Training specificity for trail running
A few years ago, I registered for the Motatapu Trail Running Race; a 52km race across New Zealand (South Island) from Lake Wanaka to Arrow Town over a 3300m elevation gain. At that time, I felt in peak fitness - I was comfortable on the road, at repeating short climbs, and downhills across rocky terrain. However, on race day, nothing went according to plan. As soon as the event started, I was out of my comfort zone: the climbs were seemingly endless and too steep to run, whilst the narrow dirt downhill trails were extremely technical. I had only prepared nutritionally for a 5 hour race, however, I finished the course in over 7 hours. I later became aware that the record was 6 hours 15 minutes (I had obviously not read the website information thoroughly). Even if I was ‘fit’, I was not ready for this race and this was evident through my race and finish.
This experience shows that there is a difference between ‘fitness’ and ‘performance readiness’. Race readiness refers to the body's ability to match the requirements necessary for a particular event. This is where we introduce the concept of training specificity: throughout your preparation you first aim at improving your fitness (Vo2max, threshold, endurance, strength), before you then aim to improve your performance readiness by adding training specificity related to your target event as you get closer to it.
Advice on training specificity:
1. Study the trail running event: Let’s take a real-life example: you are preparing for the Outer Limits 10km Paluma Trail Run in October - so we want to analyse the demands for that specific event. How? > Visit the website of the organiser: https://outerlimitsadventure.com.au/event/paluma-village-trail-run/ > Check on Strava if you find a course or a segment: Strava often offers a more detailed elevation profile than the organiser. Strava segment for Paluma 10km.
We see the announced distance is correct, the course is 10km with 500m elevation gain, 5km are flat, 2.5km are downhill, 2.5km are uphill, the main uphill and the downhill are very steep (20-25%). In terms of terrain, the organiser provides a few details stating that the course “[is]...rainforest… [and]...combines an array of trails around the village, crossing creeks, passing waterfalls.”. We therefore have to expect tough terrain with dirt, tree roots, and water crossings.
2. Be specific in your preparation: We are 8 weeks away from this event. It is an important goal within the season and your running fitness is good as you have trained most of the year. It is time to make your fitness specific to this course - reaching higher fitness metrics is not as important anymore. Personally, when I examine the course and match it to my running fitness, I anticipate that I will be running the flat sections and the downhills whilst power-walking the uphills.
In terms of distance, this would equate (for myself) to: 75% of running (composed of 20% flat, 30% undulating, 25% downhill), and 25% power-walking uphills.
- Flat/downhill/uphil training ratio: Through the course of each week we will be mixing flat runs, undulating sections and steep climbs/descents and 25% of my kilometers will be performed as power-hiking. The aim is to get accustomed to the terrain that you will experience on race day, of course, you have to work with the terrain available to you.
-In terms of elevation: the course has roughly 50m gain per kilometer. Therefore, if my training week has 50km planned, I will aim to complete 2245m of elevation gain and loss (50kmx50m=2500m).
3. How will you pace your effort?:
You are now ‘performance ready’, the final step is the planification of your race effort - to use your skills wisely and produce your best effort.
For example: you are a runner comfortable on the flats and the downhills, however, you find the climbs difficult. You may want to take a fast start during the flat first 2km and get to the main downhill in a fast group. You will keep on producing a good effort through the downhill section and ease the pace after 3.8km (500m ahead of the climb) to start the climb with some freshness. During the climb follow your abilities and accept it is your weakness - don’t try to follow others and hold a pace that will allow you to have enough energy for a strong finish over the last undulating 4km that matches your running skills.
It is now time for you to carefully plan your next event! Remember that running fitness will only make you faster if your training becomes specific towards the end of preparation!