and the mental aspects and other things you might encounter when trail running,” explains Diboun. “I would ease them into this new area and still incorporate some road running as well as cross training. Trail running has a lot more lateral movement and joint mobility demands as compared to road running. We offer functional fitness classes that work to improve single leg strength, foot and ankle strength in the form of agility ladders, etc., and core to improve and strengthen the muscles more needed when trail running. I build training plans that incorporate progression and periodization and gets the runner comfortable and more confident on trails working towards their goals.”
“I feel that a lot of people switch to trail running because it seems more engaging and stimulating to them,” Diboun clarified. “I often hear from people that they just feel better when they are in the forest. My opinion is that there is something deeply embedded in our genome as humans that when we move the mountains and forests we feel ‘connected’ to our more primal self, especially in this modern age. People are finding that they yearn for this, myself included! I think this is why you are seeing the rapid growth in the sport of trail and ultra running. People are always looking to challenge themselves and trail running is a great arena for that, and luckily we live in arguably one of the best regions in the world for it!”
“I have coached road runners for trail running,” says UltraU’s Dana Katz. “The challenge there is helping road runners let go of pace expectations and run on trails where a great pace may be a 14-minute mile. Generally, once road runners start trail running and experience a trail race, they don’t want to go back to road races. Trail running can be a great way for runners who are frustrated with their road race times not getting faster but may have some serious endurance which is perfect for ultras.
“I have spent a lifetime outdoors and on the trails from camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota as a child to competitive cross-country running in high school and college to trail running through the PNW as an adult.” describes Stuhlfaut. “I love being on the trails, but I also don’t get to hung up in it as an identity. What I mean is, if one tries trail running, they have no need to switch permanently to 100% trail running. Running, at its essence, should be enjoyed how a runner wants to enjoy it each day. My hope in teaching someone about trail running is that they add trail running as a piece of their running pie.”
If you’re reading this and think I love trail running already, now I’m ready to dive into ultramarathons. Katz says you should answer three questions first:
- How badly do I want this? The answer should be such that missing social outings for runs, spending money on gear and race entries and giving up full days for a long run feels like a fully worthwhile sacrifice.
- Do I believe I can do it? The amount of mental fortitude required in running an ultra is massive. Running for 6, 12, 24 hours is a long time. If you don’t believe it is possible, it isn’t. A runner may not finish their first ultra, but there has to be a true belief that finishing is possible.
- Do I have a plan for training my body to eat while running, training my mind to keep going for hours on end and for getting in the right miles at the right time? A plan will help develop confidence with each part of the plan completed. A training plan should help ensure you are avoiding overtraining or under training.
“There are lots of runners out there who want to run, love to do it but just aren’t sure what to do tomorrow, and how long to make the long run and if a certain kind of tired means they should rest or push through,” says Katz. “This is where coaching is a great fit.”
A coaching plan like one from UltraU is a great way to go into an ultramarathon confidently. “UltraU works with runners who have a goal race or event and creates customized training plans to meet them at their current level of fitness and help them reach their potential,” details Katz. “Runners who work with UltraU have a goal race in mind, are motivated to run, but just aren’t sure of how best to use their training time. Coaching takes the worry and decisions out of training. Runners coaching with UltraU are provided with a schedule that includes strength training, runs based on effort and the all-important rest days. Training plans are delivered online through Training Peaks which enables Dana, the coach, to review run data, provide feedback and update future runs based on current performance. There is lots of communication between Coach Dana and runners, as the hard data is important but the information on how a runner is feeling, amount of stress in their lives outside running and confidence are keys to making a successful training plan.”
“I would say to be smart and somewhat conservative as you build up to greater distances such as ultras,” quotes Diboun. “Injuries are so frustrating and I have dealt with many myself over my career. The majority of runners get injured by ramping up too quickly and increasing the volume and the intensity of running simultaneously, which tends to be a recipe for disaster. Listen to your body and build gradually, if possible. There is a basic principle in fitness, whether you are a bodybuilder or a runner, that is “stress and rest”. Runners, including myself, can get very obsessive and subscribe to this “more is better” mentality, especially once you start seeing all these gains and adaptations that take place. It is very important to incorporate rest weeks into training, and I like to follow a 2-3 week build and then a recovery week, which is very good for many reasons both mentally and physically. I think people put limits on themselves on what they can and can’t do. For example, someone might say, “I’ve never done a half marathon race, I can’t do a marathon!” Even though you want to build gradually, there is no equation that says you have to race a 10k before a half marathon or a marathon before a 50k. I’ve coached many athletes that go into trail running and moved up to ultras with never running the aforementioned road distances in the past. Everyone is different and find out what works best for you by trying it (methodically) and following your heart….listen to what is calling you!”
Of course, once a runner has committed to running their first ultra this is where the hard work begins. Most ultra training isn’t super hard paces or challenging intervals. For most people, the hard part is putting in miles day after day after day and avoiding injury and burn out. It is a combination of mental training and physical training that make first-time ultra runners successful. If your mind doesn’t want to keep running it doesn’t matter that you are fit and fast.
“I make sure all my runners are doing some sort of strength training,” recites Katz. “For trail running this is super important for ensuring strength for big climbs, body control for descents and durability over the distance. The coolest part of coaching runners to their first ultra is that the person at the finish line is a totally different person that starts. I see runners gain confidence in other parts of their life from finishing an ultra and when that happens, a long-term habit with ultra running is formed.”
So whether you are ready for a 5k or ultramarathon and you are ready for trails, 2019 is the year to start. See the trail race calendar and search by distance, city, ascent, and more to find the right trail race for you! For more comfort, check out a coach that wants to work to your needs. Good luck!