As we start to ramp up to race season, most trail and ultrarunners are increasing their training volume. Warm weather and long days beg for more time on the trails. This increased training load, in turn, can pose an increased risk of injury. Here are some helpful hints to stay injury-free for those who are new to the sport of trail and ultrarunning.
Prioritize fueling before, during and after training sessions
One of the most important habits trail and ultrarunners can implement is fueling and hydrating before, during and immediately following all training sessions. Begin your runs well fueled and plan to carry calories and hydration for all outings that will be longer than 60–90 minutes. If fueling during your training sessions is new to you, start slowly by introducing easy-to-consume calories (gels, gummy candy or gel blocks and liquid calories, for example). Aim for 20-30 grams of carbohydrate per hour, initially. As you begin to train your GI tract to utilize nutrition during exercise (yes, this aspect is trainable), start increasing your total grams of carbohydrate per hour, up to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per hour, which is typically the uppermost amount of carbohydrate that can be absorbed by runners during exercise. A general guideline for fluids is about .5L per hour for cooler temperatures and up to 1.5L per hour for hot conditions. Sodium replacement needs for most athletes ranges between 400–800mg per hour, though some runners will lose less and some will lose much more. The 400–800mg per hour is a reasonable place to begin, anticipating your needs might be different and need adjustment as you experiment with sodium replacement. Just ensure you are hydrating in parallel with sodium replacement, otherwise you can place your physiology in a compromised, even dangerous, situation.
Within 15–30 minutes following your cool down, begin rehydrating and replacing calories so that your body can initiate the repair process effectively. Having the requisite building blocks for repairing muscle and connective tissue breakdown that occurs during training sessions will support your body in doing what you ask of it during your next run. Beyond calories, if your body is adequately hydrated, those calories will be more readily absorbed across the intestinal wall. Hydration and caloric intake are synergistic and hence, very important. Whether fueling around and during your workouts is something you’re already adept at, or if you struggle to fuel well, it should always be prioritized if your goal is to continue to enjoy your time on feet in a healthy manner.
Recovery is immensely important
Recovery between sessions, especially adequate sleep, is key to making fitness gains and remaining injury-free. Most runners need at least 8–9 hours of high-quality sleep most nights of the week. How do you set yourself up for that? Review your sleep routine to begin with. Is your room temperature cool, are you putting screens away at least one hour before bedtime and is your bedroom completely dark and quiet? Making improvements in any of these areas can net positive sleep duration and quality outcomes.
It’s also helpful to designate at least one, often more, recovery days each week. Your recovery days may include a very easy, short run. Some recovery days may entail only stretching, light yoga, a walk around the neighborhood or an easy hike. Easy days will look different from one athlete to another, as well as during different parts of the year, but they are the key to avoiding injury. Beyond sleep and recovery days, trying to keep general life stress levels low, limiting alcohol consumption and maintaining a nutrient-dense diet will all support a healthier, more durable body that can handle the rigors of trail and ultrarunning.
Keep variety in your training
Every trail and ultrarunner has an individual preference for how much variety is wrapped into their training. Some athletes thrive on high levels of routine and structure while others may become bored and less engaged when training regiments offer limited amounts of variety. Regardless of how much variety you prefer, having too much repetition in your training is more likely to result in injury compared to integrating some variability. If you’re insistent on running and running only, alter your pace, terrain, and elevation throughout the week. Altering what you ask of your body, from speed to hilly running, typically leads to the ability to be effective in a wider variety of trail conditions and alters the biomechanical demands frequently enough to avoid overuse injury scenarios. Running in a variety of different shoes, or at least two different types or models of shoes can also help stave off lower leg and foot problems.
Adding strength training at periodized times throughout the year or utilizing other modalities of sport provide opportunities to develop and improve cardiovascular conditioning and muscular strength compared to running exclusively. Trail and ultrarunning move the body primarily in a forward plane. Taking time to strengthen your posterior kinetic chain and lateral movements using body weight and/or artificial weights will not only support running performance on the trail, but this can help balance lower body muscle development in a manner that sets you up to be more injury resilient . Cycling, swimming, Nordic skiing and even sports like tennis or ultimate frisbee force the body to move in a lateral plane more often than trail running requires. In turn, this can improve footwork and technique for technical trails while also providing psychological benefits that can help athletes avoid mental burnout. Know your preferences for variety but understand that proactively integrating different forms of movement and modalities will likely contribute to a body and mind that will remain robust in the face of trail and ultrarunning demands.
Increasing your durability as a trail and ultrarunner can take many forms. While spending most of your training time running on trails is likely to net the most improvements in your performance, don’t disregard the benefits of utilizing activities that are likely to support your running ambitions. If your goal is to stay in the sport for the long haul, you’re probably best served by taking time to enjoy activities that will strengthen your body in ways that trail and ultrarunning may not. A few decades later, you’ll hopefully still be bounding down the trails with a smile and a strong body.