Eight Steps For Your Best Trail Running Off-Season

Stay the Course‘Tis the season! Lottery season, of course! It’s that exciting time when we clear out the stockings, er, I mean e-mail inboxes and credit-card balances in hopes of some glad tidings from our favorite race directors.

Make it into your favorite race? Congratulations! Now the fun yet hard part begins: preparation. And like a holiday potluck, our training choices are a nearly unlimited buffet of long runs, hill workouts, tempos, and training races. But like that potluck, too much consumption can lead to trouble in the form of injury, burnout, or simply a less-than-enjoyable focus race.

What follows are some tips to help runners structure their focus-race preparation, to best avoid training hiccups and costly trips to the physiotherapy office.

Step 0. Rest
While seemingly self-evident, this one is a biggie. Not healthy? Nursing chronic injury or niggles? You gotta’ rest. While you may feel tempted to dive into training, it is vitally important that each runner begin their next ‘training season’ with a clean slate of health.

The same goes with fatigue. If you’ve had a long racing season and the thought of heavy training for yet another trail or ultramarathon race makes you shiver, rest. Rest until you feel hungry to train. When thoughts of long runs or fast workouts seem exciting, then rest another four to seven days before starting to get after it.

Full rest and health will ensure that you have a strong foundation for whatever training you choose.

Step 1. Metabolic Efficiency
These first two steps should be cornerstones to any training build-up. Metabolic efficiency equates to the idea that your foundational training should be aerobic–specifically developing the fat-metabolism gear. Simply put: run easy! Keep the vast majority of your early season miles very easy so that you are developing fat-burning capacity in earnest, and to the fullest. There will be time to run hard, but early winter–several months from race day–isn’t yet that time.

Step 2. Mechanical Efficiency
A commonly overlooked and under-appreciated step, developing and maintaining an efficient stride, is hugely important for several reasons:

  • Less aches, pains, and injury potential. Stride efficiency ensures your body isn’t absorbing excessive stress.
  • Improved recovery and training capacity. Less energy absorbed equals less training stress, which equates to faster day-to-day recovery and enhanced training capacity (both volume and intensity).
  • Improved performance. Efficiency is speed over the long haul. For most of our focus races, namely the longer trail 100 milers, the best performers are usually those that can simply keep running with modest efficiency!

Hone your stride now. Consider a formal running-stride analysis. If nothing else, help each other out! If you see a training partner doing ‘something weird,’ tell them. You may not speak the ‘biomechanical language,’ but something as simple as ‘your knee is doing something strange’ can go a long way toward enhancing efficiency.

Step 3. Barbell Your Training
Sequestering one’s running training between very easy and very hard is an important aspect of training, that’s doubly important early in a training cycle. While philosophies differ, most seasoned runners and coaches will agree on a few points:

  • A modicum of very easy running is important to develop base fitness.
  • High-intensity running develops many systems, including neuromuscular strength, anaerobic energy systems, and mental toughness.
  • Runners should (most of the time) alternate between hard and easy days.

Early on in your preparation, use a hard-easy barbell strategy: keep your easy, base-building days very easy, but don’t be afraid to begin sprinkling in harder running sessions, including sprints.

Short-distance sprinting can be a runner’s best friend early in a cycle. Very short, flat strides (between 8 and 15 seconds) and uphill sprints (100 to 300 meters) can begin to develop strength, hone running form, provide some early season fun at a small cost, and are low risk for early season injury. Start small and short early; get comfortable running fast (and efficient). As the season progresses, lengthen those bouts of harder running.

Step 4: Get Strong Now
Most runners appreciate and value of strength training as part of race preparation, especially those rugged, mountainous ultramarathons. However, in the depths of high mileage, weight training can be a real drag. Consider starting a strength-training program now, while running mileage and intensity is low. Developing this routine early will help it stick later on. Moreover, heavy strength training now–even if tapered off or eliminated completely in the spring or early summer–will still pay dividends in your overall build-up.

Step 5. Morning Devotional
It can be difficult to find time for the little things. That little extra bit of ‘pre-hab’–those old physiotherapy stretches, band exercises, or a short yoga routine–can easily fall by the wayside, unless you find a chunk of time.

Consider devoting a small chunk, maybe just 10 minutes, in the morning for those little things. Mobility, strength, and even running drills can be done in a short period of time. Besides potential injury prevention, a short morning routine gets things moving and may go a long way in maintaining stride efficiency.

Step 6. Specificity: Easy Now, Harder Later
Each focus race has its specific challenges of distance, terrain, altitude, and environment. Do what you can to incorporate specific preparation into aspects of your training–but do so in an easy-to-hard progression.

If your race has big high-alpine vertical, it may be tempting to sprint up that mountain today. But consider starting your vertical training with low-intensity hiking (even on a treadmill). While more useful closer to race day, consider doing some heat training now–but do so with some passive (and relaxing) sauna time, and save the running-with-all-your-jackets-on training (which often turns into a hard workout) for later in the training cycle.

Make your specificity fit into your early season objectives by incorporating low-intensity elements now, and save the higher-intensity elements, such as back-to-back, high-intensity long runs, mountain climbs, or quad-seasoning downhill repeats, for later in the year.

Step 7. Focus Your Training Races
Along with race-specific training, consider what early season races you might do (if you haven’t already). Decide how these events best fit into your preparations and how to best execute them for optimal training stimulus. While similar terrain may be useful (say, Canyons 100k for Western States), one can still run a disparate early race (in this case, like Caumsett 50k or American River 50 Mile) but still practice certain pacing, gear, or nutritional strategies. Whatever you choose, be sure those preparatory race efforts are disciplined. Take care they that don’t inadvertently become your ‘A race’ or result in injury or otherwise protracted recovery, which will undoubtedly detract from your focus-race preparation.

Step 8. Be Flexible
All this said, have a plan but be willing to adjust on the fly. Life happens; illness, injury, or other challenges invariably appear. Prioritize your preparation with a balance of efficiency and specificity, but forcing training is seldom a good idea, and never necessary in the off-season or during early season preparation. Like on race day, have a game plan but only take what your body–and life–will give you, until you toe your goal-race starting line!

And with that, best of luck to a fun and exciting 2017!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do your off-seasons and early seasons look like?
  • How much full rest have you found that your body needs before niggles and chronic issues have healed and your energy has fully returned following a goal-race training block?
  • Do you indulge in cross training a bit more during the off-season? If so, what sports do you enjoy and how do they help you recover mentally and physically from running?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 8 comments

  1. AJW

    Excellent article OOJ! I especially like the bit about the morning devotional and the little things. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older those little things add up. Plus, it’s totally normal for people to do lunges and squats in the middle of their kitchens while waiting for the coffee to brew right?

    1. Joe Uhan

      Thanks, Andy.

      I think a lot about what Ann Trason has said about her “little things”, like practicing standing on one leg in the grocery check-out… They count!

      Here’s one for us old-guys: put the pants on (and off), while standing up! I’m still spry enough for it, but I challenge myself with skinny jeans. :-p

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