Training for the Tarawera Ultramarathon

Some great trail running tips for beginners and everyone else loving the outdoors can be found on with our coaching partner – SQUADRUN

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Love it
Trail running is all about freedom, adventure, being outdoors and sharing time with friends. Find new trails to explore, run over rocky beaches under Pohutukawa, plunge into a crater or dance through a mossy South Island beech forest. New Zealand has many amazing places to explore in a small area. From the ground up then…

Surprise the body
Strong feet: Many first-time trail runners are afraid they will roll an ankle or have some other sort of injury on the trails. This may be true if you are a newbie and tackle a gnarly course at top speed. You may wish to start by hiking on the trails to start with. Start by running on slightly easier and less technical trails and take them at a little slower pace. After a few weeks on the trails you will notice that your legs and feet will have become a lot stronger. Tackling more technical terrain at a good pruning speed requires neuromuscular coordination that comes with time and practice.

Legs: Your leg muscles will respond to trail running like nothing else! Running on various types of terrain over rocks, roots, rolling corners, up and down hills makes demands on a wider range of muscles than road running, without the repetition injuries of pounding pavement. Ankles, hips, inner and outer thighs and core muscles are engaged for balance. Trails more fully engage the quads, increasing leg strength.

The core: Strong core muscles are a good thing and they will be engaged while running. But there’s a caveat. Your core muscles should be strong to help you maneuver over rocks and twisting, winding trails. However you should keep the core relaxed while engaged (i.e. not holding tension). Holding tension in your body through your shoulders, back and through your core muscles will wear you down in a long run.

Arms and shoulders: Relaxed, loose, but not “hunched forward.” Think of “running proud” with your shoulders in a neutral position (not forward or back). Your arms should swing relaxed beside your body – not crossing over the centre line.

Technique and tips
Body position: Find a neutral body position. The “Alexander” neutral position is the body position where your body will naturally fall forward if you lean forward from the ankles.

Quick fast light cadence: Maintain a quick cadence. The quicker your cadence, the faster and lighter (i.e. less impact on the ground) you will go. Think quick-light-feet, quick-light-feet. All of the fastest marathon runners in the world have a cadence of around 92 steps per minute. For trail runners on rocky, uneven or soft ground the benefits of a fast cadence are huge, you can move off the surface quickly and maintain forward momentum.

Uphill Running: Keep your spine tall and lengthened and head in a neutral position. Do not slump back into your pelvis or dump forward. Once of the worst (and most natural) things you can do is slump forward with your nose pointed down towards your feet. This forces your diaphragm up and effectively reduces your lung capacity. Shorten your stride – think like a mountain biker, increase your leg cadence and maintain a slight lean into the hill. Keep your head in the neutral position to prevent slumping forward. Some hills are horrendously long and tough, for example a canyon in Western States may take close to an hour to ascend when you are tired. You do not need to run the entire thing if you begin to feel exhausted. Back off and walk uphill. Make sure you walk those hills with a purpose. It’s not supposed to be a Sunday stroll.
Downhill: You may think this is a no-brainer but proper downhill running technique can be excruciatingly difficult to master. The most important thing is – do not brake! Easier said than done if you find yourself hurtling downhill at breakneck speed. Braking, by landing on your heels is an inefficient use of your forward momentum and will engage your large quad muscles with each step. The end-result of this sometimes after only a very short run is “dead quads” as they will be fatigued and will feel like wobbly jelly (that’s jello for you North American Trail Runners). Run light and think that you should always be running over your feet rather than having your feet stretched out in front of you.

Ultramarathon running
The best thing is to study widely, read blogs, website’s and ask questions in discussion groups. If you have access to them, ask the opinions of athletes you admire. Here are some recommendations:

1. Enjoy the adventure. Your first ultramarathon race will be an incredibly exciting adventure for you. Hopefully, you’ve picked a race that really gets you inspired and fired up. Your training should reflect this adventure, go for training runs in interesting places and push your body to accomplish amazing things.

2. Do NOT be intimidated. There is nothing magical about the marathon distance. Be prepared to push one step beyond the marathon and you’ll open up a whole new vista of running adventures. Most first-time ultramarathoners complete a 50-k run and then step it up to a 50-miler (80K).

3. Train with friends that have similar goals. Learn from them, they’ll help keep you sane because they are as crazy as you. Draw on your knowledge from previous marathon events, triathlon, adventure racing to help you prepare for the ultra.

4. Throw away your watch, GPS unit, heart-rate monitor… OK ok, you can keep all that stuff (and use it – if you must). Ultra-running is pretty simple in it’s pure essence. It’s just running a long way. The reason why I said to throw away all that stuff is to focus you more on your time spent on the trails, not on measures of distance or pace. Learn to listen more to your body and how your energy, level of exertion and the rhythm of your running change as your run progresses. Record the time when you hit the trail and the time when you came back and make an assessment of how your body handled that sustained level of effort.