It can be a hectic and challenging task to train yourself in trail running. Hours of online research, differing perspectives, and not knowing what to believe can leave you with horrible running habits. It may even set you back if you're not careful. We are here to help guide you towards success. We've talked with an experienced ultra/trail running coach, Liam Walke, about the 5 most important things to improve your trail or Ultrarunning so that you can skip the research!
1. First Of All, Take Care Of YOU
"Training requires you to push through discomfort, but it's a certain kind of self-inflicted physical discomfort. It's easy to lose sight of that and just push through fatigue, poor nutrition, unhealthy relationships, lack of sleep, stress etc."
"However, this will almost certainly end in injury or burnout, or just to developing a negative relationship with running."
It can be easy to get lost in excitement or determination and push yourself beyond your limits. However, self-care is the first aspect to focus on when looking to increase your performance.
Finding a balance in life is key to success.
Whether it be for work or play, if you are lighting your candle on both ends, it is destined to burn out quickly. Be easy on yourself. Progression takes time.
Remember why you started running in the first place and always hold that feeling close to your heart. It is here to add value to our lives, not to embody who we are as human beings.
"Running may be one of your defining features, but don't make it who you are… You're you, regardless of your last PB or your last DNF. And you should take care of yourself."
2. Don't Hyper Focus On Specificity
"There's no doubt that some amount of specificity (race day terrain) is essential, especially in the block leading up to a race. But there's also reasonably good evidence that too much specificity too soon just makes you slow."
Specificity, in running, suggests that you train on the same terrain that you wish to perform on. This could be the climate, the degree to which you'll be hiking, the length, the list goes on.
While there are some clear benefits of studying the terrain and preparing for an upcoming race on similar grounds, you can quickly go overboard.
"The people who train all season with a backpack in really steep terrain for UTMB will move really slowly."
This might sound like nonsense to some, but by not having a well-rounded training regimen, you run the risk of over-exerting certain muscle groups and leaving others to fall behind.
"There are a few examples of spectacular performances from athletes training in terrain that in no way resembled that of race day. Kaci Lickteig's win at Western States in 2016 (she basically trained on roads in flat-as-a-pancake Kansas) and John Kelly's finishing the Barkley (2017) after training in a congested urban area outside Washington DC."
Form, technique, pacing, and all your basic foundations are more important factors to account for instead of becoming hyper-focused on powering through that challenging hill climbing section.
"In the end, roadrunners can benefit from some trails and elevation from time to time (to build strength and resilience). In contrast, trail runners can benefit from faster road running (to build speed and running economy). But running is running, and being consistent with your running, is still the single most crucial piece that will improve your performance."
3. Make Strength Training Your Best Friend
"A certain amount of general strength is correlated loosely with running performance. Still, specific strength and mobility are where it's at for form and injury prevention."
Not only does strength training support your body, but it also helps boost confidence, impacting your mental strength.
"Where you are in your training cycle will dictate how many strength sessions you do per week, but it's super important to do!"
Liam notes that, since he has begun focusing on strength training as a regular part of his routine, soft tissue injuries have become relatively non-existent.
If your focus shifts towards speed training in your regime, the goal should always be for good form first, speed second.
"Your main speed block will be at a different point in your training cycle, depending on your goal distance. Still, it's also good to sprinkle them in throughout the year to keep things fun and interesting."
4. Take A Step Back And Enjoy The Ride
"I find it really useful to step back and look at the bigger picture. Why do you run, and where do you want to be in two, five, ten years from now."
Set realistic goals for yourself, and slowly work your way up. If you aim for too much, too fast, you increase the risk of burning out or injuring yourself.
"'Rome wasn't built in a day,' and Kilian didn't become Kilian with one week, one year, or even one decade of training how he does. He is where he is because of over 25 years of pushing himself. Learning, diversifying, making mistakes, getting injured, testing his limits and listening to his body (and yeah, some crazy genetics and a generous amount of corporate cash)."
Like everything we do, embrace where you're at in your skillset. Run for love and not for the competition. When you feel that you're starting to push your body to its limit, allow yourself some time to rest and recharge.
Easy days and recovery days are critical.
"Running performance is a long-term project. If you could reach your pinnacle in one year of hard training, there'd be a lot more Courtney Dauwalters' or Jim Walmsleys'. But you can't, and there aren't. Take the long view, enjoy the ride, take care of yourself, and be sensible."
5. Optimize Your Nutrition Habits
"Race nutrition is potentially the single most critical factor for ultra runners. The longer the distance, the more extensive parts of your nutrition and mental strength play."
It's no shock that our bodies are fueled by what we eat. As a runner, you must also be thinking of WHEN you are going to eat. To become an endurance all-star, you must get comfortable with eating on the go.
"If you can't get calories-in while racing a 100k, you won't finish, let alone do well. The importance of nailing down a strategy that works for you in the context of the kind of race, terrain, and distance you're training for cannot be overstated… 200-300cal per hour is the gold standard."
Once you've mastered eating while moving, it's time to dial in the nutritional components of the food you're consuming.
During your runs, you should be fueling your body on high GI (Glycemic Index) carbohydrates, which break down faster during digestion, improving performance while you work.
Make sure you also choose appropriate snacks for your runs. Look for those that are easy to chew and swallow. Cookies, high-protein bars, and nuts, etc.. can often leave your mouth dry and powdery. This causes you to lose focus on the race and instead leaves you placing all your energy in trying not to choke.
Näak ULTRA Energy Bar's soft texture was developed with endurance training in mind, specifically made easy to consume when you need it most. The 200 calories that our bars provide are what we have found to be the best for long-distance training.
Liam also points out that sleep is an essential part of any training process, along with a balanced diet.
"If I start to feel off or low energy deep in a big block of training, the reason is rarely the actual running. It's invariably because I'm not taking the time to make properly balanced meals or not getting enough sleep."
For more information about eating during an ultra, read our article How Many Calories Should I Eat During An Ultra, which highlights all the benefits, and any other questions you might have on the topic.
Liam Walke, @liamonthetrail, is an experienced trail running and ultra marathon athlete/coach. We are also proud to call Liam part of the 2021 team for Näak. His guiding principles in life, and running, are centered around happiness, inclusivity, and performance.
Remember to follow @naakbars on Instagram to stay up to date with all of our amazing team members and athletes. Stay safe, and have fun.