Assessing your progress as a trail runner

The diversity that trail running offers is one of its main appeals, however it can be difficult to assess how our training is progressing. The variability between sessions on the trail can hamper our ability to predict future performance. Similarly, races differ in terrain, technicality, and elevation, so comparisons between race performances aren’t like-for-like. 

Trail runners aren’t alone. There are other sports (for example climbing and sailing) that have a similar challenge of setting performance checkpoints to assess training progress. This post outlines some objective measures that you can use to rate your trail running progress. I’ve also added some of the more subjective measures that I use to assess my own trail running fitness. 

Note that when I say performance, this isn’t just restricted to speed. Improvement can also be about running longer, maintaining good running form, or finishing strong.

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Some (loosely) objective measures

Repeating the same race
Pros: Good marker of improvement (if the course doesn’t change).
Cons: Weather conditions can (and will!) influence the race outcome. Some races are long and don’t reflect fitness perfectly. Main events only happen once a year and it is not a useful or practical measure for day-to-day fitness assessment for training purposes.

Enter a road race
Once in a while it is useful to enter a road race.
Pros: A more predictable environment and course. Good indicator of overall cardiovascular fitness. Running a short road race can also be a good training session.
Cons: Performance in road races doesn’t always translate to trail running results (especially if your trail race is hilly and technical). There is also a risk of getting injured if your body is not accustomed to road running.

Short hill time trial (3-10min)
Instead of running a road race, you can choose a time-trial course, which could be a local hill or hilly stretch of road.
Pros: More controlled course and conditions. Hill/trail running specific. Short duration time-trial performance tests are reliable measure of performance.
Cons: Less predictive power for longer trail events.

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Laboratory testing. 
Trail running may differ to road running, but it is still running! Laboratory testing is sophisticated way to look at major physiological and biomechanical elements of running performance, such as maximal oxygen consumption, lactate thresholds, running economy and metabolic efficiency etc.

Pros: Objective assessment of physical capacity. Controlled environment. Easily reproducible protocols.
Cons: Expensive. It can be useful to assess fitness (VO2maxand lactate thresholds) but it doesn’t necessarily correlate well with trail running performance. Not every trail runner is proficient runner on the treadmill.

 

Personal experience

As a scientist and ultra-distance runner, I use rather subjective ways to assess my progress. Whilst I regularly enter road races and have my fitness tested in the lab (it’s part of my day job - lucky me!), I pay attention to several things to understand the state of my fitness.

When regular long road and trail runs feel easy
Do I find regular 10, 20 or 30km (road and trail) runs easy? At the start of the season even 20km can feel a bit awkward. I usually feel pretty happy with my form when a 30km run becomes “a routine” run rather than long run, and ‘long run’ status is elevated to 40km+ runs or runs longer than 4 hours.

How vertical ascent feels in my legs
Feeling the effect of sessions with 1km, 2km or more of vertical ascent in my legs. I am slowly building my strength to feel good with 2500m+ vertical ascent runs, which is a good indication of fitness necessary for a mountainous trail race.

I have several locations that serve as my vertical ascent ‘testing lab’, that range from 200 to 1000m of continuous vertical ascent. If I can run a VK (vertical kilometre) non-stop it gives me a good idea if my uphill running fitness has improved. If I am struggling with that, I complement my training with more strength and conditioning exercises, as well as short and medium uphill intervals, to build necessary strength. My 12-week training plan provides a systematic approach to uphill training and includes hill and strength sessions. The plan is delivered through Training Peaks: "Uphill strength for trail runners: 12-week training program".

Observing my running technique and finding the edges of my limits
I observe my body during 2+ hour runs and see how long I can maintain good running technique. Ideally, a 4-hour run should not affect running technique that much. If it is a road run, I compare how the second half of my run (pace-wise) is different from the first one. Also, it’s sometimes good to push yourself in the final 5km of your 20km or even 30km run and see if you’ve still got reserves. Be careful not to use all your reserves in training sessions, you do not want to reach an excessive fatigue level. You want just the right amount of stress so your body can recover quickly.

