Trail Running, Cross Training for the Road

Y’all, I’m running my first 50k on Sunday!! I’ve had this trip to Big Bend planned in my head for the last 4 years but for one reason or another (mainly Boston) I couldn’t get the timing to work out. This year it is finally happening! This is only my second trail race (Brazos Bend was my first) but I’m not new to trail running.

I started trail running a year and a half ago after stumbling across a group who met at our local trails every Saturday morning.

It’s fun. We run through the woods, in the dark, by the light of headlamps, dodging spiders, snakes, armadillos, and other unknown creatures. It’s very Blair Witch Project. After we’re done we eat snacks and drink beer…all before 8 am.

While we run we joke with each other, and talk about both the serious and not-so-serious aspects of life. I had no idea that first morning I showed up that I would meet some of my best friends that day. Running friends are like that, trail friends even more so.

There’s something about watching someone dive head first into a bush, do ninja moves to avoid a spider or slide down an embankment that bonds you in a way that’s hard to duplicate. My trail friends have seen me at my best – and undoubtedly my worst.

Every now and then I miss my Saturday morning trail runs due to training for a race (last week I missed because of the flu) but other than that I’m there. Ready for the spiders, snakes, random tree roots and attack armadillos.

But why bother? I’m not a trail runner. As much as I like to deny it, road running is what I do. It’s what I’m good at. Why waste training time doing something I don’t focus on?

Variety is the spice of life, y’all. Trail running keeps me healthy.

Our trails run through the flood zone of a local creek. They’re rooty and though flat (we live in Houston where everything is flat) the local mountain bikers have designed them to run through every creek bed they could find. Most of the climbs/drops are less than 20 feet but they’re steep and FUN.

That first day I was shocked at how much more difficult trail running was. I was surprised at how tired I felt and how SORE I was the next day.

It’s running, it’s what I do! Why am I so sore?!

If you think about it, trail running is a completely different animal than road running.

On the road every foot fall is the same. You work the same muscles over and over and over. 800 times per mile your body catches itself in the exact same way. You have the same cadence, the same footstrike, the same movement pattern for hours and hours and hours.

But on the trails no footfall is the same. The trails challenge your balance, agility, and mental focus. Your cadence is faster, you’re constantly changing your footfalls as you avoid tree roots, rocks and logs. Your body uses stabilizing muscles it doesn’t utilize on the road, including the oft over looked muscles in your feet and ankles. The varying terrain forces you to slow down and the softer dirt lessens impact forces.

What does this mean for you?

Trail runners have fewer repetitive stress injuries than road runners (though acute injury rates like sprained ankles are higher). Fewer IT band problems. Fewer shin splints. Fewer cases of runner’s knee. If you can keep yourself from face planting, trail running will keep you healthy.

Do you want to be a stronger road runner? Run trails.
Do you want to be less injury prone? Run trails.
Do you want to run happier? Run trails.

Trail running is cross training for the road.

Since I began trail running I’m more coordinated, stronger, more nimble, more agile and my ankles have become larger. Like noticeably larger.

Even during marathon training I never stop running trails. I do all my long runs on asphalt and speedwork on the treadmill but easy/recovery runs are done on the trails where the softer surface, curving paths and tree roots force me to slow down, allow my body rebuild, and help me remember why I run.

You don’t have to be an exclusive trail runner to run trails. You can be like me with one foot on the pavement and one foot in the dirt. I do road races because I’m good at it but I run trails because I love it.

Mind Games & The 40 Percent Rule

We run with our legs, right? Well, technically, yes.

But there’s something else that isn’t talked about much and I argue is the single most important factor in running and racing and that’s training a strong mind.

How many times have you found yourself there? In that place where you have given up. You’re umpteen miles from home, your body is exhausted, your brain is telling you to quit.

