How to Balance Your Training Volume

11 11 2011


By Matt Russ
USA Triathlon

When it comes to sleep, we all know individuals who require different amounts. Some can get by on just five hours, while the next person is a zombie after seven. If we know that sleep needs are individualized, why would training volume not be the same?

There are a great number of things that affect how much training volume a person can absorb in a given time period, including individual physiology, stress, lifestyle, nutrition, age, recovery technique, sleep amount and quality, and of course practicality.

If you are following a plan that requires a set number of weekly or monthly training hours, this may or may not align itself with how many hours you can actually profit from. More importantly, the right amount of training volume may be a moving target, changing weekly or even daily.

Training volume is a component of three things: frequency, intensity and duration. If your target is to complete 10 hours of training in a week, this really only addresses one facet: duration. You conceivably could complete all your training volume for the week in just two days–but this would not be an effective course of action. If your frequency goal is two workouts per day, one of which cuts several hours of needed sleep out of your life, you may benefit more from just one quality workout per day. Intensity is an overlooked element, but you may notice acute muscles soreness after a 5K race that took less than 25 minutes to complete. A one-hour time trial near lactate threshold may require 48 hours or more of recovery before any “build” workouts can be resumed. All three components of volume are equally important, and equal emphasis must be placed upon balancing them.

Very few people are able to train consistently without some sort of minor or major upset. Work, family or a sudden illness are just a few things that can interject themselves into a training program. Mental stress levels can affect workout quality to a high degree, and one of the most noted physiological responses to mental stress (rising cortisol levels) is the same as physical stress. Working multiple 10-hour days to complete a project may leave you as physically exhausted as a tough workout and unable to summon the energy to complete your training for the day–even though you have been sedentary at your desk.

Dr. Timothy Noakes has proposed the central governor theory to explain fatigue. In essence, the body has a central governor that gradually imposes itself during training and racing to shut the body down as physical stress load increases. Perhaps this central governor is active under high mental stress loads as well, or the brain perceives stress as simply stress no matter what the source. At any rate, failing to adapt training volume to rising stress levels may just be the kiss of death for your next race.

For this reason, systems have been created to help the athlete subjectively quantify stress so that adjustments can be made proactively to training volume. Training Peaks software has a daily interface to indicate such metrics as sleep quality and amount, fatigue, muscle soreness, stress and overall health. A banking system or “CNS Score” designed by coach Rick Crawford allows the athlete to apply a scoring system to stress (physical, emotional, mental) and recovery (sleep, rest/recovery, therapy) to help determine when training stress has become imbalanced with recovery. There are also objective algorithms that assign numeric value to training volume (i.e. distance and intensity) and allow comparison of ongoing training volume to stress/recovery balance.

Training Stress Score (TSS), Training Stress Balance (TSB) and Chronic Training Load (CTL) are objective vs. subjective metrics found in the WKO software. It is important to note that over-reliance on these metrics, or hitting a particular numeric goal, is not always a good process. These scores are very useful for evaluating how much training stress your body has handled in the past, and/or how stressful a particular workout was. In short, they are a big picture of ongoing training volume. These metrics are particularly useful to athletes that tend to over train. You must balance the subjective (how you are feeling) with the objective (how you are performing) in order to optimize your training volume.

Perhaps one of the best ways to evaluate whether or not you have tipped the stress/recovery scale too far in the wrong direction is the inability to complete a particular workout objective. If your training is general (i.e. run 6 miles), this will be difficult to qualify, as there is no particular performance goal to achieve. But your ability to hit a specific wattage target, pace, split or heart rate zone gives you something to hang your hat on. To slightly underperform will mean that either the bar was a bit too high or that you have too much residual fatigue built up to hit the mark.

If you are consistently missing your targets over several days, it is a clear indication that something is not working and needs to be adjusted. Be aware that the more you try to push through another mediocre workout, the more you are tipping the scale toward the need for greater recovery. String enough of these workouts together and you may peak too early or require multiple weeks or more of recovery/reduced volume in order to shake out the accumulated fatigue. The amount of time you have to train must align itself with your goals, or you are setting yourself up for failure. Training for an iron-distance race is not going to be possible on just 10 hours per week. It is important to examine your life in totality before signing up for an ultra-endurance event.