Running short road races
A 5K time trail is a good (and pretty objective) tool I use to assess my fitness. It’s also an ideal way to compare against any previous efforts and a 5km performance is a good indicator of cardiovascular fitness. If I can run sub-16 min for a 5km, I am usually happy with that part of my fitness and can move to training specifically for trails.

And to extend this assessment beyond just running for me it is important:

⁃      How I feel the day after a long run. I usually ask myself whether I would be able to repeat yesterday’s session again today. I pay attention to muscle soreness and any pains and niggles. If you feel extremely sore after a session with 1000m ascent and descent, it means that your body is still not conditioned properly to step up or even race (if you are training for an ultra in particular).

⁃      I make a mental note of how long I can run without taking energy (i.e. gels, fruit or carbohydrate containing drinks). This gives me a good indication of how efficient my fat burning is. Fitter athletes usually burn more fat-based fuels than unfit.

⁃      I also pay attention to how I tolerate heat. Acclimatising to hot environments is one of the key success elements for summer races.

VK Treadmill Challenge

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Surprisingly, in over 20 years of running, I have never attempted serious hill workouts on the treadmill. In a bid to avoid running in torrential rain one afternoon, I ran a VK (1000 metres of vertical ascent) on the dreadmill (...treadmill). Since the treadmill stops automatically after 60 minutes, I decided that a one-hour vertical kilometre attempt would be a fun challenge. 

After the first attempt, I was keen to explore the infinite, looping landscape of the treadmill further and completed another three VK sessions. I have outlined each of the workouts (also in a printable version) so you can try them too. I recommend printing a copy or keeping your phone handy on the treadmill so you don’t have to memorise the exact structure of the workout. Remember to maintain good form throughout: these are tough sessions, so it is better to shorten them, or adjust the incline to suit your current fitness.

What did I learn from my VK Treadmill Challenge?

⁃     Firstly, treadmill workouts can be a good substitute for hill training, especially if the focus of your workout is to improve uphill running technique. My previous journal post Running Technique (2): making hills easy discusses some of these techniques. 

⁃     A recent study suggests that classic endurance variables like VO2max and running economy on a +0% slope is not a strong predictor of short trail running (20-30km) performance, however, adding more trail specific variable, like running economy on a +10% slope, allows good characterisation of trail running performance. If that is the case, I am ready to chase that efficiency! Find the study here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29077639

⁃     Breaking your workout into stages or setting a protocol of intervals makes it less of a mental challenge.

⁃     It is the quickest and most accessible way to experience a true vertical kilometre (not a single step downhill) if you don’t live by the mountains. Even in hilly Auckland, you cannot find pure uphill stretches that climb 1000 metres. 

⁃     Finally, I learned to appreciate that 15% incline on the treadmill is actually a big deal when you are out on the trails. A one-hour uphill effort can earn you spectacular views – unfortunately this is not the case when you are in the gym!

Workout 1: VO2Max Uphill Intervals

Eight 4-minute intervals at 15% incline, with 1-minute recovery between each interval at 3-5% incline.

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
10min 1% incline 10km/h

Main set
Note: @hard means at a pace that you find challenging, but sustainable for the length of the interval. The pace can change between intervals. RI – is a recovery interval.

8 x (4min @hard (15% incline at 7 to 10km.h) + 1min RI @easy (3-5% incline at 8km.h))
[with a longer 3 min recovery break halfway through the intervals]

Cool down
3min 1% incline 10km/h

Download printable version here


Workout 2: Pyramid threshold session

Intervals in this workout will become gradually longer, but not recovery interval. 

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline

Main Set
Note: @hard means at a pace that you find challenging, but sustainable for the length of the interval. The pace can change between intervals. RI – is a recovery interval.

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4-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
6-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
8-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
10-min 15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
8-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
6-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
4-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy

Cool down
5min 1% incline 10km/h

Total
46min at threshold pace

Download printable version here


Workout 3: Threshold + Power session

This workout is split into three stages where I ran three 10-minute sets at varying inclines, ending each set with three 30 second bursts at 15% incline. Notice how the 30 second sets ratchet in speed. 

