Thursday, 30 January 2014

Trail running and brain training

Trail running. Image from here.

I was asked to maybe write something about "trail running and the brain", so I gave it a shot. Here's the article, more or less how it may appear in a few months time.


Some runners might avoid trail running due to a (legitimate) concern over twisted ankles. Others stay on the roads because this is where GPS watches -and similar devices- are useful for pace and distance. By contrast, there is no way to interpret what several miles of rugged terrain mean either in terms of speed or mileage. Perhaps one mile up a mountain is worth five on a treadmill. What does running an "even pace" mean on trails? My first mountain race was two laps around a ski hill, and despite never doing such a thing before I kept a constant effort for most of the race. Somehow the body knows. Growing up I had never given much thought to precise pacing in cross country (be it skiing or running); whatever the speed, it always felt instinctively right. 

A hot running topic right now is "brain training", which is used to describe the subconscious controls of our pace, endurance limits, food intake, even our perception of pain. Neuromuscular training is how our body regulates muscle fatigue. Research on these topics is still in its infancy. While most testing is done in controlled environments, some research has found useful results studying long-distance trail runners. These studies seek out what gets us to the end of a very long run over rolling terrain. For instance, in running the 135 mile Badwater Ultra one alternates between pancake-flat -and very hot- Death Valley and cold mountain crossings totalling 19,000 feet in vertical climb. No single pace could do justice to such a challenge.

One study found that drinking water ad libitum (as much as desired) was an effective way to maintain sodium ion balance during an 80 km mountain trail race. Another study found that temperatures were a determining factor in race pacing for competitors of all levels of a 100-mile trail race. With some practice the body can learn how to adapt itself under changing external conditions. Keeping a watch handy is a good idea for staying within a planned timeframe, but a less important as measure of much else. Simply put, there's no way to know for certain how you will feel after two hours if the trail you are on is new; your pace and muscle movements are controlled by a lot of instincts. This is especially true when hurdling down a hill, avoiding obstacles faster than can be consciously perceived.

Trail running not only challenges one's endurance and strength, it challenges just how far we can trust our body's self-regulated resilience. When exploring new trail surfaces by all means tread carefully. Legs no longer "know" what 10 kilometres is by measurement alone, nor what a two-hour run should "feel" like. External time and distance measures are only meaningful when matched with how you've felt in the past. Ten kilometres on a flat road is incomparable to the same distance all uphill, and two hours atop a windy mountain peak is, well, no-one can say for certain. Taking a chance off the roads, if done with prudence, can be a gateway to new experiences for your body. Acknowledging your internal measures of endurance can be your best guide for pacing and distance. But overall, trail running is an opportunity to enhance your mind's subconscious and may give you what you truly craved in the first place: a chance to let go. 


Tidbits not in article:
  • Trail running is an effective way to train without using any fancy equipment. Gore-Tex shoes and fancy clothing aside, a lot of technology loses its function out in the wilderness. Using a GPS device on the roads can provide you with a good deal of information; for instance a 9 minute per mile pace is meaningful. The same pace over uneven terrain and through mud patches is much less useful.
  • An example of "trail" running research is a 2011 article titled "Can Neuromuscular Fatigue Explain Running Strategies and Performance in Ultra-Marathons?" They believe it can, more research is needed!
  • Since even pacing is essential to good racing (with some exceptions), expending a constant effort is critical over uneven terrain. This is especially true of ultra trail running, but equally applicable to shorter distances.


  1. In the last sentence should there be a comma after "mostly"? changes the meaning for me.