Tag Archives: exercise

Trail Running: When Fast is Slow and Wrong is Right

“Your time is too slow because you’re running too fast.” IMAG4164What? The first time I heard that I was convinced runners were as crazy as I had suspected. Once I told my road runner niece how I could never run long distances because I get winded too quickly. She told me I just needed to slow down. What kind of advice is that? I live my entire life in overdrive. How am I going to slow down? Why would I want to? And why do they call themselves road runners, anyway? They’re more like road tortoises.

Okay, so, I gotta be honest here. I know nothing about running and, frankly, I don’t care. For me, slow is boring. Jogging on pavement or a track is boring. The idea of anything over 5K has zero appeal to me. I like to sprint, jump, climb, duck, dodge, and weave. I like to lean through quick turns as if I’m riding motocross. I like to occasionally wipe out down a steep hill and blow up my legs climbing back up. I love unpredictable surfaces, landing on the balls of my feet, feeling the earth shift beneath my shoes, engaging my core, crossing creeks, and seeing branches rush past my face. The rest is, well, boring. But here is the problem, I can’t do all the things I like for very long because my cardio frequently fails me. Like, repeatedly, I burst then I walk. Yes, I happen to prefer that, but it’s not often by choice.

I’ve always been a strong gal, especially for my small size. Interval training appeals to me on every level. I like to explode then nearly die, recover, then explode again. The problem is that I carry all my extra weight on my hips and legs and there’s only one way to slim down legs – running. And you can’t run without good cardio. I’ve actually had days I could barely weight train because of my inadequate cardio. The thing is, I see these long distance runners whose heart rates never elevate over 130 and, quite honestly, many of them are shockingly flabby. Skin hanging on bones. They’re running for reasons I can’t comprehend. I’m thinking, dudes, seriously, go lift some weights. You’re too skinny. If my heart rate never elevated while I exercised, I’d never leave the couch. What’s the point? I like intensity, fat burning, and weight lifting. I like muscle density and lean, defined bodies. I like my curves. I don’t want to be skin on bones for the sake of cardio.

But if I can’t build up endurance, I can’t weight train for crap, and my technical trail opportunities are limited, so I really do need to figure this out. My legs are naturally strong and I can rarely give them a good workout unless I sprint up hills because I wind before I even feel a burn. My husband, Tim, says the problem is that I can’t actually max them out since I inadvertently rest my legs too often when I walk between sprints to rest my heart. When he runs trails, he feels it in his legs every time, not his chest. I rarely feel anything in my legs but my chest feels like I am boa constrictor prey. Hmm.

So for today’s run, I took advice from other runners and ran slower. Yawn, I know. I’ve run this one mile section of a 5K trail/obstacle course with Tim, who can do it in under 8 minutes – I can barely finish in 11 – so I have good checkpoint comparisons between his time and mine. He’s much taller with an average stride length of 1.2 meters while mine is .89 and he is a distance runner, yes, but he’s also a very fast sprinter so I suppose it won’t hurt me to actually take his advice. I think he’s wrong and just doesn’t understand me, but I’m willing to try. Three miles of trail running – can’t really go wrong either way so, why not? Besides, if it doesn’t work I get to say I was right.

For my first lap I left the starting line and immediately focused on form and pace – not speed. Normally I take off running to save time before I get too winded. I like to hit checkpoint #1 in about 45 seconds; Tim arrives in about 55 seconds. Too slow. This lap I arrived at just under a minute, which seemed about right for this new, boring pace. When I hit the second technical, which I love to sprint through as fast as I can, I held back and just jogged it. Not quite as much fun but still pretty awesome since it’s a real butt kicker. After that I walked briskly uphill for about 10 seconds but was able to jog again sooner than normal. By the time I get to Poison Ivy Pass I’m always walking but today I was still jogging – albeit, just barely. It honestly felt like I could probably walk faster than that pace. Kinda boring. Resisting the urge to second guess my goal today, I continued the slow jog uphill to the second checkpoint. Tim usually hits it at 2 minutes; it always takes me more than 3. Time check: 2 min, 45 seconds.