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline

Main set (progressive structure)
Stage I. 
10min 8% incline ~10km.h (sub-threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 10-11-12 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h 

Stage II. 
10min 10% incline ~10km.h (threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 11-12-13 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h

Stage III. 
10min 10% incline ~10km.h (threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 12-13-14 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h

Cool down
2min @easy pace at 1% 8km.h

Download printable version here


Workout 4: Threshold + VO2maxsession

This workout is in two stages, with three longer intervals in the first stage, and 6 shorter intervals in the second stage.

 Heart Rate Analysis: Workout 4

Heart Rate Analysis: Workout 4

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline 

Main set (progressive structure)
Stage I. 
3 x 8min 15% incline 8-10km.h + 2 min RI (6% 7 km.h)
[1 set: moderately-hard pace; 2 set: hard pace; 3 set: really hard pace] - see heart rate analysis

Stage II. 
6 x (2.5min 15% incline @threshold + 1min 15% incline @VO2max + 1.5min RI 6% incline 7 km.h)

Cool down
2min @easy pace at 1% 10km.h

Download printable version here

The Ring of Fire

I discovered Tongariro National Park not long after arriving in New Zealand. I had no idea that the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand’s most iconic walk, attracted most visitors to the area. Instead, I ran up to the Red Crater and to Mt Ngauruhoe. I distinctly remember my new trail shoes looking like road shoes by the end of the run. This was my first encounter with volcanic trail of this kind. The terrain was how I imagined the moon to be; eerie and barren, populated by a silent army of stones. National Park’s open and uninterrupted landscapes are humbling. You are a slow-moving speck on this vast horizon of immovable mass. Despite any sensations of loneliness or displacement, you become a necessary and integral part of the environment.

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I returned to National Park during different times of the year, and explored the Northern Circuit, and various other tracks with friends. The Tussock Traverse taught me again that the trails are unforgiving on running shoes: they were brimming with grit and sand by the end of the run. I also have fond memories of summiting Mt Ruapehu with a fellow Lithuanian friend, Gediminas Grinius. We slid down the snowy slopes, an unlikely mid-summer adventure before the Tarawera Ultra in 2016. 

The Ring of Fire 73km solo event appealed to me because it represented a true adventure, it wasn’t just a competitive event. I had never completed the circuit around Mt Ruapehu in one hit. There is no easy way ‘round the mountain, and the course captures the true ruggedness of National Park. 

The Friday evening before race day, I went for a two-kilometre jaunt to stretch my legs. It was amusing to think that we would begin racing before the night was over. This demarcated a mental shift into race mode – in my mind I had already crossed the start line. Having this mindset had its advantages, but it also cost me some sleep that night. The 4am start-time of the race was reminiscent of ultra-races in Europe. I am no morning person, but on this occasion my excitement overrode my sleepiness. I felt fresh and sharp.

 Rudi Smith and I running together

Rudi Smith and I running together

The first ten kilometres were familiar and the leading pack was not overly aggressive with pacing. A race start like this is a gift: normally the first stages are quick and it becomes a matter of hanging on until the finish. This wasn’t because we weren’t capable of a quick start. The first leg (infamous in its own right, and fondly known as The Goat) is technical and is followed by an equally challenging second leg. Taranaki runner Rudi Smith and I finished the first stage together. My body had warmed-up nicely and the legs felt good on the uphills. 

Rudi and I continued to yo-yo for another few kilometres, when I managed to catch a break. It was a gentle lead, and I could spy Rudi running behind. In order to begin the last section with a reasonable lead, I worked on making a series of small gains. My running was relaxed and confident. Running with confidence, even under pressure, means you stay aware of your body’s needs. When you address these needs (i.e. hydrating correctly, eating the right amounts), you have fewer reasons to be concerned or stressed. 