I have often said that the greatest value of a coach is to be the objective party that forces an athlete to recover– thus realizing fitness vs. degrading performance. A highly motivated, Type A athlete can be his or her own worst enemy. Training must be a fluid and adaptable process in order to be accurate. The communication between coach and athlete must also be of high quality in order to get the best performance out of the athlete. Too much emphasis can be placed on a set-in-stone training plan. The best plan is not only the one that addresses the athlete’s individual needs specifically, but one that is also flexible in adjusting volume based on how the athlete is responding. I often have several athletes training for the same race, yet their training plans are very different based on a variety of criteria.

Think of your body as a sponge. It will continue to absorb training volume until it reaches a saturation point. Once the sponge is saturated, it can no longer soak up volume; you are only wasting your energy, risking injury and further degrading your performance. You must let the sponge dry out before it will soak up more fitness and that will require time and patience. If you are following a pre-built plan, realize that this is somewhat of a hit or miss approach. If your goal is to simply complete a race, you are only training one fitness substrate–endurance–and it is a relatively simple process to build enough to get to the finish line. However, once you start shooting for a PR, the equation becomes a lot more sophisticated. You must monitor for signs of over-reaching/over-training and adjust your volume, even if your plan requires a certain amount of hours. If you have a high level of muscle soreness, fatigue, low motivation and are experiencing a lot of work stress, a day off may be more effective training than slogging through another mediocre “wet sponge” workout.

Matt Russ has coached and trained athletes up to the professional level, for over 15 years. He currently holds the highest level of licensing by both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory and coaches athletes of all levels. He is also a freelance author, and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and websites. Visit for more information or email him at


Should You Train With a Heart Rate Monitor?

10 11 2011


By Jesse Kropelnicki
QT2 Systems

Triathletes typically have two very different approaches to training and racing. They tend to be either quantitative or qualitative in nature. Some are slaves to their power meters and have a permanent indentation on their upper-torso, from the strap of their heart rate (HR) monitor. Others live for the moment, and think only of how they feel right here and now. They wouldn’t know where to find a pulsing artery. Each has its pros and cons.

The qualitative athlete trains and races purely by feel. Their season is typically set up as blocks of aerobic development, intensity building, strength, endurance and speed, depending upon the specific time of year. Weekly workouts are scheduled as a series of hard, easy, or moderate efforts. They may wear a heart rate monitor, or use a power meter, though not within any particular parameters.

Alternatively, the quantitative athlete will typically have a more structured periodization plan outlining their entire season of training and racing. While the periodization plan acts as a working document, it defines the basis and logic of the season. Training is done with a HR monitor, at a minimum, and a power meter, whenever possible. The athlete focuses on specific training and racing zones, initially defined through testing and adjusted throughout training.

Either approach can be successful in creating a healthy, well-tuned athlete who makes progress year after year. But, how should the success of either approach be measured?

I like to assess two primary qualities. I first look at the athlete’s relative improvement from one season to the next; are they making progress every year in their race results. The other metric that’s telling of an athlete’s training program is consistency in race results. Do they have one amazing race, followed by a race where they are just way behind? These are two of the most difficult items to obtain and master. The success of these may be significantly more dependent upon your athlete’s ability to execute the training program, than the program itself.

Regardless of how you slice it, the coach is the one who is ultimately judged by the athlete’s performances. I call this the “one metric” assessment. It is what most outsiders use to judge coaches, and rightfully so.

There is a danger, especially among many self-coached athletes, in looking at the training programs of those who are currently winning or having high rates of success. These metrics can be greatly influenced by the successful athlete’s genetics and therefore the result itself may act as a mask for an otherwise poorly developed training program. For this reason, I encourage athletes to look for long-term progress in year-to-year race results and consistency in race results over the short term, when evaluating the training program of a fellow racer. These aspects are good indicators of both a solid training program, and an athlete who executes it well. More importantly, these qualities can be found in both the 8:15 and 12:00 Ironman finishers, alike. The athlete’s overall finish times, really do not act as a valid measure of their training program.

Are you, or should you be, a tracker of metrics? Below we will discuss the three biggest factors in the argument for or against metric tracking.

Training Load

Qualitative athletes never really know what their training load truly is. Even if they are very aware of their body, and its telltale signs, the qualitative athlete can tend to either over- or under-do particular workouts. This type of workout inconsistency will typically result in very similar racing inconsistencies. Some results will be remarkable, while others leave you scratching your head, wondering what went wrong.

