Back to Basics: Ultra to 5k training

I recently realized that I have been running regularly for more than 20 years (with the usual breaks for injuries and exceptionally busy college semesters). I started running in 7th and 8th grade track and field, where I ran the mile, but it wasn’t until high school when I joined cross country and started running 3 mile races that I really learned what it meant to seriously run. Our team was always a top finisher at state, and we trained hard. Since high school, I have gone through a 5k race phase, an obstacle course run phase (think Tough Mudders and Spartan Races), and slowly worked my way up to ultra marathons.

Fast forward to earlier this summer. I trained for and ran a 40 mile race that absolutely wiped me out. I was exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. Furthermore, I was frustrated with my training and performance. Sure, my endurance was fantastic, and I could keep a slow jog up essentially indefinitely, but I didn’t feel strong, flexible, or agile. My hips felt like they were starting to fossilize, and I could barely reach my toes some mornings. I wasn’t injured, but I had plateaued, and I couldn’t figure out how to get better. After the race, I took two full weeks off from running: one full week of rest and one week of yoga and strength training, but I still couldn’t get excited about running. I didn’t have any races to train for, so I didn’t even know what kind of distances to think about training for. 

Then, my little sister (currently in high school cross-country) had an idea. She said, “Why don’t you run shorter distances? Like 5k races?” I loved the idea! Doing shorter runs every day sounded really refreshing, and I would be back to a racing distance I know really well. I was as excited as if I had plans to visit an old friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years. Furthermore, I was excited that I would have so much more time than I did when training for marathons and ultra-marathons. And what could I do with that extra time? More non-running workouts of course! I started doing 30min to 1hr of yoga and/or weight lifting three or four days per week on top of the Advanced 5k Training Plan by Hal Higdon. I like his plans because they’re free and they incorporate a lot of different types of speed workouts. The one change I made was my weekend long run. Instead of a road run, I went for a much longer trail run or hike because getting out to nature one day per week is the closest thing I have to a religion. For my cross-training, I use Peloton (an app with a lot of different fitness workouts, both pre-recorded and live streamed). I like having someone tell me what to do for these types of workouts. That way I don’t have to think about it at all – I just turn on a class and do it. 

Two weeks ago, I finished the 5k training plan. From the beginning to the end of the 8 week plan, I cut a little over a minute off my 5k time on the route I use around here. I was hoping to get closer to my all-time best time, but I was still pretty happy with this. There’s a big hill on this route, and I need an actual race to really see how fast I can go. Moreover, I feel so much stronger than I did before. The power yoga in particular has helped me strengthen my glutes and all the little balancing muscles in my ankles. I haven’t rolled my ankles in MONTHS! At its worst, I was rolling them almost every trail run. Along with strength, I’m also feeling more flexible and less stiff. I did a perfect backbend last week without feeling like I might tear something in my hips or shoulders. My foot pain has almost completely disappeared, and my IT band, which starts to nag at me when I’m overdoing it, has not twinged once. I can’t believe that I haven’t done this before. Now that my 5k training plan is over, I’m going to do Hal Higdon’s Advanced 10k training plan, and I’m going to try and get to the point where I can do some of these upside down headstand/handstand yoga poses. I’m considering working my way all the way back up to marathon distances in this way, but we’ll see how it goes. Maybe I’ll go back to shorter distances for the whole winter. 

In conclusion, if you’re not feeling like your running self anymore, get back to the basics, whatever that may mean for you! Maybe that means a Couch to 5k or perfecting your mile times on the track. Maybe it’s a non-running activity like backpacking or biking. Either way, I bet it’ll renew your appreciation for running and make you all the more excited to lace up your shoes and get back out there. 

Trail Running for Beginners

Trail running is so much more than simply running along trails. Trail running is about connecting with nature. Trail running is about challenging yourself. Trail running is about exploring new and exciting places. Whether you are on the fence about trail running or simply after a new perspective, these 5 key tips are going to help you get on the trails, and stay on the trails for longer.

1. Shoes Shmooze

I remember running my first trail marathon thinking I knew everything there is to know about trail running. I was out in front wearing my expensive trail running shoes that were built for this exact terrain. Then, I was overtaken by a guy in beat up old Nike’s. He went on to win the race and set a new course record. I, on the other hand, was left to ponder the legitimacy of trail running shoes. And whilst I still think that trail running shoes have their place in this sport, I believe that any comfortable running shoe can do the job. I have since ran the UTA100 in my normal road running shoes, finishing in just 13 hours. So if you are thinking about picking up the sport, I encourage you to just go out and run in whatever comfortable shoes you have. And if you’ve been trail running for a while, try your road shoes out on the trails, if the conditions aren’t too technical or muddy. And if your feet hurt, or your shoes start getting beat up, get new ones before they’re fully worn out. Your feet with thank you.

2. Walk the Walk

Running is hard work, especially up hills. Trails can be unforgiving at times and all you want to do is stop running, and that’s OK! Walking is a huge part of trail running. Whether you are gassed, your hips are sore, or you simply need a break, there is nothing wrong with slowing down to a walk. Sometimes I find it helps me gather enough energy for another long section of running.

3. Always Pack Extra!

Whether it’s water, snacks, warm clothes, or first aid, it’s always worth carrying more than you need for your intended route. Most of the time you won’t need it and it deosn’t add much extra weight (you may also get more gains from this additional weight). But when you come across someone who is lost or injured, or you find yourself in this same situation, you’ll be grateful for the extra Clif Bar and the emergency blanket. Sometimes trails are impassable at points, forcing you to take alternative routes, and that extra 500ml could mean the difference between heat exhaustion and a lovely run.

4. Bring a Mate

Trail running with someone else can take the enjoyment of this sport to a whole new level. A running buddy can make the impossible feel possible as you cheer each other on up a mighty hill. A running buddy can make the gruelling challenges more bearable and the vistas more rewarding. Nothing is better than sharing the triumph of finishing a long run with a mate (especially over an ice-cold Bundaberg Ginger Beer).

If you’re new to the sport or don’t have many trail running friends, look online for trail running clubs in your area. Most clubs will have a Facebook page from where you can join organised runs, or simply see if anyone is interested in tagging along on your next adventure.

5. Patience

If you aren’t seeing the progress you were hoping for, that’s ok, just keep running and you will get better, faster, and more resilient. Try a targeted running plan to help keep you on track towards your goal at a reasonable pace. Some plans are even targeted for specific trail races. Hanny Allston currently has some free training planners available on her website. Some are suitable for beginners, with others being tailored for specific ultramarathons across Australia.

Some injuries take a long time to heal, and sometimes you have to put trail running on the side line for a while. But trail running will always be there for you when you’re ready to pick up the shoes again. In the meantime, try to stay active in other ways. With my current IT band injury I’ve been doing a lot of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and strength training.