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!

Running Technique (2): making hills easy

Yes, hills are sometimes hard, and hard for a good reason. To travel vertical distance for a body is actually the hardest thing, that takes up to 80% of all running energy expenditure. And if you find it hard to adopt your running form in uphill sections of your run – I truly believe (and know) that a casual training run can easily become real sufferfest.

A few things you can do to make hills easier!

[This text was recorded on a hilly run in order to keep this advice practical and real]

Shorten you stride (but increase the rate). This advice will teach you some basic physics – I am talking about the length of the lever arm. Here is an example to understand this point. Put a box in front of you. First, try to step on a box from a distance, and then walk close to the box and do it again. The difference is obvious! When running uphill - stay “compact” and put your foot close to your center of mass. This will save lots of energy and biomechanically is more efficient.

Don’t let your heel go to low. This is the best time to be a forefoot or midfoot striker. Keep your ankles and calf active, and don’t let you heel to go too low – this will help to save some energy (otherwise used to pick your heel from the ground with each step) and will put less strain on the ankle joint.

Lean forward. Running uphill you should lean slightly forward. Now it is very important point, it has to be a full body lean (“from your ankles”), not just a bend from your hips. A few more tips about correct running posture HERE

Reduce your running pace. If you want to maintain an overall exercise intensity at a similar physical exertion level, then you have to reduce you pace in the uphill sections. If you are one of those runners that worry about how bad overall pace will look on Strava, you should know that total vertical ascent (i.e. how much you climb in one session) is a completely legit way to describe running session’s difficulty. Also check GAP (aka. grade ajusted pace) on Strava, which is an overall pace taken into account all hills and downhills.

Use your arms. Arm motion during uphill running can actually help you. Using powerful arm swing we help to stabilise core (remember, all muscles in our body are related and form kinetic chains), which in turn can help to achieve more powerful contraction of “uphill running muscles” and improve your uphill stride.

Use track knowledge. Pacing is an integral part of running. Some hills are as short as 50 meters, but others might take an hour to run (or hike). Knowing the track can help to make informed decisions and pace yourself correctly through difficult and challenging hilly sections. This becomes even more important in road/trail running events. Study race elevation profiles and if you have a chance – familiarise with race course during your training.

Be an optimist. The beautiful thing about uphills is that the higher you go, the more you see. Don’t be a pessimist.

Smile. When you smile, you relax,  and when you relax – you relaxthose body parts that need to be relaxed. Don't be afraid to smile running alone. People think that you are crazy enough just because you are running those hills.