Why? Because the actual build up to each race ends up being very different from event to event, as the nature of the pre-race intensities are so variable. As a result, the athlete will load and unload training stress in very different ways, leading into races.

The quantitative athlete, on the other hand, is better able to plan and execute the appropriate training stress, because they know exactly what is going into their training stew, at the beginning of every day, every block, and every season.

But, just as a stew is only as good as the ingredients that go into it, a season plan is only as good as the information on which it is based. That said, it is still very easy to over- or under-do the planning aspect of any particular training session. Even if perfectly executed, any given workout can result in an inappropriate training load for that point in the season.

Race Day Execution

Qualitative athletes go out on race day and rely on their experience to guide their day. In many cases this is a fantastic approach, which can lead to breakthrough performances. Leaving the HR monitor and power meter at home can be very freeing and allow the athlete to really push on performances, otherwise thought impossible.

However, for newer athletes and even seasoned veterans moving up in race distance, racing by feel often requires practice and a bit of trial and error. In long course racing, and especially Ironman, where the opportunities are relatively infrequent, this can result in a great deal of disappointment with the possibility of redemption a long way off.

The quantitative athlete approaches their races with a clear pacing plan, developed around very specific wattage and pace, or heart rate targets, which are always derived from recent training data. Initially, the athlete may feel a bit handcuffed by the pacing strategy, feeling as though it is holding them back. Most well-developed pacing strategies will feel much too easy very early on, causing a bit of doubt to creep into the athlete’s mind. But, if executed properly, the pacing will result in a “slow bleed”, where the athlete crosses the finish line in utter exhaustion, not a moment before, nor a moment later.

This type of pacing and execution results in the fastest possible triathlon time. Despite racing by the numbers, quantitative athletes must also have an eye on how they feel. It is never wise to race solely by data. The data should be used as a guide, alongside perceived exertion. The two, together, can become a very powerful combination.


Qualitative proponents have a clear advantage in this piece of the argument. Reduced stress while training–absence of constant benchmarks and numbers staring you in the face can be a pretty strong selling point. Quantitative athletes have the power meter and/or heart rate monitor dictating every step that they take. And when a workout isn’t going as well as planned, that device reminds them of it. There is something to be said for heading out on a ride or run, without that stress constantly present.

Quantitative athletes, on the other hand, are able to see real-time validation of their hard work, and the progress that results. Naturally quantitative athletes do not see this type of training as lacking in freedom, but as defining purpose. They know exactly what they are supposed to do each and every day, and most importantly, why. Many find a great deal of solace in that.

I’m sure you guessed that I’m a quantitative guy. After years and years of tracking athlete data, I have found that it is the most efficient and accurate way to ensure long-term progress and accelerate the race day learning curve. When all is said and done, training tools such as a HR monitors and/or pace and power meters can greatly enhance your ability to feel your effort on race day.

Many talented professionals and age-groupers toe the starting line in Kona each year only to realize a result that in no way represents their fitness, because they do not yet know the feel of the proper pace. At the same time, there are others who know exactly what the race should feel like, but learned it as the result of several failed attempts. They know what it feels like to overheat, to suffer dehydration, or to over pace the early portion of the bike, and they know exactly what to do when this occurs. They know these things because they have lived them. Had these same athletes been a bit more quantitative in their training and racing early on, they may have more quickly developed the feel in training, and suffered fewer racing tribulations.

Time is of the essence in the sport of triathlon, and anything that can be done to speed the learning curve should be taken very seriously. I am a big advocate of using metrics, very early in an athlete’s career, as teaching tools. This allows the athlete to learn quickly, and then use their own sense as they gain experience. Many beginner athletes see very experienced and successful professionals not using metrics in their training and racing, and believe that this is the way to go. What they don’t see is the road that it took to get there.

At the very least, it is a great idea to record race day data. This allows you to review and learn from your efforts, opening a very clear lens on exactly what went well and what could have been better. What was executed perfectly, and what was executed poorly. This learning experience helps the athlete to approach the next event with a more accurate feel for the race. It doesn’t take too many iterations of this, and the increasingly well-informed athlete can begin to hone in on their feel. Once this is accomplished, feel becomes a metric just as valuable as any power meter or heart rate monitor.



Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite-level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, a leading provider of personal triathlon coaching;, a leading provider of sports nutrition; and Your 26.2, a leading provider or marathon training programs. He coaches professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Jacqui Gordon, Ethan Brown and Tim Snow among others. He coaches professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. Find more coaching comments and ideas at

5 Little Things That Make a Big Difference on Race Day

9 11 2011


By Amanda McCracken

You’ve diligently logged your miles, your time, your heart rate, your hours of sleep and perhaps even your daily caloric intake. You’ve followed your plan to a “T” and religiously nailed your workouts day after day. You even skipped the biggest barbecue party of the summer because it was two nights before your big race (the most important night of sleep). The only room for error is misfortune (flat tire or bad weather), right?

Wrong! Here are five important practices that are often overlooked on the way to the start line.

#5: Check your gear.

Are your tires pumped? Do you have a spare tube and a CO2 cartridge in case of a flat tire? Do you have an extra pair of goggles? Do you have body glide to ease out of wetsuit transition and prevent chafing? Are your shoes laced with the elastic laces for easy on and off removal? Are the laces so tight they are going to create a bruise over the top arch of your foot? Ladies, do you have extra tampons in your bag in case of a race morning surprise? If you are using deep dish wheels, be sure to bring the adapter to pump your tires.

#4: Rehearse transition and warm up before your swim.

Many of you know that the number one rule of transition is NOT to be in transition! Ideally you’ve practiced your transitions during training but did you also visualize the perfect transition on race morning? Have you rehearsed the steps in your mind?

Entering the water is really your first “transition”. Get in the water for a short warm-up (even if just for a few bobs) before the start of the swim. This helps your body get accustomed to the temperature of the water, which helps pave the way for a calmer swim start.

Remember, excellent transition times can be the difference between several age group places.

#3: Be diligent about nutrition.

While this is an immensely dense subject, I want to highlight a few things to remember. Be sure to eat your dinner (low in fiber) about 12 hours before your wave starts so that your body has time to digest it all. If you can manage getting up early enough, eat your breakfast about two to three hours before the start of your race. Make sure your bottles are full of the fuel you used in training. Pack extra gels that you know your stomach can digest. Depending on the heat and length of your race, you should have a couple of electrolyte tabs on hand, too.

It’s easy to get distracted during the race and forget to address your nutritional needs until it’s too late. Before your race, draw up a nutrition map. Figure out when you are going to take gels and how much/how often you will hydrate.

#2: Know the course.

If you live close to the race site, you should pre-ride the course. If you don’t have time or energy to ride/run the course, then drive it the day before. Do you know where the hills are located? How about the wicked potholes and the sharp downhill turns?

Then scope out the swim course and take a mental note of where the main buoys are located.

Finally, know where the run/bike in and out spots are located, and where the finish line is. I like to run the last 400-meter stretch before the race so I have a good reference for when to pick up the pace. Don’t let an athlete outrun you for a first place age group award simply because you think the finish line is further away than it actually is.

#1: Tame your mind.

Triathletes often psyche themselves out before the race even starts. Avoid over analyzing the way your body feels the week before the race. Tell yourself it’s a well-trained machine that’s ready to perform.
When you get to the race, keep your “blinders” on. Don’t let the looks of someone’s solid six pack or shiny deep dish wheels intimidate you. Remember, it’s the motor inside that really matters.

Be sure you have a script that you’ve rehearsed to help battle the potential negative talk, fear and panic in the race. What are you going to tell yourself when your legs feel like lead and you’ve just been passed by your ex’s new flame? Make sure you’ve got a mantra you can peel out of your sticky gel pocket to do battle. I like to draw out my own “word map” of the course. What am I going to tell myself when I get to point “X”?

Being mindful of the details can help prevent things like getting a DNF (Did Not Finish) due to a flat tire, panicking in the water, bonking, getting lost, or mentally cracking. Simply plan ahead and keep your mind in check.



Amanda McCracken has been racing triathlons competitively for 14 years and coaching athletes for 10 years. She resides in the mecca of triathlon, Boulder, Colorado, where the trails are her playground.

What to Expect When You Hit the Trail for an Off-Road Race

7 11 2011


Martin Dugard
Runner’s World

As you might think, a trail race can be quite different from a road race, both tactically and physically.

Some words of wisdom regarding race day:

First of all, wear those trail shoes. They’re light enough for racing, but offer the lateral support you need to keep your feet and ankles more stable. Also, a trail shoe has a heavier tread pattern than a road shoe, and offers a toe “bumper” to protect you from bruising.

