Through my first semester of grad school this fall, I ran less and less, since I hadn’t figured out how to fit running into a schedule that involved classes that went far into the evening. The problem worsened the sun set earlier and earlier. However, it wasn’t until the end of December, when I started collecting data on my daily habits, that I noticed that I hadn’t been running much at all.
I had been running about ten miles a week, doing my thirty minute round trip bike commute several times a week, and doing a lot of Blogilates videos. I wasn’t sedentary or unhealthy, but I wanted my exercise to feel less directionless, and I wanted to eliminate nights in which I had to choose between running two miles at 10 pm and staying home. So I signed up to run Wapack trail race* on May 10. I ran the 21.5 mile version of the course; a fifty mile race took place on the same day. You can read about the trail and see some pictures here: The trail is very rocky and is “very hilly”, slightly short of “mountainous”. The course record is somewhere around 3 hours 20 minutes; even very, very good runners walk a large fraction of the uphills.
Around mid-January I decided to to get serious about my running training, but running is dangerous. I’ve read that about 50% of runners suffer from overuse injuries in any given year. A review article says that the only reliable way to reduce injury risk is to run less, and studies on beginning runners show that the more slowly runners increase their mileage, the less likely they are to become injured. So my plan to get into shape for running a long way couldn’t involve a lot of running.
A rule of thumb says not to increase one’s running mileage more than 10% a week. I increased my mileage by about 10% a week, with a slight decrease every fourth week. If I had just been running this would have been a frustratingly low level of mileage, and I would have gotten bored, run too much, and gotten injured. So I cross-country skiied, swam, and went to the gym to lift weights twice a week.
Serious strength training was the most unconventional part of this plan. Runners don’t generally do a lot of that, and often only focus on their legs if they do, but the two studies that have been done suggest that all-body strength training can lead to huge efficiency gains even in well-trained distance runners. I suspected that lifting weights would be especially useful for mountain running; going uphill takes strong hamstrings and glutes, rocky trails take strong leg and core stabilizing muscles, and rushing downhill takes strong quads. I’m pretty sure that this helped a lot, as my running form improved, the hills in my city stopped feeling like hills, and running with a backpack got a lot easier.
Despite the gradual increase, this was a pretty aggressive training plan.
- I averaged a 9% increase in miles per week from December 26, 2013, to May 2, 2014. (That’s including the big dip in the graph around day 110, the result of an unfortunate digestive mishap that left me in bed for 37 hours straight and feeling sick for several days longer.) When people say 10% a week, I don’t think they really mean endless exponential growth.
- I did five long runs of 10 to 17 miles, which averaged 49% of my weekly miles on the weeks I did them. Those were big runs compared to what I had been doing, and they were typically on more difficult terrain.
- I did seven track workouts, about one every two or three weeks.
- Going to the gym twice a week and working pretty hard meant that I was sore almost all the time.
The most surprisingly pleasant aspect of this plan was that having a plan made me much more motivated and made it much easier to get regular exercise. This may have gone a little too far by the end:
Boyfriend: You’re tired and busy. Why are you going to lift after our run?
Me: It’s Monday.
Boyfriend: That doesn’t make sense, and your calf hurts.
Me: It’s Monday. I go to the gym on Monday. It says so on my spreadsheet.
Having a schedule had helped me so much that it was hard to abandon it on the one or two days I should have, although I did significantly pull back my mileage while I was sick.
By race day, I felt pretty prepared. UltraSignup.com assigned me a “target” time of 5 hours, 50 minutes. I knew that if I ran at the same pace I ran the 18 mile fall Wapack Trail Race I would finish in five hours flat, but since that course doesn’t include the two biggest climbs I didn’t think that was a realistic target. I wound up finishing in 4:58, good for 23rd out of 80 entrants and 4th our of 18 women. I’m thrilled with that.
Some big things went right during the race:
- My hamstrings and glutes, the muscles doing the most work in this race, didn’t start to hurt until close to the end.
- My abs and back muscles didn’t hurt either; my back was a serious problem when I ran a trail marathon last spring. My shoulders are just a little sore after holding my arms out (or flailing them around) for balance on the downhills.
- I have enough experience with long distances to know which physical sensation corresponds to what I need top put in my mouth. I drank enough water without getting hyponatremic, fixed cramps with a salt pill, and fixed sudden waves of tiredness with sugary GU gels. I ate a little bit at each rest stop. I never “bonked” or “hit the wall”. I would guess I took in 500 or 600 calories.
Some small things went wrong:
- I started too fast. In fact, I ran instead of walking up the first and biggest climb. I felt fine going up that mountain, but it probably took a lot of out me, and I needed to walk most of the rest of the steep ascents. The nice thing about a race this hilly means that burning out your uphill muscles means you still have your flat and downhill muscles left!
- My calves hurt. I hadn’t practiced walking uphill, which uses the calves a lot more than running uphill does. This is probably a general risk of substituting training on mountains with strength training in the gym: You might miss something big, and one weak muscle group can ruin a race.
- My stomach was upset for most of the race. I don’t know why. I had to run off the trail and “go to the bathroom” around mile 16, but my stomach still hurt. I patched it over with ibuprofen.
- The race started foggy and drizzly. The sun came out around mile 12, and I got moderately sunburnt on my shoulders and upper back. I should have put sunscreen on, but I would have had to put it on about four hours earlier, so I’m not sure it would have helped.
After past races I’ve felt exhausted and my whole body hurt. This time, my legs hurt but I otherwise felt great. I find that the more I eat after a race like this, the faster I recover**; in that spirit, my boyfriend (who placed third in the race!) and I ordered a ton of food from the wonderful Guru and ate it while watching Game of Thrones. We then made brownies and ate them with sorbet. I highly recommend this plan.
It’s currently 1 pm on the day after the race. My legs hurt, but I’m feeling pretty good, rather hungry, and ready to get back to work. I’m excited to train for another long race, although I can’t imagine voluntarily running up another mountain in the near future. I hate being in a car so I have a personal rule that I won’t do a race where I’ll spend more time in the car than running. Let me know if you know of a trail race, 20-35 miles, that fits the bill!
* It’s actually called the “Wapack and Back Trail Race”. Runners in the 50 mile version run the entire Wapack (Watatic to Pack Monadnock) trail, turn around and run the other way, then run a bit more. Runners in the 21.5-mile race I did park at the end, get bussed to the start, and then run back.
** I felt like I was running at a significantly harder effort level than 9 minute miles, and trail running uses more of your body than road running does, so let’s say the calories I burned are equivalent to running 9 minute miles for 5 hours. That would mean I burned 2,700 calories during the race while eating about 500. My previous experience with this sort of thing is that my body will keep yelling at me and not wanting to move until I fix the calorie deficit.