This weekend, Ryan Kaiser did something that seems impossible. He came in second place at the Sean O’Brien 100K—a race with tons of elevation and tough, muddy trails—with 80 percent of his training on a treadmill.
Ryan is no stranger to big races. He finished 5th at the 2016 Hardrock 100, 3rd at the 2016 Javelina Jundred and 11th at the 2015 Western States 100. That 11th place finish was particularly heartbreaking: only the top 10 men and women automatically qualify for the next year’s event. Kaiser would have to earn his way back by finishing top-two at one of the prestigious Golden Ticket races.
When I started coaching Kaiser a few months ago, we pointed everything at the Sean O’Brien 100K, in the hopes of earning a golden ticket. But, almost as soon as we started, Kaiser’s home in Bend, Oregon got hit with record-setting levels of snow and ice. So Kaiser hit the treadmill.
Each day on his training log, beside the run I had planned, he would simply write: completed (treadmill).
Ryan is concise because he is busy—he recently started his own law firm. So it was appropriate that on Saturday, next to where I wrote, “Earn the Golden Ticket!” he simply wrote: completed (outside).
How did he do it?
Here are five lessons from Ryan’s training, which could help trail runners of any level, even if you don’t have to train indoors
1. Miles make the woman, or the man
In December and January, Ryan averaged 325 miles per month. That’s a 40-percent increase, up from an average of 232 miles per month the six months prior. That increase in mileage provided essential aerobic adaptations that allowed Ryan to run strong over 100K at Sean O’Brien.
In addition, in eight of the 10 weeks leading up to the race, Ryan did a weekly long run of 20 miles or longer, with two of marathon-distance and one 50K training run. In total, 5 of his 8 long runs were on the treadmill.
For the rest of us:
Before jumping into a training plan that quantifies every little thing from heart rate to body weight, think about trying the simplest one of all: run more. That said, be cautious about building up too fast. Aim for no more than a 10-percent increase in mileage per week, mixing in a down week every two to four weeks, dropping volume by 15 or 30 percent. Running training is not a get-rich-quick scheme; it is a go-long, get-strong process.
2. Short and fast provides the foundation for long and steady
Along with the mileage increase, Ryan got into a weekly routine:
Monday: full rest
Tuesday: easy run with fast strides
Wednesday: workout with short intervals between 1 and 3 minutes
Thursday: easy run
Friday: easy run
Saturday: long run
Sunday: easy run with fast strides
More than 85-percent of Kaiser’s mileage was easy, meaning a pace where he could hold a conversation (possibly with the wall if he went crazy from all the treadmill miles). However, he did fast efforts three times per week. Strides and short-interval workouts improve running economy, VO2 max and lactate threshold, depending on the emphasis of each session.
For example, 10 x 3 minutes fast/1 minute easy primarily works lactate threshold, while 12 x 1 min fast/1 min easy or 30 seconds on/30 second off primarily works VO2 max. As a result, Ryan’s easy pace became faster over the training cycle. After a few months, Kaiser had worked up to a 20 miler at 5:50 minutes per mile pace on the treadmill after he adapted to the initial stress of faster intervals (all with his heart rate below 160 beats per minute).
For the rest of us:
When designing your own plan, before you worry about hard workouts, do lots of short and fast strides in the context of your easy runs. As your body adapts, you’ll notice that running fast begins to feel natural, and your slow pace becomes faster too.
3. Don’t overemphasize vertical gain
Climbing is essential for event-specific endurance and resilience. However, climbing is slow, so it does not benefit raw speed unless supported by (and supporting) faster running. This is why so many road and track runners come in and dominate trail races. Their climbing strength is a natural side effect of consistent faster running, with minimal-to-no event-specific preparation.
Kaiser began the Sean O Brien 100K training cycle a few months after completing the Hardrock 100, so his body was no stranger to long, difficult climbs. In the build up to Sean O’Brien, we never put the treadmill over a six-percent grade—far more gradual than what he’d see on race day. The idea was to keep his runs efficient and quick relative to effort level, which would allow him to improve running economy and speed. Prior to the race, he just did a couple runs with steeper gradients to get accustomed to those movement patterns again.
For the rest of us:
Don’t chase vert at the expense of consistent faster running, unless you are doing races like Hardrock, where speed does not matter much at all. Most people benefit from doing workouts and (most of their) total miles on flat or rolling terrain, rather than steep trails. Most of my athletes train flatter during the week, and on more adventurous trails on the weekend.
4. Downhill running practice is indispensable
Downhills treat your legs like termites treat wood: everything seems fine and dandy until it all falls apart. Luckily, Ryan’s treadmill is capable of six-percent decline. During every long run, he would do extended periods of downhill running at a faster pace than what he would run on race day—sometimes as much as 10 miles of total downhill in a 20 mile run at 5:30 to 6-minute pace. As a result, Ryan was ready for the massive California hills while rarely leaving his basement.
For the rest of us:
Practice running downhills fast during your long runs. If you live in a place without long downhills, do a few unstructured repeats on the best hill you have. If you live somewhere totally flat, you can even put blocks under the back of your treadmill to simulate long declines (be sure to read an online tutorial before trying this at home). Uphill strength and flat-ground speed won’t matter without downhill resilience.
5. Runners are defined not by whether they can avoid adversity, but by how they respond to it
Early on in the training cycle, I had told him I thought it was nearly impossible to get a Golden Ticket to Western States by training on a treadmill.
He texted me back, “let’s go for it anyway.”
The people that reach their potential, like Ryan, resolutely stand their ground when others would give up.
In my pre-race email to Kaiser I laid out the race plan: “Do not idealize this [stuff]. It will [floofing] suck at some point. RIGHT NOW, decide how you will respond. Never, ever despair—we sign up for these things because they are difficult. Smile through the suck, laugh in the face of failure.”
You make your decisions about the type of runner you want to be, long before you put foot to trail. Be the runner that is willing to put in the miles, the trials and the smiles.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a runner for HOKA One One and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.