Trail running is a four season sport. But May in Charlotte brings the perfect confluence of longer days, moderate temperatures and hundreds of miles of trail recently redecorated with new foliage and bright spring blooms. Gliding through a curvy stretch of singletrack on a late spring afternoon is a serene and liberating experience.
For some runners more accustomed to pounding out road miles, the roots, rocks, and unknowns of trail running can make the switch seem a bit daunting. Even more intimidating is the idea of running a 30-plus mile race. So to help demystify trail and ultra distance running in the Queen City, we’ve picked the brains of three locals– each with a particular set of experiences and perspectives on the sport.
Our gear expert, Nathan Leehman , opened the Ultra Running Company in December 2013. The store has some of the highest ratings nationwide on websites like Yelp—it’s easy to understand why the store has become so popular you can’t swing a hydration pack at a trail race in the Carolina’s without hitting a dozen runners sporting the URC colors. And with top 10 finishes in about a dozen ultramarathons over the last three years, Leehman knows firsthand what gear succeeds on the trail.
As part of the Greenapple Sports and Wellness team, our health expert Dr. Doug Bradberry helps athletes treat and prevent injury. Bradberry’s years of experience as a certified Chiropractic Sports Physician helps us understand how the biomechanics of trail running differs from its road counterpart.
Originally inspired by his ultrarunning brother Bill, local Charlotte runner Paul Geist began running trails in 2011 at the age of 43. Since then he’s completed some 20 ultra-distance races. Geist shares with us his practical and pragmatic experience on nutrition, race days, and avoiding injury.
All three were kind enough to share their expertise about the state of trail running in Charlotte.
Why should people run on trails?
Leehman: We (at the URC) really like people to mix in off-road workouts, even for road runners. It breaks up muscle memory. And it’s a sport I can be competitive with at 40.
Bradberry: Trail running is more of a stabilizing workout. While running trail, you are improving your balance by running on frequently uneven terrain.
Geist: Trail runners are a good community. When I supported my brother during his ultras I would work aid stations. You get to talking with these people, and they’re all so down-to-earth. They’re all there to support each other.
What trail-running specific gear do you need?
Leeham: From a traction standpoint, you can run most groomed trails in Charlotte, like Renaissance and Beatty, in road shoes. Unless it’s raining. The better traction of trail shoes are important in bad weather. But trail shoes do typically have a rock plate (a tough plate in the insole to protect against roots and rocks), and a reinforced toe box to protect against sticks and snags.
I’m not a big fan of needing to carry a water bottle on a 45-minute road run. But it’s a good idea to carry one, with a pocket, on the trail. Unlike on the road you can’t just make a pit stop at a local convenience store. And that 5 miles that takes you an hour on the road might take you an hour and a half on the trail.
What are the biggest differences between road and trail running?
Bradberry: Someone who runs five to six miles on the road will probably reduce that a bit because trails are more demanding.
Leehman: Know that it’s going to be harder—your pace will not be the same. Nobody’s running 4-minute miles on the trail. Also know that GPS doesn’t work as well on the trail. At Rocky Raccoon, I thought I was doing 8:15 miles. When I got in I was at 7:30 because every loop I was losing over a mile (on the GPS).
In trail running, you’re taking many more, smaller steps. Best advice I’ve ever heard, from (the Christopher McDougall book) _Born to Run—_if you’re trying to decide between taking one or two steps between obstacles, take three. And increase your cadence.
Geist: You’re just going to have to realize that when you trail run you’re not going to go as fast as you did on the road. If you push it, you will bonk. Instead of running for time, you run based on perceived energy output. If you’re on a gravel road that’s slightly downhill, you can go pretty fast. But when it goes uphill on singletrack, you have to slow way down. I try to keep my perceived energy level the same. I used to measure it with a heart monitor but I’ve done it enough now to know. I don’t want to spike my heart rate.
If I’m taking too much oxygen to keep up a certain pace, I walk. There’s no shame in walking in a trail race.
How do you avoid injuries?
Bradberry: Before you run, you want to do more of an active warm up. Squats, calf raises, butt-kicks, and high-knees. Static stretches, like toe touches, are for after the run when your muscles are warm and full of blood.
During the run take shorter steps. You want to stay balanced and to keep your center of balance over your feet—that’s what shortening your stride does. If you’re over-striding and you hit an unstable surface, you’re a lot more likely to strain that hip or roll that ankle. Keeping your stride short means you’re more able to respond to the terrain.
