Trail Running: What I've Learned So Far

May 9, 2013

Since getting serious about running at the end of 2012 in preparation for the Ohlone Wilderness 50K, I've learned a few things. Here they are:

Foam Roller + Stretch Every Day</dt>

The foam roller is a kind of self-massage that uses your body weight to bear down on your muscles. I'm not sure why or how it works, but there is no doubt that it does work to make tired muscles feel fresh, and to make tight muscles looser. Tight muscles can lead to pain and injury -- my own knee injury in February was due to an overly tight sartorious muscle (goes from your hip to the inside of your knee). Since foam rolling every day, no problems. This 6x36 inch high density model is my favorite. The high density foam is best to work out tight muscles, and the 36" length means you have lots of space to work on.

My routine is to get up on one side on the roller and roll my outer thighs (IT band) first, then outer quad, middle quad, and as best as I can do inner quad. I'll then shift to lower legs and roll from my ankle to knee, hitting the outer, middle, and inner achilles and calves. Hamstrings are next, rolling ouside, middle, and inside, then up my glutes. Then I'll turn on my belly and straddle one end of the roller to roll my inner thigh down to my inner quads and over the inside of my knee. This is the medial quad and sartorious muscle that was responsible for my injury in February.

For stretching, I use the Stretch Out Strap which is a 6 foot long nylon strap with loops over its length. I'll lay on my back and hook my foot through one end loop, then hold on to a middle loop and pull my foot up to stretch out my calves and hamstrings, first with my knee straight, then bent (you can feel it in a different place in your hamstrings both ways). With my toe still through the loop, I'll bring my foot out to the side (inner thigh stretch) then across my body (glutes and outer hamstrings). Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds. I'll then bend my knee and pull my foot inward and toward my body which is a great glute stretch.

Drink, Drink, Drink (and Salt)

There are few things you can do to spoil a great run more than not drinking enough. My best runs have been those where I know I have enough water to drink to my heart's content. Don't short change your day by skimping on the hydration.

I know some runners who don't need much water, but I know I need a LOT of water. My current formula is to bring 10oz per mile if I'm going for more than an hour. My usual hydration solution is to stuff a 100oz Camelbak bladder into this UltraAspire hydration vest. The vest comes with a 70oz bladder, so I'll bring that instead if I can refill or finish after 7-8 miles.

If I'm going for more than a couple hours, I'll take a salt capsule (SaltStick Electrolyte Capsules) every 90 minutes or so. Your body won't absorb water if it would drop your salinity too far -- so it's possible to dehydrate by drinking only clear water! Electrolyte drinks in large quantity don't have enough sodium or other minerals to actually preserve your sodium balance, so clear water and salt capsules are the way to go. Even better -- the UltrAspire pack has a pocket dedicated to this use.

Nutrition on the Move

Running up and down hills burns a LOT of calories. Similar to dehydration, it sucks to be out on the trail hungry -- I've BTDT and it can start to get ugly. I've learned to bring a little extra food every time I go for a run.

As for what to eat out there, here are some of my favorites:

  • Honey Stinger Gels (really just pure honey with some extra vitamins - 120 calories)
  • Honey Stinger Chews (all the flavors are so tasty -- the Lime-Aide is my ranking favorite with its subtle boost of caffeine from white tea, about 1/2 cup of coffee worth - 160 calories, 32mg caffeine)
  • Honey Stinger Coconut Almond Pro bar (10g of protein in each bar, and super delicious - 190 calories)
  • Simple Squares (280 calories in a very tasty, compact form)
  • Boiled Potatoes (open a salt capsule and sprinkle on for oh-so-deliciousness midway through a long run)
  • Fruit (keep next to your icy hydration bladder for a midrun reward)

I'll usually eat something every 45 minutes or so. Before a long run, I'll make a plan for exactly what I'll eat when, usually it goes gel-chews-bar/square/potato-gel-chews-bar/square/potato-etc...

For a big training run, I ate a total of 1800 calories over the course of 7 hours. That was pretty much right on for me, since I wasn't starving when I was done.

Size Up!

This one is simple. After dealing with lots of blisters while hiking, I learned that your feet grow when you're on them a lot. I'm normally an 11.5 in "everyday" shoes. For running shoes, I'll go up to a 12.5 in my shoes of choice (Salomon Sense Pro / Sense Ride). My index toe is longer than my big toe, so I've learned to use that toe to assess shoe length. Most shoes for ultrarunning run large, so there is less need to size up. I've learned to leave an inch at the front for my poor toesies.

Make Friends Who Have Done This Before<

I'm lucky that I work close to Zombie Runner -- an ultrarunning store in Palo Alto, CA. I go there pretty much every day for my daily Zombie Chai (an experience in a cup that everyone should try), and so have gotten to know several of the people who work there. Don and Gillian are the owners and avid ultrarunners and are always happy to give advice, as are their employees. They care deeply about the quality of the products they carry, so it's just a great resource all around.

I've also gotten to know a few people I've met out on the trails. Most of them are way farther along in the world of running than I am, and so they're great to get advice, ideas, and encouragement from. For example, check out Beat Jegerlehner's running blog to be humbled or inspired -- he finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000 mile race this year in 28 days, and has finished multiple 200+ mile races in the French and Swiss Alps. My little 50K is nothing!

Have a Supportive Spouse

Ok, well you will either have this or not. But it really helps to have a partner who thinks that you spending 7 hours out on the trail on a Sunday practicing for a crazy race is a good idea. Thanks Arti!

Make a Plan and Measure Your Runs

I almost didn't put this in, because I think I must take data for granted. But perhaps I'm an outlier there? Anyhow, I have found it tremendously useful to record GPS tracks of every run I do. When I was doing more hiking, I used an app called Gaia GPS on my iPhone to do that. Its strength is in its ability to download map data locally to the phone, including USGS Topographic maps, which is essential for someone exploring unfamiliar terrain without a cellular data signal.

Since I've been running on familiar ground, I have really fell in love with an app called Strava. What sets Strava apart is the social/competitive nature of the product. The iPhone app is pretty standard, but once you upload the GPS data to their site, you can compare whole runs and segments of runs with other people who have covered the same ground. It's a great way to get perspective and feel encouraged that it's always possible to go faster.

For the Ohlone 50K race, I scoured the internet for as many 50K plans as I could find. I combined them into one that seemed good to me, then I showed it to a few people who had done 50Ks themselves. After tuning the plan with their good advice, I ended up with this plan.

Enjoy the View!

If it's not fun and awesome, then don't bother -- find something else you love. For me, having time outside in the quiet openness with the plants and animals, improving myself, and finding new limits is the draw. Getting to the top of a peak and enjoying the view unique to that day is a big motivator. Every run is different, and in each one there is something new to do or see.