Start slowly. In essence, a trail race is a whole bunch of people trying to squeeze onto a skinny trail. Which may make you want to start out fast to beat the crowds. Don’t. This will only send you into oxygen debt and sap the energy you’ll need later in the race when everyone else is tiring.

Stay loose. As the race progresses, you’ll find a rhythm. Imagine yourself as nimble and light-footed as Fred Astaire. In this relaxed state, you’ll be less likely to fall and more apt to maintain speed.

Above all, have fun. Trail racing is the most natural form of racing. Indeed, we feel like children as we run through the forest. It’s playtime, and we’re called to it.

Trail Techniques and Tactics

Whether you are training or racing on trails, think about staying light on your feet. Run as if on eggshells. Also, resist the tendency to favor one leg over the other. A lot of runners start using one leg as the “plant” leg to land heavily on and the other as the “drive” or “push-off” leg. Each leg should do these actions interchangeably.

Some other tactics to remember:

Downhills: Run on the balls of your feet, not on your heels. This means less pounding, more speed and greater control.

Uphills: Shorten your stride, and keep your head up and chest forward. Run relaxed and try to find a rhythm that will take you up and over each hill with relative ease.

Corners: To a greater extent than on the roads, trails offer the chance to round a corner and “hide.” Practice bursts of speed when turning corners. Competitors won’t see you accelerate, and will experience a mental letdown when they see you’ve “gapped” them. Include this maneuver as a regular part of your fartlek workout.

Streams: It’s possible to cross a stream while barely wetting your feet. All you have to do is high-step across as quickly as possible, allowing your feet to touch down only for a fraction of a second. Try it. And don’t be afraid to run right through a stream. Too many competitors lose time by halting at the edge of a stream midrace.


10 Post-Race Essentials

2 11 2011


Photo by Matt Dickenson

By Fara Rosenzweig

Whether it’s a 5K or marathon, you have to prepare for race-day. Preparation includes registration,training and gathering all the essentials you need before the start line (watch, iPod, bib number, fuel and gels). There’s a ton to remember prior to the start line that often times post race essentials slip your mind.

As you prep for your next race, try to think past the finish line. What will you need to recover and survive the post-race festivities? Here are some key items you should keep in your bag to help you recover (plus, these usually are not passed out at the finish line). Have a small cosmetic bag in your bathroom with these items, so the next time you prep for an event you can just throw this into your bag.

Post Finish Line Essentials


Come on, you just ran your heart out and are completely sweaty. Give those around you a break and reapply. Go buy one of the travel deodorants to keep in your little bag, this way it’s there and doesn’t take up too much room. Plus, you are giving everyone a break from your lovely odors.

Moist Towelettes

Again, give those around you a break and wipe off your sweat. If you plan on sticking around for the post-race festivities you might as well clean off a bit. Wipes are inexpensive, light and easy to throw in your bag.


After running a significant amount of miles my stomach starts to feel unsettled. After numerous marathons (and asking the first aid tent for antacids) I’ve realized, I should just keep a bottle in my bag. Avoid any stomach situationby being well prepared. This will at least settle your stomach for a bit, so you can celebrate with friends at the post-race festivities with no surprises.

Adhesive Bandage

The medical tent should have adhesive bandages, but who wants to wait in a line? Just grab a box of multiple sizes for any unexpected blisters or scrapes you may encounter.

Massage Stick

Keep a massage stick or tennis ball in your bag to massage your muscles after the race. A post-race massage will help circulation and restore you tired muscles. Bonus; you will feel less stiff the next day and recover quickly.

Pain Reliever

Again, if you want to avoid the medic’s tent throw in some pain reliever. If you happen to hurt yourself, pull something or just in slight pain, you’ll be well-prepared.

New Shoes

This is especially important for marathon runners. After running 26.2 miles, your feet will be tired and slightly swollen. Finish your cool down, take off your shoes and give your feet some love. Give them a little massage with your tennis ball or massage stick and let them air out in flip flops or your favorite comfy shoes.

New Shirt

If you’re going to stick around for the festivities, change your sweaty shirt please. I usually bring the shirt that was given to me through the event. If you don’t receive one, just bring an old one from home. Plus, it just feels nice to get out of sweaty clothes. After all, if you are cleaning up (wiping off with wet wipes, using deodorant, changing shoes) you might as well feel like a new person by swapping shirts.