You’re so miserable that you’d give anything to have the run finished, you’ve thought about calling someone to come get you but that would be admitting defeat. So you don’t. Instead you slog through what seems like the longest miles of your life. Grumpy, miserable, on the verge of tears. Suddenly, every little discomfort in your body becomes a tiny pebble, turned boulder, in your shoe.

Tired. Hungry. Thirsty. Sweaty. Legs trembling. Armpits chaffed. Make it stop already.

Those are the runs when you do the real training. The real work. It’s not on the easy runs, it’s the hard ones. The ones where you want to quit, but you don’t. That’s when you become an endurance athlete.

There’s science to the mind games. Your brain wants to maintain a state of homeostasis, the happy place where the body can maintain a stable internal environment despite changes in external conditions. In the case of endurance running, our brain wants us to actually finish what we started and not kill ourselves in the process, so it self regulates.

Because it’s awesome, our brains can monitor all of body’s systems to know exactly how far and how fast we can push ourselves while still maintaining that happy, comfortable state. All this is done without our knowledge. It says, “Joni, slow down. You can’t hold this pace for another 7 miles…”

…and it says it with side stitches. Muscle cramps. Fatigue. The list goes on.

Your brain is wanting everything to be a-okay, it’s protecting you. But there’s more in there. There’s more to give.

I recently read an article in Hustle about a millionaire, a navy SEAL and the 40% rule. It’s about how your brain will hold you back from your body’s true potential.

It says, “…when your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.”

It’s mentioned again by Steve Magness in the book The Science of Running. I believe it. It’s the reason I can run mile 25, faster than mile 24. The reason I can only do 15 pushups when I’m working alone but can somehow manage 60 when my trainer is watching.

Your brain wants so badly for everything to be comfortable, it will do everything it can to keep you from being uncomfortable. Including telling you to quit. It’s a powerful thing, the mind.

Much like we train our legs and our hearts we have to train our mind, as well.

How do you train your mind? You force your body to recreate the pain of a race during training. We force ourselves into being uncomfortable under controlled conditions so that when we’re uncomfortable during the uncontrolled conditions of a race we know what we can safely push ourselves through.

It’s knowing the difference between challenge pain and warning pain, choosing to listen to the warning pain, and telling the challenge pain to go fly a kite.

We need to know exactly when we can tell our brains to shut up.

That’s the difference between running and racing. It’s also the difference between finishing and winning.

The only way to do that is to purposefully put ourselves in a place where our brains are telling us to quit…and then running 5 more miles. You never make progress while being comfortable, it’s not until we truly push ourselves out of our comfort zones, both mental and physical, that we find growth – this is true in life as it is running.

So, the next time you’re up late with a sick kid and all you want is sleep, do the long run anyway. The next time you’re tempted to cut that tempo run short, don’t. Unless you’re on the verge of injury, by quitting you’re robbing yourself of valuable training, not of your legs but of your mind.

And training your mind might be the most important part.

Heart Rate Training, Explained

There’s been quite a bit of chatter lately about heart rate training. What is it? What does it mean? What good does it do? I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about how it works and why it’s important, but explaining it in a thread of Facebook comments is somewhat cumbersome and I think it’s worth diving into further. So here we go.

When I first started running, like most new runners, I was entirely focused on pace. I wanted to be fast, so I ran fast. As fast as I could, all the time. Every run ended the same way. Me, in a pile of exhausted, panting in the living room floor. Pooped. Kinda feeling sick. Must take a nap. Now.

What I didn’t realize was, I was shortchanging myself. I was running too fast. Yes, you can run too fast.

Let me explain.

Two process help our bodies bring necessary fuel to our muscles during exercise: aerobic metabolism and anaerobic metabolism. Though they never work exclusively, one will always dominate depending on the intensity of exercise. The less intense aerobic process uses oxygen to turn fat into fuel and the more intense anaerobic process converts stored glycogen (sugar) into energy in the absence of oxygen.

Confused? Stay with me.

