Saturday, January 18, 2014


I was recently asked why I wasn't running a local road marathon event.To me the answer was obvious but to the person who posed the question it was a complete mystery.. so I shall explain. Firstly let me state that if you like running on roads then good luck to you, its a great exercise and lots of fun and you can do it anywhere anytime ... however that's not where I'm at.
   Any experienced trail runner will tell you that you have far fewer injuries on trails than on roads. If I ran a full road marathon as compared to say a 50k ultra marathon trail race, it would take me about 3 times longer to recover from the road run. This is sometimes difficult to explain because most people will assume that the road is flat and even, whereas running up and down trails all day with rocks, roots, mud, sand and a general uneven slippery surface must be worse and far more dangerous.
 Looking at it from this perspective it would appear to be the obvious conclusion however this is not the case. Running on a hard road with the same cadence for several hours can cause all forms of repetitive strain injury as well as muscular and skeletal stress, combine this with poor running form and other biomechanical factors and voila .... ouch!
So why is trail running different? Well apart from the fact that you are moving through forests, mountains, rivers and 'nature' in general, which most people find considerably more appealing than a polluted city pavement, it's less stressful on the body.
The ground is much more forgiving in that there is a cushioning effect and the varied surfaces makes repetitive strain rare. Even if you have a biomechanical deficiency (which most of us do) the terrain and constantly changing elevation tend to make this redundant. You are forever switching speeds, climbing and descending, adjusting your stride pattern, cadence, and length at nearly every step, even your breathing pattern is not constant. But what of the rocks and roots that the average runner is so afraid of ? Well I agree at first this is a concern when you are inexperienced but this is more of a mental problem than physical. The ligaments and tendons in your ankles and feet adapt vary quickly and become more elastic, thereby making it easier for you to ride over the uneven ground and as a result, twists, pulls and tears are surprisingly rare when considering the thousands of steps you take on an average run. You are far more likely to get this kind of injury on a road, strange as it may seem.
 However the flip side of this argument is that running on hard or track surfaces does improve your technique because you “can’t cheat” (try to run barefoot on tarmac and you’ll see this effect) whereas running on trails allows you to a adopt a less than perfect technique without any ill effects. This does not mean that all trail runners have poor technique and it doesn't mean that you should not be trying to improve your technique on tracks, its just that it doesn't matter as much. In fact when doing interval training the track is a superb surface to practice your form.

Is there a downside? Yes, you have to concentrate a lot more. I once ran in the mountains with my friend Jules, an experienced road marathoner and he was surprised how much you have to concentrate on the trail. The reason being that there is always the odd root or rock ... or even snake ... where you don't want it to be and evasive action may be necessary however once you get the hang of it the brain is amazing at adjusting your feet to hit the ground a few yards ahead in exactly the right place.
 The other question I am asked is;- Don't you get lost? Again this can happen and as regular readers know it has happened to me once ... okay, twice ... okay, 3 times ! but it is rare and you can always find your way back. I have run literally thousands of miles and the biggest problem for me on trails or ultra-marathons is plain and simple; fatigue. You just get tired. The discipline is to keep going when you are completely shattered and utterly exhausted and that is nearly always mental and rarely physical even though your brain tells you it is. As I have said to many of my clients your brain is trying to protect the organism (which is you)  but physically you are perfectly capable of going much further and for far longer if you just stay strong and trust yourself and your training.
And the final question is usually;- How do you run up hills, or mountains if its an ultra and how do you do this for 10 or more hours? .... this question is nearly always followed by a why? When I first started running long, (as we call it), the question perplexed me too. The simple answer is training, the slightly more complicated answer is training, plus body conditioning, plus attitude.
You actually have to train by running up and down hills on similar terrain ... all the time, simple as that and the body will adapt and make it possible for you to do it. What I learned from Paddy was that you can re-construct  your body to be able to make you do it better and easier. Body conditioning, primarily with weights, is imperative in building a strong physique capable of withstanding the rigours of an ultra-marathon event. This, coupled with sprint and tempo training will increase your speed and considerably enhance your performance for the event.
Attitude just comes down to plain old grit, guts and determination ... and you won't know how much you've got of that until you are asked to find it ... or produce it. Most people, even the elites of the sport, have at one time or another been faced with feeling of  'I want to quit, this is dangerous, I feel terrible, why am I doing this, this is stupid, I'm in pain, its been 21 hours, I can't go on, I don't want to go on! etc etc. These are not fleeting moments, these thoughts can drag on for hours. The goal is to recognise they are just thoughts and to push on, its remarkable how you can... and often they eventually disappear and you find renewed strength and then the sense of achievement at the end is even greater. In the process you discover an important metaphor for life, you can endure no matter how tough the obstacle. Now I am not trying to get all philosophical but you catch my drift.

    Having said all that ultra-marathon running will NOT keep you healthy though it will keep you fit.
Another conundrum and one that I will explore in a later blog. Road marathons or ultra trail marathons or any distance over 30k for the average person is not recommended. Indeed the health benefits of aerobic exercise have been proven to decrease if you run further than this distance ... and at the very least your health does not increase if you run any further. Its the law of diminishing returns if you run over 30k or approximately 20 miles per week the negative effects on the endocrine system can be substantial  and difficult to trace when exceeding these distances but suffice to say it is extremely stressful on the human body and more specifically the heart.  Of course there are exceptions; for example a Kenyan athlete who has run long distances from childhood (or Killian Jornet from Spain) will not be as affected as your average 40 year old who jogs for 45 minutes, 3 times a week and lives in Boise, Idaho ... and then suddenly decides to run a 50 mile race!
       So there are plusses and minus's  but in the end  I am consistently drawn back to one simple truth, I run through the heart of nature because I feel connected ... I know I'm beginning to sound all 'Navajo' here but that's just the way it is.
    And a final comment on running up that hill; after several hours it's easier to run up a hill than it is to run down ... trust me.


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