When road running, it’s relatively straightforward to identify areas of improvement, that’s not to say it’s easy! It may be a stronger finish you are looking for, or shaving off a few seconds a mile. You may be looking to hold the pace for longer. Perhaps you are consistently looking for new PBs across several distances. You can generally work on these areas with targeted speed work, longer runs, and more aerobic running. When it comes to the trail running improvements, it’s not always as easy. You may start strong and start to fall off after a few miles of climbing once your legs have taken a hammering. You may be lacking in confidence on certain terrains or you may just not be used to going over a certain distance. The point is, when you identify your weaker points, you can tailor your training to help you improve in these areas. That’s currently where I am so I thought I would share.

The Goal

30 miles, 50 miles, 60 miles (well 58.5), and now I’m back training for another 30 miler. This time though it’s about more than just finishing it. That’s what I’ve always said before; “I don’t care about the time I just want to finish”.

So – number one of two goals is to not only finish it but to actually go sub six hours on some lumpy terrain. The second goal is to do a 50 solo. I’ve run with others before and finished strong but I want to see how I get on solo. It’s funny – I spend my time coaching others, crewing for others, supporting their training plans but I haven’t really nailed my own goals. I’ve enjoyed lots of trail races, fell races, and training runs and I’ve trained for several marathons but this time it’s not about completing it – it’s about nailing it in under 6 hours. It’s been the goal above all others as I undertake this training cycle and the one where I have learned quite a lot about myself. 

My Speed

On the road, I’m an average runner – 22:30 minute 5k, 1:44 half, 3:46 marathon. How does this translate to off-road? Well, it’s a completely different kettle of fish with so many variables – elevation gain, conditions, seasonal factors, how much has it rained, how overgrown are the trails… so, based on the runs I’ve already done, on the same hills, based on what I can do when I’m running strong, I have set myself the goal to do it in under 6 hours.

The Training

The ultra marathon that I am running is close to home. This means I can practice running on the terrain – it’s 2 miles from my door. I started my training cycle from the beginning of the route and did 10 miles, 12 miles, 14 miles, 18 miles…  each time I managed to hold the pace for ten miles easily. It all starts to get tricky around the 10-mile mark where the climbs get more intense and regular. You can see the time that you accumulated in the back slipping away. Then you have a good mile and reign it back. I know I will run stronger on race day – fresh legs, proper fuelling, hydration after a decent taper but in my head I already know where my toughest battles will be. 

In all honesty though, my longest run recently left me wondering how I was going to achieve my goal. I’ve run the whole route at 12.5 minute pace so surely with thousands more miles and more speed under my belt I can do it? Around the 12-mile mark, it really started to bite and I found myself not only struggling on the climbs but also struggling to get going again at the top of the climbs. Luckily I had my partner with me who hadn’t run long with me before and he was able to make some observations and come up with some new training ideas and trail running improvements.

What I Can Do to Improve the Pace?

The first suggestion was to practice my hiking which I actually discuss in this article. To be fair I haven’t really done any hiking during this cycle – just a lot of long hilly miles and some descending to try and gain confidence on the down. A few hilly dog walks in between training runs over the next few weeks will enable me to do this. 

The other was to do some steep hill reps where I run – power walk – run again. The idea of this is to train my body to get used to running after walking to try and get my body used to going again. Of course, hiking the climbs will also get me more adjusted to this. Could this be where I make up my time? Well, only time will tell but this reps session showed that hiking/running can give me sub 12-minute miling.

trail training techniques for ultra running

So, if you’re looking to get faster on the trails and make trail running improvements get out there – do a long run – analyse the stats after, and see where you might be able to gain some ground. Ask someone to come with you and see if they can offer any wisdom. Identify your weaknesses whether that be downhill, uphill, or just endurance. Then come up with some sessions that will help you work on these areas. If you aren’t a confident downhill descender, find yourself a hill and run up and down it a few times. Build up your speed on the downhill as you build your confidence. There are lots of tips and advice on downhill running here

What I’ve discovered is that I can run all day long at 9:30 pace when it’s flat and I nail the descents but it all goes a bit pear-shaped when I come off a climb and struggle to get going again! So, that’s my area of focus between now and the race in addition to the long, hilly miles. It’s a work in progress but I’ll let you know how I get on!