When you run slowly, you’re not working hard; your heart rate is low and breathing is slow. Your body is burning mostly fat. Fat metabolism is an oxaditive process – meaning your body needs oxygen to turn your fat stores into usable energy. If your heart rate is low, and your breathing is controlled, you are providing your body plenty of oxygen to burn your fat.

The faster your move the more your fat metabolism revvs up and the more oxygen your body demands. As soon as your body demands more oxygen than you can effectively deliver (a.k.a. you start breathing hard or panting), an oxygen defect is created and your body starts looking for an alternative source of fuel that doesn’t require oxygen for metabolism- enter glycogen (sugar).

If fat is your gas tank. Sugar is your nitrous oxide boost.

The heart rate in which your body switches from primarily fat burning to sugar burning is called your lactate threshold.

As long as you stay in that happy, I’m-not-panting zone your exercise is self-sustaining and you can almost run forever off stored fat. But with only 2,000 calories of glycogen (sugar) available, there’s really not that much there. Wanna know why marathoners hit the wall? They’re exceeding their body’s ability to burn fat and they run out of sugar. That’s it.

Got it? Good.

But what does that have to do with running too fast?

You can manipulate how your body burns fat and sugar by how fast you run during training. Your body adapts to the stress placed on it. Which means, the more you stress your body in the oxygen demanding, fat burning, slow, I-love-running, happy zone, the more efficient your body becomes at delivering oxygen to your muscles and burning fat.

How does it become more efficient? Inside, you grow more capillaries to deliver available oxygen to muscle cells and you produce more mitochondria which use that oxygen to turn fat into fuel. You’re literally growing new body parts. Pretty cool, huh?

This is aerobic development. And guess what? You don’t grow body parts overnight. Aerobic development is a slow process which takes WEEKS, MONTHS and even YEARS.

Run a lot. Run slower. Become more efficient. Be patient. Get faster. It’s an easy process that pays off.

What is the secret formula for determining the ideal heart rate for training?

If you’re an advanced athlete, getting a VO2 max test done will be beneficial. Use the results and stay at the top end of zone 2 – but most recreational athletes can get by with using an age based formula.

180- your age with the following modifications:

-10, if you’re recovering from major illness or are on regular medication, or you’ve never exercised before
-5, if you are coming back from a layoff, or workout 1-2 times per week
+/-0, if you work out 3-4 times per week
+5, if you’ve been running injury free for at least 2 years and/or work out 5+ times per week, or are older than 60/younger than 20

In case you’re wondering, I’ve not had a VO2 max test done and am training with the 180-age formula. I’m 38 years old and I add 5 because I run a gazillion times a week.


142+5=147 is my target.

I’ve spent the past 15 months running at a heart rate of slightly less than 147, with the exception of a handful of speed sessions leading up to Boston, and it’s paying off, in spades.

Wanna see the proof?

This was my first heart rate based run (see image below), April 20, 2016. I had qualified for Boston only three months earlier; I was in the best shape of my life. I thought I was the sh!t. I was served a big fat piece of humble pie on a giant silver platter.

Average heart rate 145. Average pace 10:30/mile. Chew on that. Ugh. Maybe I wasn’t in as good of shape as I thought.

Notice the peaks and valleys in the heart rate as I struggled to keep it under control? Just a slight change in pace caused a significant increase in heart rate as my body teetered on the edge of being able to deliver enough oxygen to my muscles.

Fast forward a year and three months. This run was July 20, 2017 (see image below). Average heart rate 142. Average pace 9:10/mile. The cool part is, this includes my warm up. The further into the run I got, the faster I could go as my heart got in sync with what I was asking it to do. By the time my body was moving efficiently at mile 3, I was at an 8:13. For me, that’s sub-BQ pace, at a heart rate of 147. Pretty freggin’ cool.

Notice how steady my heart rate is? My body isn’t struggling to deliver oxygen. My heart is easily able to keep up with the oxygen demand as I slowly increase my pace.

Both runs are public on Garmin Connect if you’d like to click the links and look at the data.

