Being an Englishman, I’m taking particular pleasure from our national rugby team’s efforts right now, who’ve won 16 games on the bounce. What’s even more pleasing is that we’re doing this with an Australian coach at the helm, Eddie Jones – much like the weather going on in Australia right now, it’s the perfect storm, or maybe the ultimate trolling.
Regardless of his nationality, I’ve always been a big fan of Eddie Jones and how much he studies the game of rugby and beyond. He’s been around the block somewhat and I remember (and was at), the Rugby World Cup final, held here in Sydney in 2003 when he was in charge of the Australian team that narrowly lost to England. He’s a brilliant tactician with an eye for detail and always looking to advance his understanding with an insatiable desire for curiosity. Yesterday, I posted a link on our Facebook page to an article about how great players don’t always make great coaches and that it’s possible for people who haven’t played at the highest level to become great coaches – Eddie Jones is a classic example of that.
But what the hell has all of this got to do with running you might be asking? Well a few things. I played rugby for 20 years, so have a passion for understanding how different sports can learn from each other and it was another article I read today based on an interview with Eddie that got me thinking about how we can take learnings and transfer them. If you don’t keep up to date with the goings on in rugby union, you may not know that England scored a very late try on Saturday to beat Wales by just five points. In an interview post match, Eddie Jones refers to England’s ‘inner grit’, ‘their last‑quarter tactical clarity and fitness techniques borrowed from a Spanish sports scientist, Alberto Mendez-Villanueva’.
Quoting the article, “He opened Jones’s eyes to “tactical periodisation”, the theory is that practising skills, tactical awareness or fitness separately matters less than combining them at above-average intensity in training so that players can react quicker at critical moments in the actual games.”
There are many parallels to draw with running and the training we do. I’m sure most of you are in a fairly regular routine of have quite specific sessions related to three or four core skills, which will likely include; speed, hills, tempo and a long run.
That’s a pretty standard list for most runners and each day we’ll likely focus on one of those specific skills to help us improve. It’s also worth adding that depending on the type of race you’re training for, you’re also likely to dial-up or down any one of those core skills to make it race specific. So if you were running Tarawera this weekend just gone, you may have focused more on making sure you could run more, so speed will have played more in your training than a focus on hills. Whereas if you were running the Ultra Easy a few weekends back, hills and hiking would have had a far greater influence on your training, particularly hiking.
But what about throwing these sessions together? And hence our title, the sum of the whole is greater than its parts? While skills and fitness are important in trail running, if you’re looking to advance in your running ability then it’s time to start training to a specific parameter of the race you’re training for.
But what exactly does that mean? Let’s take Six Foot Track as an example as it’s a race that’s forthcoming and one where you also have three quite distinct stages to the race. The first is a gradual downhill over 15kms, the next is around 8-10kms of climbing and then the final 19kms is undulating.
When training for Six Foot Track, I often hear people talking about training for the hills – and quite rightly so. There are some nice climbs in the race and getting the leg strength is important to climbing well and thus a good time. But what are you going to do once you’ve climbed those hills? You’ve got 8kms of quite undulating terrain across the Black Ranges. If your legs are not conditioned to running strongly over those 8kms or so following the big climbs, it’s where many people’s races fall apart.
So using the analogy of training for specific parameters of the race, an ideal session for many aspiring Six Foot Track runners would be to do your hills session, but then throw in a nice undulating 5-7kms run at just above tempo pace as soon as your hills are done – relating this back to our theory, you’re training at above average race pace. In doing this, you’re training not just for hills, but for that specific section, or moment in the race. You’re thinking beyond the hills and conditioning your legs to be able to run well on the undulating section. And because you’re doing it at a fast pace in training, your body should cope well with the pace you’re running at in the actual race itself.
It fact it’s a highly common thing to see in races, particularly big mountain race. The focus is so much on getting to the top of a big climb, that runner will then not run effectively downhill. This is where another session springs to mind that you could look to incorporate into your weekly blocks.
Instead of a focus on purely uphill running, train specifically for downhills. But of course what goes down, must also go back up. In short, chose a hill and run very hard downhill, at pace, but in control as if you’re running an intervals session, turn around and jog very slowly back up the hill as a recovery, or if it’s a steep hill, a fast-paced walk with effort. In effect, you’re using the recovery as your uphill session, while conditioning the legs for the downhills.
For those of you who have run Six Foot Track previously, remember how the last 2kms is all steep downhill? The difference between a good time and a great time can easily be how well your legs can cope with one final hammering downhill to the finish line.
So as we circle back to our title, while the individual components of trail running are important and a good basis and grounding for your training, combining them together and making a whole will ensure a far better overall ‘sum’ than just merely focusing on them as individual ‘parts’ to be strung together on race day.