You should put some sunscreen on prior to the race, but due to sweating your skin is not protected. After you clean yourself off, slather on some SPF to protect your skin when you’re enjoying the post-race festivities.

ID and Money

Bring your ID and a little money for any food or souvenirs that you may want. A little cash might be a good idea just in case you need to take public transportation or a cab to your destination. Just make sure you keep your ID and money tucked away in your bag so it doesn’t get lost.

14 Tips to Reach Your Race Goal

1 11 2011


By Gigi Douban
Runner’s World

Jitters come with any race, whether you’re going shorter, longer, faster, or just heading to the starting line for the first time. But they shouldn’t stop you from running your best. This expert advice will help you manage your anxieties for any new endeavor. Who knows, you may even enjoy yourself.



This strange new world—people with beeping devices on their wrists and Band-Aids on their nipples—is a bit intimidating.


Go ahead and splurge on a technical top or pair of sleek sunglasses. Looking the part can make you feel like less of an outsider. Just get in a few test runs in new gear (especially shoes).


Give yourself at least an hour so you can find parking and make a trip to the porta-potty. Showing up late increases anxiety, says Lucinda Seares-Monica, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist.


Tell someone—a volunteer, the person next to you at the start—that this is your first race. “The running community is encouraging,” says Frank Webbe, Ph.D., a sports psychologist. “Opening up can also be cathartic.”


Don’t have a time goal, says Bill Cole of the International Mental Game Coaching Association. You’re already guaranteed a personal record.



The gun goes off and the race is on, which can be daunting to those used to finding a rhythm and settling into a pace.


For a local 5K, do a trial run. Being familiar with the course will give you confidence—you’ll know where the hills are and when to fire your finishing kick.


Ideally an experienced 5K’er who’s a bit faster. Following someone means you don’t have to stress over pacing yourself, Webbe says.


“Jitters are actually good for a short race,” Seares-Monica says. “Adrenaline will rev up your engine. Think of it as fuel.”




Stepping up to a longer race—be it a 10K or an ultra—can be overwhelming.


Divide the race into manageable sections and focus on them one at a time, rather than thinking about the finish line, which seems far, far away.


Put your name on your shirt and soak up the fanfare. “It’s amazing to have people call you out and cheer you on,” Seares-Monica says.


Plant friends and relatives strategically along the course—at the top of a tough hill, at mile 20, or where support is light on the course.


“Carry small items of food you can digest easily and have one at each mile marker,” says Seares-Monica, who suggests pretzels or peanut M&M’s. You’ll stay nourished as you track your progress—watch the snacks disappear as you knock off the miles.


It’s time to cash in on all that hard training. But doubts set in.

IGNORE NEGATIVITY If you hear someone groaning about how hard the course is, tune it out. That person probably didn’t train as much as you did.


Your legs and lungs will burn. Have a “bring it on” attitude, says Cole. Remind yourself that you wanted this: The challenge of pushing yourself to achieve something new.


You wake up with a migraine or to a heat wave. Move on to Plan B—another goal that’s more realistic, but something you’ll be proud of.


The Elusive Trail Runner

31 10 2011


By Adam W. Chase

Trying to characterize the typical advocate of trail running is like trying to give a small child a haircut or searching for fireflies during the day–you don’t get much cooperation and spotting them can be tricky.

They are not joiners and they often run trails to get away from it all. With 6.2 million individuals in the United States identifying themselves as trail runners, and a reported 38 percent growth rate in trail-running enthusiasts between 1998 and 1999, you’d think the outdoor industry would know who these people are, or would want to.

A simplified profile might describe trail runners as folks who run on surfaces other than streets. But even that characterization is flawed because there is a substantial crossover among trail and road runners. Then there is the question of whether adventure or cross-country runners count as trail runners since they often run off-trail.

Trail runners might also be classified by their choice of footwear. In contrast to road-running shoes, trail shoes have aggressive treads, or “outsoles,” that enhance the traction for dirt, mud, snow, ice, rock, grass, gravel and other off-road surfaces. Trail shoes also tend to feature protective uppers that prevent trail debris from entering the shoes, and buffer against encounters with sharp objects along the trail. That said, one frequently sees trail runners with road shoes and vice versa, so choice of shoe is not that great a clue.