A lot of overuse injuries happen on midstance. This is the portion of the running gait where all your weight is over one foot. Get in and out of midstance as quickly as possible and reduce stress on that limb. You do that by shortening your stride and taking more steps per minute.
Leehman: There’s less of a chance of repetitive injury on a trail. You’re taking many more steps and they’re not exactly the same as the step before. Our opinion (at URC) is there is a right way and a wrong way to run. But with running there’s a slow feedback loop. For example, if you’re learning to swim there’s a very fast feedback loop—if you swim wrong you might drowned. With running, you might be fine for two or three years and then have IT band issues.
How important is nutrition for ultrarunners?
Leehman: Everything aside from nutrition is really secondary. You can take in (and digest) 200 to 300 calories per hour. You burn 2,000 to 3,000. That’s the challenge of an ultra.
Geist: In the morning I’ll have oatmeal, about 2 hours before the race. Then maybe a banana about an hour before. I try to take in 200 to 250 calories per hour. Any more than that and the food sits there, causes stomach issues. Experiment on your training runs to see what your stomach can handle. I use a mix like Heed to get 100 calories with my water, and then energy gels and Honey Stingers Waffles. I can stomach that stuff for about 5 or 6 hours which gets me through most 50K races. On a longer run, I’ll have to stop and have something to eat. Then you have to slow down while that digests.
I sweat out about 22 ounces of water per hour, so I know I need to take in that much. Everyone’s different and you can figure that out. Weigh yourself before an hour run on a nice day. Then weigh yourself after. You just have to subtract how much water you drank and that’s your sweat rate. Then you know, on that type of day, how much water you’ll sweat out.
What training advice can you offer trail runners?
Bradberry: You have to be strong to run, you don’t run to be strong. Running is great for cardiovascular exercise but you have to do something against resistance to get stronger, like squats or lunges. Incorporating some kind of resistance or weight training is important.
Where people lack is stability with lateral movements. Mixing in tennis or basketball or incorporating side steps and single-leg balance will help. Practice standing on one leg while you brush your teeth or while closing your eyes. Practice to increase your proprioception—how your body knows where it is in space.
People who spend the majority of the day in inflection (sitting)—with knees and hips bent and their head down at the computer, the body adapts to this position. Hip flexors shorten and tighten while hip extruders (gluts) lengthen and get weak. If you spend most of your day in inflexion, you have to do some exercises to bring you into extension.
Leehman: The best way to increase distance is to do it slowly. Allow your muscles to adapt. Some of the most accessible training trails in the area are at Renaissance. And for flexibility, you can’t beat the White Water Center.
Geist: I started more cross training at the gym. Lots of step-overs on the bench and squats. Calf raises helped my ankles out. Single-leg, backwards lunges to help with my balance. Stepping backwards I get the same benefit with less pressure on my knees. Losing weight helped a lot too. Losing 5 lbs knocked off 30 seconds per mile.
For training on the trail I like Crowders Mountain. You can get three good climbs in 12 miles.
What's your strategy on race day? Any races you recommend?
Leehman: You have to start out slow. Nobody wins in the first 20 miles of an ultra. Every race is difficult in its own way. I DNF’d (did not finish) my last race. We all struggle at times. It’s important to remember that you have to start out slow.
For a first race in this market, I don’t think you can beat the diversity of trail races that the White Water Center has. They’ve spent the last couple years really listening to people, trying to put on really good races. You’re not going to miss the trail, that’s good for a first time trail racer.
For longer races, I think the WC 50 is great, although I’m clearly biased because I helped design it. The 50K is designed to be a great first 50K. It’s flat, has great markings and aid stations, and has a generous cut off time.
Geist: Start out slow. If you take off like a rabbit your lack of energy will catch up with you. For somebody just starting in ultras, the Blind Pig is a good race. There’s a lot of support and not a lot of hills. The trails aren’t crazy technical. And they give you a lot of time to finish. The race is a 9-mile loop that brings you back to your campsite, and your crew, each time. If you’re not feeling good when you go in there, you’re feeling good when you head back out. Plus there’s another aid station about 4 miles out. You don’t have to carry a lot.
For more information on trail running or injury prevention, visit Nathan at the Ultra Running Company or Dr. Bradberry at Greenapple Sports and Wellness. And Paul, well, you’re just going to have to catch him on the trail….good luck with that.