Wait, what? No kidding. I must lose more time than I think on those walking rests.

So at this point I’m pretty motivated, right? I jogged the next technical and realized that it actually is just as enjoyable as sprinting it and probably a lot safer. The next section is a long, steady incline. I always walk the first half to rest up then run the second half of this uphill section because it’s the only way I can blow up my legs but this time I bend my knees and basically power walk like a fiend to the top. I notice I can actually get my heart rate to drop just a tad while I handle the hill this way and still feel it in my legs. That’s something new. It’s a long hill but at the top I was able to run again at a decent pace through the technical before needing to briefly walk the next incline. As I approached the ladder obstacle I was tempted to walk a little to rest up then take off but instead I just kept plodding along. Hmm. Not that boring, I guess. Tim reaches the ladder obstacle in 4 minutes while I can rarely get there in less than 6. Time check: 5 min, 4 seconds.

No way. No freakin’ way.

The next section is slightly downhill so I know I’m supposed to increase my pace there but I’m usually too tired from my sprint to the ladder obstacle. This time, however, I was able to enjoy that small decline and experience gravity’s gracious assistance, pulling me down the path. That was nice. After the hairpin turn it’s time to go back uphill. I’m about 6 minutes in and trying to save a little cardio on the uphills and use it on the flats and downhills. Buzz. Recovery Check: GOOD. Thank you, Garmin. When the hill flattened out I jogged again, when my heart rate approached my max, I backed off a little, and continued this pattern that, much to my surprise, seemed to be working.

Now I was that little girl who raced the boys in our neighborhood because I could beat most the girls too easily. On a short distance sprint, I’ve always been fast. So as an adult who enjoys interval training, I tend to sprint at max capacity then walk to lower my heart rate. Tim says that’s fine for interval training but, as far as overall time is concerned, I can’t sprint fast enough and long enough to compensate for walking rests over the course of longer distances. Since my new goal is to add distance training, and with every run I’ll certainly want to improve my time, and what I’d been doing wasn’t working, and this little experiment seemed to be working, at this point I’m now facing the fact that my approach was all wrong. That’s also something new.

For the final section of the course I decided to burst, knowing the end was less than 45 seconds away so I no longer needed to pace myself. Across the finish line I ran. Time Check: 10 min, 30 seconds. My best time to date.

Holy sheep caca.

A day I attempted to keep up with my cross country running husband ad nearly died.

A day I attempted to keep up with my cross country running husband and nearly died.

Usually I run it in 11 min and 15 seconds the first lap and add about 15 seconds each subsequent lap. I ran it once in 10:39 the previous week while racing Tim and nearly puked several times. It was miserable. I could barely breathe. This time I was tired but I never felt like I was going to die. Fascinated, I took four or five minutes to walk, cool down, drink some water then I tried it again. And again.

My USUAL lap times prior to today:
First checkpoint: 45 seconds
Second checkpoint: 3 min, 15 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 50 seconds
Total time: 11 min, 30 seconds

My first lap times today:
First checkpoint: 56 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 45 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 4 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 30 seconds

My second lap times today:
First checkpoint: 52 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 50 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 10 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 35 seconds

Blown away with surprise and encouragement, I tried for a third time today.

First checkpoint: 57 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 58 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 16 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 36 seconds

No way. Like, just no way.

I was killing myself at 100% to finish this course in 11 minutes and when I ran it at 90% capacity I actually improved my overall time significantly. And I did it consistently three times in a row. I know to distance runners this comes as no surprise but for me, I am blown away. I thought no bent-over-hands-on-hips-about-to-vomit walking rests meant I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Apparently not. Do you know what this means? Tim was right; I was wrong. That just happened. Tim is the tortoise and I am the hare. Perhaps I was mistaken and I can learn a little something from those boring road runners after all.