In the days before the race, I tried to memorise the elevation profile. Committing all of the ups and downs, huts and aid stations to memory added another layer of confidence. It may sound extreme, but I try to minimise any actions that may drain time, energy, or cost me a mistake. In the final leg, I visualised the exact stream that I would stop at to fill my water flask. It was two extra steps from the track. I didn’t take my headlamp off until Tukino Rd at the compulsory gear check, so as to not waste time. This practice of minimisation or simplicity also translated to my nutrition plan. I chose a few food options and did not stray from them. From memory I consumed nine energy gels and a small piece of banana during the run. Simple practices don’t compromise your flow. 

 The Ring of Fire ULtra Podium. From the Left: Rudi Smith, Rhys Johnston and ME photo from photos4sale

The Ring of Fire ULtra Podium. From the Left: Rudi Smith, Rhys Johnston and ME
photo from photos4sale

At the final checkpoint I was feeling positive. The third and final leg was undulating trail, and I felt I could sustain a decent pace. Sjors Corporaal from one of the relay teams breezed past, and I felt like I was standing still. I could feel him approaching and I could tell by his speed that he wasn’t a solo runner. Nonetheless, I did feel slow in comparison. 

The beauty of the race is that you can see the finish line, the Chateau, from a distance. I had time to savour the last kilometres running on well-formed track. The final moments of a long-distance run are similar to the feeling of walking out of an exam room. Hours of study and intense concentration tumble from your head and fan down your neck and shoulders. Your mind releases itself from the task of calculating, scanning and maintaining focus. Instead you give yourself over to the emotions of the journey, and the simple joy of crossing the finish line.

Place: 1st male overall / Time: 8h 46m

Training for the Ring of Fire

My advice for training for the Ring of Fire can be summarised quite simply: get to know the course, and tailor your training to suit the terrain.

Excerpt from training program to prepare for The ROF. Training Peaks

Familiarise yourself
As part of my training, I acquainted myself with the course. I was lucky to be able to go to Tongariro National Park to train over a weekend. If you have the chance, go and try different sections of the course, even hiking is helpful. As you are running or walking, memorise certain features of the track. It builds confidence around how you will expect to run during different sections, and how long it may take you.  

Be specific with your training
Trail runners can work on different skills at once because they are training for a variety of events. Leading in to key events it is wise to concentrate on particular skills (e.g. technical or uphill running). For the Ring of Fire, it meant investing more time on feet.

The technical terrain drains a lot of energy from musculoskeletal system so it was important to build sufficient power and strength. To achieve this, I completed several strength and conditioning sessions in the gym each week. In terms of running, I incorporated various high intensity and uphill sessions, mixing technical, road and even treadmill workouts into my training. The treadmill was the experimental part of my training – exploring the possibilities of uphill training in the simplest way possible. 

 Sweet finish line!

Sweet finish line!

The top ways to waste your time at aid stations

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AUTHORS: Andrius Ramonas and Gediminas Grinius (Trail Running Factory)

With major international (Transgrancanaria Ultra, Hong Kong 100 Ultra Marathon, Tarawera Ultra and 100 mile Endurance Run) and local NZ races (The Ultra Easy Ultra, Old Ghost Ultra, Motatapu Ultra, Northburn 100 miler) just weeks away it is time to think about how you will deal with transitions through aid stations during your race.

1.       Go gourmet! First start with the pretzels, then move on to the jam sandwiches, followed by grapes, gummy snakes, then wash down with coke. Repeat at all aid stations.

2.       Pull out your cocktail shaker and Worcestershire sauce to fix yourself a Bloody Mary for your hydration pack. You’ve got to take hydration seriously.

3.       Hide the critical gear your support crew is supposed to be ready with in the bottom of your bag so they can't find it.

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4.       Assume that your crew have studied the course map in minute detail and has a superhuman recollection of every part of the course.

5.       Pose to all photographers and cameramen and give short half an hour interview, be the star, this is why you started trail running, isn’t it?  

6.       Go totally mad on your support crew and/or volunteers if they mix things up and don’t have your favourite snack - dried Antarctica monkey kidneys, because you are the BOSS and they are working for you, right?

