Pick, plot, plan & prepare

Posted on June 11, 2013

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mot3I wrote an article for The Sweat Shop recently about the key elements you should consider when picking a trail race. Here it is … for any of you would-be trail runners. I don’t believe there’s a single soul in the world who’s ever looked back after swapping pavement pounding for the tales of the trail … not a single soul …

Five things a runner should consider when choosing a race.

As a complete running junkie and with an unquenchable passion for mountain trails and adventures in all four corners, I spend a lot of time researching races … what to do, where to go and often, how I can combine them with some top retail therapy, much-deserved spa magic or a catch up with friends, family, lovers or others …

Most runners have a preferred distance or terrain, which I do to some extent but I tend to try and mix it up. Variety is the spice of life after all! My only pre-requisites are that my races are on trails, are up high and are long … I’ll go as short as 50k and as long as 250k. Depending on the races selected of course, there are certain elements to consider … a lowdown of which is below:

1) Distance

The distance of a race affects your physical training, your mental training and the overall preparation required in terms of kit and resources.  Broadly speaking, the longer you go, the more mental strength you need and just as we train our muscles, the mind needs finely-tined as well in order to deal with the inevitable tough moments … or hours (!) … when every fibre in your very being is screaming at you to stop. In the weeks leading up to the race, I’ll do a lot of visualisation and meditation to support this. In terms of physical training, the four magic words are ‘time on your feet.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re not running all the time but you need to teach yourself to keep going when your legs are tired. I might, for example, incorporate a run with a class straight after or some other cross training or I might factor in some back-to-back runs (i.e. morning and night or night and the morning after). Muscle memory is a powerful thing and if we’ve practiced the sensations we will encounter during a race, they are much easier to deal with come race day.

2) Terrain

Trails come in all shapes and forms.  Easy trail running might be a dirt road or wide, flat path with no obstacles in sight.  More technical terrain however will often mean crossing rivers, climbing over big rocks, running over pebbled areas, steep ascents, slippery descents, mud, snow, ice … you get the picture!  Training on the likes of a treadmill will never suffice for trails like this because you need to really work on balance, core strength and flexibility.  This means working your arms, improving your functional strength and strengthening your core via the likes of yoga, Pilates or Bosu balls.  I favour yoga (I heart yoga) and playing on the Bosu, because it’s so fun, you forget you’re actually in training.

3) Format

Some races are single stage (run all in one go) and others multi-day (run over a number of days with the collective times determining the results). Some runs are daytime, others through the night and others again, both, thanks to their very length! Night running brings in a whole new challenge as the light from a head torch is narrow and focused so you need to incorporate this into your training.  Multi-day runs mean you really need to do plenty of ‘time on your feet’ training so that when you wake up hobbling on days 2,3,4 and so on … you have the motivation and ability to get out there and run again! Multi-day running may also mean you’re sleeping in pretty basic conditions e.g. in a cold tent with smelly guys and no option for a shower so you need to plan in advance how you’ll handle this.  I always take small ‘luxury’ items to console myself be it a nail file, hand cream or super soft baby wipes to wipe away the daily sweat and dirt.

4) Weather & altitude

Races can be in the hot, dry desert or in the cold, snow and ice … or anything in between!  You need to think about the clothing you’ll need, the equipment required and also how to adapt your training.  For hot races, spend time in saunas, train during the heat of a summer day or find a hot yoga class.  In terms of altitude, unless you have access to an altitude chamber, there’s little you can do other than acclimatise pre race if you can and get in the best possible cardio shape before you go.  Training for the overall ascents that go hand in hand with altitude is a challenge in itself when living in a flat place. I do a lot of stair climbing as a result and for that, all you need is a sky-scraper and a hearty set of lungs!

5) Supported v self-supported

Some races are fully supported with regular aid stations so all you need carry is a small bottle of water. Aid stations will have huge buffets with all sorts of treats and medical staff to help you with any niggles. Others are not supported and you therefore need to carry a pack.  Mandatory kit lists are common and will require you carry first aid kits, emergency blankets, a head torch plus a spare backup, food, drinks, mobile phones etc. And for long multi-days, you normally carry everything yourself including your sleeping bag, clothing, food for the duration etc. This can mean 8/9 kg’s on your back so you also need train with this weight. I tend to run to the mall with an empty pack then fill it up and run home.  Multi-tasking at its best!

So there you go.  Hopefully a few tips to bear in mind when next plotting and planning. That old adage, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is no truer than in the context of running or indeed lots of other sporting endeavours so don’t risk not crossing that finish line on account of lack of consideration and preparation!

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