Imagine you have an important work presentation in a few months that will make or break your career. How do you prepare? Well, to start, you need to do the research and design some visuals. But while those elements might be necessary for a successful presentation, they’re not sufficient. At some point, you need to put it all together and practice the specific task you will accomplish on the big day.
That is specificity in a nutshell. And just like practicing a presentation, applying the principles of specificity to your running training is essential for maximizing your performance on the trails.
In trail running, specificity means that your most important workouts in the final four to six weeks before a big event should stress your body in a way similar to the upcoming race.
I have found this is a helpful way to think about it: At the beginning of a training cycle, you do workouts so you can be stronger for more demanding future workouts. Then, once you enter the final phase of training, slightly more than a month before race day, you do workouts to prepare you for the race itself.
Megan Roche used quality long runs to win the Way Too Cool 50K two weekends ago. Photo by Jesse Ellis/Let’s Wander Photography
What does that mean in practice? It depends how long your race lasts. Calculate your goal finishing time, then find which category you fit in below.
Remember, never do more than two structured workouts a week, with the rest of your runs relaxed and comfortable. For every workout, include a 10-to-20-minute warm-up jog and cool-down jog.
15 to 50 Minutes: Fast Intervals
For shorter trail races, you want to process oxygen rapidly and efficiently, as if your cardiovascular system is the exact opposite of the DMV.
Race-specific workouts for this distance involve short intervals around race pace or a bit faster, all designed to get you huffing and puffing. Then, if you feel good on the final interval, you can let it fly a bit faster still, generating a grimace worthy of a driver’s-license photo.
- 6-8 x 3 minutes fast / 2 minutes easy
- 4-6 x 5 minutes fast / 3 minutes easy
Prepare: Leading up to your final phase of training, spend a few weeks doing moderate tempo running, as described in the next section, along with some speed-oriented economy intervals. That way, you will maximize what you get out of your supporting physiological systems, which will improve your performance in specific workouts.
Puppies like fast trail intervals with grass-sitting recovery. Photo by David Roche
50 to 100 Minutes: Moderate Tempo Running
For middle-distance trail races, you want your body to be more resistant to fatigue build-up, as if your leg muscles have guzzled eight Red Bulls.
Moderate tempo-based intervals—run at the pace where you just start to lose the ability to say more than one or two words at a time, or about one-hour race pace—push back fatigue while teaching your body to deal with it when the bad chemicals do start flowing.
- 20-40 minute moderate tempo run over terrain similar to your race
- 2-4 x 10 minutes tempo / 5 minutes easy
- 3-5 x 8 minutes tempo / 4 minutes easy
Prepare: Leading up to your final phase of training, spend a few weeks doing fast intervals, along with some quality long runs. Aerobic capacity from the long runs and VO2 max from the intervals will both be essential for fast, comfortable tempos.
100 to 200 Minutes: Quality Long Runs
For long trail races, you need the metabolic and musculoskeletal adaptations that will allow your body to push through events that can be as long as presidential debates (though rarely as painful).
Twice in the four to six weeks before your race (but no closer to race day than two weeks prior), do long runs of two to three hours in which you focus on a quality effort, approximating 80 to 90 percent of race effort. You should finish feeling a bit zonked out, but still able to recover well in a couple days—exactly how I feel after most presidential debates.
Prepare: Leading up to your final phase of training, spend a few weeks doing both fast intervals and moderate tempo running. Improving VO2 max (intervals) and lactate threshold (tempos) will make your long-run pace faster.
If your race has epic terrain, try to simulate it in training. Photo by David Roche
Over 200 Minutes: Aerobic Long Runs
For ultras and most trail marathons, you need to be able to withstand getting beat up for hours on end.
To prepare for the pounding, in the six weeks prior to an ultra, you should do at least two aerobic long runs where you practice fueling and running over similar terrain as race day.
The most important thing is to run the downhills at an effort similar to what you will use during the race. Many ultras are ruined by quads that turn to hamburger meat during faster descents. The rest of the run can be almost any effort you like, and it can even include alterations of effort.
While there is no hard-and-fast rule for how long your longest run should be, I have found success with the following guidelines: for a marathon, make a 23-miler your longest training run; for a 50K, a marathon-length run; for 50 miles, a 50K; for 100K, a 50-mile training weekend (back-to-back long runs totaling 50 miles); and for 100 miles, a 50- to 70-mile training weekend.
Prepare: Leading up to your final phase of training, spend a few weeks doing moderate tempo running and quality long runs. You are unlikely to need fast intervals for these extra-long efforts, though you can do them in the beginning phases of training to improve your oxygen-processing power. Tempos and quality long runs will turn you into an aerobic monster built to withstand the specific demands of super-long-distance workouts.
If you mix these workouts with recovery and as many easy miles as you can run while staying healthy, you will maximize your performance on race day. Applying these principles will turn you from a generally good runner to a specifically awesome racer.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite 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.