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Training for the Trails
28 July 2015

Trail running may be kind on the body and easy on the eye, but with no two trails being the same what you do for one run may not prepare you for another. However, armed with a little knowledge of both the trail and trail runner in question you’ll go a lot further and faster than you ever imagined.

Aerobic Endurance

Aerobic endurance is everything to the runner. Aerobic means "with oxygen". The human body needs oxygen to survive so aerobic running is working at a level where the demands for oxygen and fuel can be meet by the body’s intake. Thus, the more aerobic running you can do the more you’ll teach your body to process oxygen and thus the further and faster you’ll be able to run. Development of aerobic endurance is best done by running at efforts that allow you to carry a conversation (approx 70% max heart rate). This is a comfortable effort, but if you run much harder you won’t be able to run very far & thus will not be building endurance. So in almost all cases the key is to run slower for longer, and the longer the race you are training for the longer and slower you should train because this also develops energy systems that will allow you to burn fuel more efficiently. The generally accepted norm for building endurance is a 60min run. In most cases a person can cover up to three times their average training run, so if you regularly run one hour then you can probably complete a two to three hour race provided you take it easy. However, if long races are your goal then it makes sense to develop superior endurance by trying to gradually increase some of your runs so that they approach the time you expect to face on race day.

Muscular Endurance

Every time you go for a run you’re developing aerobic endurance. But if you do a certain amount of that running on the hills then you’ll also build a muscular endurance that can be invaluable not just for uphill running but for everything from co-ordination to downhill running and lasting the distance. While easier on the body, off road running requires a much wider recruitment of muscles. As well as the muscular fatigue from running’s repeated pounding, the repeated changes in terrain, surface and direction can be even tougher on the legs if they’re not ready for it. If you’re not prepared for these demands two things happen that will markedly affect your comfort zone: 1) your legs tire, 2) your co-ordination decreases. But well scheduled hill running can give you the strength to not only handle the demands of off road running, but also an ability to finish races faster. Every time you run up a hill your body has to recruits more muscle fibres and oxygen. Even if you try and take it easy you’ll notice an increased muscle fatigue and heart rate. So over time the gradual implementation of regular hill running will strengthen both the aerobic and muscular endurance. What this means is that not only will you be able to run further, but you’ll also be able to run faster. If you’re training for a hilly trail run then it makes sense to do some hill training. But because regular hill running will improve your all round endurance you should do it on a regular basis. For quick and longer lasting benefits, do your weekly long run on the hills and then another shorter, slightly faster run on the hills every week as well.


There is a huge difference between being fit and being fit for what you’re trying to do. Rugby players are fit, but it’s unlikely someone like Doug Howlett would enjoy the 60km Kepler Challenge or even a local 10km fun run. The point here is that you have to train for what you expect to face on race day. The great thing about trail running is that every race is different. Some are long and tough, others short and fast. Some include swift river crossing, others root strewn bush tracks. In short, you can’t expect to enjoy the experience if you haven’t trained for it. The good news is that once you have a certain fitness level the body is very good at learning new skills. It’s like riding a bike; once shown the body always carries memory of what you’ve done. The secret is to show it the right things. We know now that long runs and hill runs are the crux of any good schedule, but we can tailor these to suit the race in question by doing them over similar terrain. For example, Coromandel’s Kauri Run is 31km of very varied terrain that includes some beach running, rough bush tracks, stream crossing, muddy sections and some big hills. Someone training for this should do at least one very hilly bush run per week, but they might also do their easier runs on rocky areas or heavy mud. Some of the running should be done in wet shoes and should include steep, slippery downhills. Also, try to do some of your training in temperatures close to Coromandel in November, i.e: 20 degrees + with high humidity. The ideal of course would be to check out the course in question prior to race day. But that isn’t always practical. The key is to do some homework on the race in question and then simulate it in your training. But rather than try to cover all the facets of your race in one workout, break up the different components (uphills, downhills, river crossing, rock hopping etc) and then concentrate on one thing per run.


While endurance, strength and specificity are the key components of training the element that brings them all together in a well-rounded training schedule is recovery. You can train all you like, but without well-planned recovery even the most talented runners in the world will end up injured, ill or both. To understand recovery you have to have an understanding of how we work. The human body is an adaptive organism. When we are placed under stress we adapt to that stress and actually get stronger so that it doesn’t tax us quite as much in the future. For example, when you catch a cold the body adapts by building immunity. The same applies with running, by running regularly you force the body to adapt to the stress and it gets stronger, which means you can train more and get stronger again? so on and so on. However, the adaptation process only works if the body is given the chance to recover. If you become ill you go to bed and you get better. But if you don’t you get sicker. The same applies to running; your body is only able to adapt and become stronger if you take a break every now and then? the key is to plan the breaks rather than be forced into them. The generally accepted rule for running is to follow harder days with easier days. For recreational runners that might mean running every second day or cross training where you might alternate a running day with swimming, cycling or gym day. For runners looking to improve performance it means alternating longer runs with shorter runs, hilly runs with flat runs and faster runs with slower runs. However, regardless of your goals it is also necessary to follow periods of good training with periods of easier training and normally this means alternating two to four weeks of good training with an easier week where you cover about half your normal amount of running. On an even bigger scale, it also makes sense to alternate major goals like a Kepler Challenge with easier goals.

Putting It Together

It’s one thing to know the basics behind training, but quite another to bring them all together into a well-rounded schedule suited A) to a specific race, in this case the Kauri Run; B) to the individual in question. Every person is different in the amount of running they can handle and what areas they need to work on in regard to the race they are training for and their own natural weaknesses.

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Dave Jaggs - who has written 1 post
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