7.       Aid stations are warm and sheltered, so it is the best place to wait while the rain or snowfall will stop and running conditions will improve.

8.       Explain in great detail to anyone who will listen how you took a wrong turn from the course.

9.       Change shoes and socks at every aid station. Because you like to keep your feet dry.

10.    Pray for trail running gods and ask for the autograph of every Jim Wamsley you meet.

11.    Whip out your iPhone and call your friends to inform them of your progress, and post your on-trail selfies to Facebook and Instagram.

12.    Perfect skills with the gear you have never trialled before.  Didn’t learn how to operate your headlamp or use your poles? The aid station is an ideal testing ground!

13.    Number 13th, really? You should ask for the new number at each aid station, as it is the unlucky one and you are damn slow and tired because of it. 

Ok. Seriously. Here you go:

The fastest way to get through aid stations

1.       Have a nutrition plan and know precisely what foods you are going to be eating during the race. Know three natural foods and three processed ones (e.g. gels) that work for you and stick to your choice during the race. It is not the best time experiment with your stomach. In the months leading up to the race, train your gut to tolerate higher carbohydrate intake. Stomach comfort while ingesting higher amount of foods during long running events can be trained, and frequency of gastrointestinal issues reduced.  

 Gediminas Grinius during Tarawera 100 and his support crew Grant Guise

Gediminas Grinius during Tarawera 100 and his support crew Grant Guise

2.       Rehearse your race plan before race day with your support crew.

3.       If your support crew are crewing you for the first time, educate them:

-   Familiarise them with your aid station routine

-   Show them which pocket you prefer gels to be put in

-   Teach how turn on and switch on headlamp for easier transition

-   Teach them how to make an ice scarf and how and when put it on your neck (useful in hot-weather races)

4.       Don’t stop at the aid station if you don’t need to. However, have a good reason for not stopping. If you are compromising your hydration, you will likely pay the price later in the race.

5.       The aid station is not the finish line, so don’t relax too much. Stay sharp and focus on what you need to do. Have a mini action plan for each aid station and rehearse it in your mind before arriving. For example: “I will hand my two soft flasks to fill with water, while these are being filled, I will drink another cup of fresh water, empty pockets from trash and will put two gels into my front pocket. After taking filled soft flasks I will grab a piece of banana and eat it leaving the aid station.”

6.       Open your handheld bottles before you enter the aid station so that they can be filled even quicker. If rules allow and volunteers can help, don’t fill your flasks by yourself. Use that time to do other things.

7.       In some races, you may be permitted to exchange bags. If so, consider having a twin bag prepared to that you can make a quick exchange and keep going.

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8.       Have your most important compulsory gear (waterproof jacket/pants and head-torch) at the top of your bag, because it is the most likely gear that could be checked for a compulsory gear check. Or put it in a transparent bag as it is easy to pull out and show all the mandatory gear.

9.       During the race and between aid stations carry only as much as you need:

Don’t fill all the bottles and don’t take all the gels you possess in first aid station

Use flasks rather than a hydration bladder if there are frequent aid stations

Estimate your water and calorie intake and remember that your digestive tract can only tolerate and absorb approximately 1 – 1. 5 l/h and 60 to 90g of carb/h (depending on composition of carbohydrate meal or supplement), so don’t take unnecessary weight with you

Trash (used gels etc) weighs several grams, so don’t forget to get rid of it at each aid station

The lighter you are the faster you can run and the higher your VO2max :) 

10.    Be grateful to your support crew, as they are doing an important job. Your smile and positivity will boost their confidence, which probably means that fewer mistakes will be made and your run through the aid stations will be quick and smooth.

11.    Having a nutrition plan and supporting race plan is important, but things can go amiss, so it is wise to develop a contingency plan:

-      what if your support crew isn’t at the aid station? Should you wait in hope that they arrive soon, or continue and meet them at the next one? What if the nutrition that you expected to have isn’t available? It doesn’t matter what your decision is, but you must know it in advance.

12. Thank the volunteers before you leave the aid station!

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