Understanding who trail runners are requires going beyond issues of running surface and gear. Just as the separation between “roadies” and mountain bikers in the cycling world is a distinction in attitude, so is the dichotomy between alpine skiers and telemark “pin heads,” sport climbers and traditional climbers, flat-water kayakers and white-water kayakers, track skiers and ski tour types, and road runners and trail runners.

The difference between road runners and trail runners boils down to a psychological one. One distinction in attitude is the quest for speed and distance versus pursuing something for an intrinsic, yet immeasurable, experience. Road runners tend to be into measurement. They are often aware of their pace, heart rate, time above, in and below their heart-rate zone, the distance they have run, and perhaps the elevation they have gained and lost, or calories they have burned. In contrast, while trail runners might know the day of the week, they rarely know how far they have run, much less their pace, because they normally measure their runs by time rather than distance.

Trail runners tap into the off-road running experience as a freeing escape that allows them to recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries while they commune with nature through physical exertion. Road running by definition requires a road, which translates into a connection with civilization. Road runners are often forced to maneuver their runs to contend with auto traffic in what are often hostile encounters. Those stressful interactions are not the best way to unwind or recharge.

Trail runners are people who like adventure, variety, challenge and excitement. The essence of trail running is the ability to deal with constant change. No two steps are the same on the natural obstacle course of off-road terrain. Even if you run the same trail day after day, you will soon learn that the trail has a life of its own. One day it may be dry and hard, the next it may be wet and sloppy. There are also the seasonal changes and the effects of temperature, erosion, foot traffic and plant life. Of course, there are also the flowers, trees, birds, insects, squirrels, rabbits, deer, and if you are lucky–or unlucky, depending on your aversion to risk–the chance encounter with coyotes, bears, mountain lions, moose and other big game. It is this constant change that brings the trail-running experience to life.

Some of the best trail runners hail from a background of alpine or freestyle skiing, or mountain biking. Like chess masters, talented trail runners are able to have their mind three or four steps ahead of where their feet are at any given moment. This anticipatory running style allows trail runners to set up for turns, rocks, roots, or other variations that lie ahead, which is crucial to staying upright while maintaining downhill speed.

Trail runners also tend to run alone–which explains why you seldom come across a pack of runners on the trail. While there are literally hundreds of road-running clubs throughout the U.S., there is only a handful of trail-running clubs. Of course, there are more road runners than there are trail runners in this country, but the lack of trail clubs speaks more to the nature of trail runners rather than the number of trail runners. Trail runners are hard to count. Whereas road runners tend to flock together, trail runners maintain a solo spirit.

Perhaps the road runner’s desire for companionship is explained by a sense of boredom that comes from running on unvarying terrain. Trails offer the opportunity to retreat from the masses, and to escape to a place of tranquility where your mind may wander without any concern for traffic. The distraction of having to scout each footstep can lull you into a peacefulness that cannot be found in a paved and populated environment.

Many more ultramarathons are run on trails than they are on roads. The ultra community is a more mature, experienced crowd that has learned that the road to injury is paved, especially in races longer than 26 miles. Ultrarunners are often characterized as aficionados of natural beauty, which is why the biggest and best ultras are run in some of the most awe-inspiring places.

Although many trail runners tend to hale from adventurous, athletic backgrounds such as rock and mountain climbing, triathlons, mountain biking, and backcountry and cross-country skiing, others are road-running converts who have turned to the trails to revitalize their athletic lives.

Many converts appreciate the forgiving qualities of the trail, and have learned that running trails decreases the chance of suffering overuse injury, in comparison with the pounding of pavement that offers little variation in stride length or foot strike, mile after mile.

Many trail runners never race. For them, it is enough to just enjoy the activity for its own sake without testing themselves by running with other trial runners. For some, “trail racing” is an oxymoron. They run trails for the sake of running trails, and don’t really care to cross paths, with other trail runners while out on a run. Trail events, however, are different from road races in that the atmosphere tends to be supportive rather than competitive and there is usually a lot of encouragement from everyone in the field, regardless of the runners’ speed. These events may be called trail “races,” but a more proper label would be that of a trail “celebration.”



Adam W. Chase, a resident of Boulder, Colorado, is the President of the All American Trail Running Association. When he is not being a husband, father, tax lawyer, or product tester, he can probably be found running on mountain trails. He is a sponsored ultramarathoner and snowshoe racer, and he has run more than 50 marathons and ultramarthons, most of which were on trails.