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How should we be training?

One thing has been made abundantly clear over the last 20 years of physiological research, genetics is vitally important. In the

continuous debate between "Nature or Nurture" we have seen that the more the skill or ability which is being examined is physical, rather than a "mental skill" (playing an instrument, programming a computer) the more fundamental genetics would seem to be and less important learning is (deliberate practice as postulated by Anders Ericsson in his book "Peak", later popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers"). Genetics implies that unless you have a nearly perfect physique, like Usain Bolt, it will be impossible for you to run 100m in less than 10" no matter how much you practice. But training will allow you to achieve your maximum potential with the genetic pool at your disposal.

We are more concerned with long distance and mountain running. In this type of race genetics plays a smaller role but still continues to be important. Just look at the various elites to confirm this. But certainly it is less important than in shorter and faster races, especially if the aim is to finish the race or even to do the very best you are capable of.

I am sure that all of us have seen people during an Ultra race that seem decidedly out of place, maybe overweight, with a pronounced limp or unbalanced physique, but nevertheless they reach the finish. Here it is a matter of doing what you can with the body that was given to you by genetics and adding a good dose of stubbornness and above all targeted training.

What, therefore, is the ideal way to train for resonable success in trail and mountain races?

“Run a lot of miles

Some faster than your race pace

Rest once in awhile “

This succinct haku by Michael Joyner, Coach and Physiologist at the Mayo Clinic, would seem to sum up the basics of training philosophy. Dr. Joyner is referring to road racing and more specifically to marathon and half marathon training which explains the reference to “race pace”. In trail and mountain running it is rather difficult to reference race pace and so we would more commonly refer to race intensity.

For Trail and Mountain Running we can identify four basic tenents of an efficient training plan:


Running in a regular way we give the body the possibility of getting used to training stimuli / stress and, if we give the possibility to recover well, the body becomes stronger and more resistant. The more we run, but without running too much, the better we get at it.


By giving the right structure to training both in terms of microcycles (one week / 10 days) and mesocycles (2 - 3 months) we are sure that the body will receive both the correct stimuli and the necessary recovery. This however is one of the most difficult parts of creating a workable training plan.

Variation in Stimulus.

The body is strange but predictable. A stimulus is applied, recovery is allowed, the body becomes stronger. Great, but only up to a certain point. The possible improvement given by a type of training is not infinite. At some point improvement is no longer possible and you arrive at a plateau. In the best case scenario you can stay at that point, but it is possible, actually rather probable, that there will be a regression. Therefore a new and different stimulus must be applied to elicit further improvements. A change in the programme to run faster, run longer, run uphill or downhill, run after having partially exhausted the muscle fibers with a series of jumps etc. Even better would be to have a continually changing series of training stimuli throught the entire training cycle (Macro-Cycle) and these should be coordinated within the various Meso-Cycles and Micro-Cycles.


If we have to race 800m races, the specificity lies in being able to run just as strongly over the last 200 - 300m when the muscles seem to no longer want to move. For a 100m the specificity lies in starting well and strong from the blocks in the maximum thrust position, being able to accelerate from 10 to 70 / 80m and then keep the speed for the last 20m (much easier to say than to do). If we have to face a trail race the specificities are manifold - running on rough and uneven terrain, proceeding uphill and downhill (muscular strength and endurance), running at night, being able to restore energy supplies, maintaining an acceptable state of hydration, etc. So the options for doing workouts that lead to improved performance are many and, in my opinion, the more different types of training you can do within a particular training cycle, the more fun the process will be.

To sum up the above I have also tried my hand at a simple trail/mountain running training haku (nowhere near as good as Dr. Joyner’s I would freely admit):

“Run regularly with varied workouts

Rest and recover

Practice race specificity “

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