What does it boil down to? The aerobic base is secret speed training.

Think about it this way. Everyone has a maximum heart rate which doesn’t really change except with age. So, if my heart is beating at 145 bpm at a 10:30 and my max heart rate is a 185, by the time I get down to an 8:00/mile I’m thinking OMG-I’m-going-to-die! BUT if at the same heart rate I’m running an 8:15 instead, my OMG pace is closer to a 6:30/mile. All of a sudden my performance is no longer limited by my heart, it’s limited by my legs.


This aerobic base is the key to running fast over time. Though speed work has its place in training – its effects are lost more quickly once de-training begins. Aerobic development, however isn’t lost so easily, so you don’t loose quite as much speed between training cycles. And when it’s time to train for a race you can do significantly less speed work.

What’s more, the slower pace is less stressful on your body, allowing your body to naturally build up it’s smaller stabilizing muscles as your pace increases over time and lowering your chances of overuse injury. So next time you’re tempted to up the pace of your run remember, you have to run slow before you can run fast! Slow down!

UPDATE: I wrote this article in mid-July and I’ve since had a VO2 Max test done (9/14/17). Since I have not yet been able to use the results of the test in training, I am refraining from including any of that information in this post. I will write a separate post about the test itself and the results.

Listen To Your Body

Listen to your body.

You hear experienced athletes say this all the time. But what does it mean?

A few weeks ago I went through something which is all too common. I felt off. You know when you can just tell that something isn’t quite right?

I hadn’t been sleeping well. I fought bouts of acid reflux. I had a hard time concentrating. I didn’t want to meet my friends for our Saturday morning trail run.

On top of that, I lost my running shoes. I lost my running shoes.

I. Lost. Them.

They were gone for two days before I finally found them.

I was texting my running partner about my epic case of scatterbrain and you know what he told me?

Listen to your body!

I hadn’t thought about that. He was right.

Something wasn’t right and my body was telling me about it. It was my job to listen.

I am constantly telling my clients to “listen to your body,” and it’s true. Your body is constantly communicating with you. You can learn a lot about yourself if you tune into its cues. I listen to my body a lot – especially when it comes to random aches and pains but I hadn’t thought that the other random symptoms I’d been experiencing were my body’s subtle way of telling me that something was wrong.

Listening to your body means knowing what is normal for you and what isn’t. It means getting to know your body on an intimate level. Is that slight ache below your knee new, or has it been there for a while?  Is it normal for you to have a tightness in your hip after a run?

How has your sleep been? Have you been overly tired? Cranky? Are you unusally forgetful? Craving carbs? Do you normally struggle to get out the door?

Listening to your body, means reading your body’s subtle cues and actually taking action. Yes, it’s hard to take time off but it’s easier to recover from a injury if you catch it early. It’s always better to take a few days off now than being forced to take a few weeks off later.

In my case, I wasn’t fighting a physical injury but I WAS fighting a mental one. Some significant stress in my personal life, in addition to maintaining my hefty weekly base mileage, was enough to send my body into the early phases of Overtraining Syndrome.

That next weekend, I let my Saturday morning trail crew go alone. Instead of waking up at 4:00 am, I woke up at 6:30 am. Instead of running, I sat on my back patio and drank a cup of coffee – and I was totally okay with it.

coffee on patio

I took THREE DAYS off. I normally run six days a week, often times twice a day, so taking three days off is a big deal.

Instead of running I caught up on my sleep, spent the extra time with my family, took my kids to the playground and to the pool at the Y. I cleaned the house and did the laundry.

By the next Monday I was ready to run again. I wanted to run again. My energy level was higher, my reflux was gone, I was able to concentrate on my trail runs. I was happier. My poor body needed the break.

As runners, we all love our hobby, and it’s easy to let that passion overshadow the very real possibility of injury. The next time something feels off take a step back and ask yourself what your body is saying. It’s your job to listen.