Four Ways Trail Running Has Improved During the Pandemic

This year has certainly been odd and difficult for all of us living through the coronavirus pandemic, but I also notice the positive changes 2020 has brought about in my life. As strange as it is to say, 2020 has been one of the best years in my running career. I’ve overcome a ruptured achilles’ tendon injury and established a consistent training block for the first time in over two years. This training led to a fourth place finish at the Pikes Peak Marathon, a result that exceeded my expectations and most importantly put worries about my achilles into the past for good. Despite the pandemic, we as trail runners have the opportunity to make the most of this difficult situation and can improve our running and the sport as a whole. Here are four ways trail running has improved through 2020, and practices we can carry over into 2021.

Better Training
Although racing can motivate runners to train and improve their fitness, racing too frequently can actually compromise training and fitness goals. Racing too often – especially ultramarathons – can cause muscular fatigue, mental burnout, injuries and collectively can disrupt training by placing your focus on how to get the most out of yourself on race day, as opposed to building long-term fitness. Racing more often leads to more pre/post race taper periods, and therefore less time for base-training, working on running technique, incorporating interval sessions and hill sprints, and other useful practices that make you a better runner. Having extra time for longer, more developed training blocks will make you faster, stronger and healthier both mentally and physically.

With many races cancelled as a result of the pandemic, more runners have avoided the trap of “over-racing.” Those who have been willing to commit themselves to training blocks this year – even with few or no races on their schedules –will be able to reap the benefits when racing resumes to normal. We’re already starting to see athletes achieve new levels of fitness from shifting their focus to training instead of racing. Elite HOKA ONE ONE® runner Hayden Hawks, who just recently broke Jim Walmsely’s record at the iconic JFK 50 Mile shared on a podcast that the lack of races has allowed him to train better than ever. I’d expect 2021 to be an exciting year for trail running with new course records set at major races around the world.

Pandemic Aid Station

Cleaner Aid Stations
How many sweaty, grimey fingers went into that bowl of M&Ms you too likely placed your hands into at trail race aid station in the past? There are plenty of examples of questionable hygienic practices at aid stations we have since eliminated to reduce the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. Even after this pandemic is over, there are aid station hygiene practices we should continue, such as providing hand sanitizer, requiring volunteers to wash their hands frequently and wear gloves when touching foods/drinks, and including more “touchless” equipment/systems for trail runners.

Less Air Travel, Fewer Carbon Emissions
The cancellation of races during the pandemic has resulted in less travel to races, which means less carbon emissions. For most trail running events, travel – especially air travel – is by far the event’s largest carbon footprint cost. Consider the impact of one of the world’s most prestigious ultras, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which attracts over 60,000 people to the Chamonix Valley of France each year. Most of the event’s participants are international, which means these runners, their families, crew, and spectators have taken planes and/or rented cars to get there. UTMB’s cancellation this year certainly helped reduce CO2 emissions caused by the trail running community.

Outdoor Friendly Pledge

In a recent discussion I had with elite Catalonian trail runner, Kilian Jornet, he discussed his belief that the way trail runners travel to races needs to change. Jorent said in our discussion,

“For the past several years I’ve reduced my flying (the biggest contributor to my personal carbon footprint) and traveled only to races or projects that are really meaningful to me. This means one or two trips a year and more local and virtual racing. I also want to use my social media, press appearances, interviews to talk about sustainability and help more people understand the effects of our activities on the environment and what changes we need to make.”

At the 2020 US Trail Running Conference, Jornet announced the US launch of his new Outdoor Friendly Pledge, which gives guidelines for how brands, athletes, events, and organizing bodies in the trail running community can better protect the environment and reduce their carbon footprint. See my full discussion with Jornet and learn how you too can sign the pledge.

New and Creative FKTs and Challenges
Despite the lack of races, trail runners have come up with creative new ways to challenge themselves during the pandemic. Fastest Known Times (FKTs), or records set on designated trails/routes that are recorded by GPS, are one of the more popular ways both elite and recreational runners have tested themselves this year. Some are even calling 2020 the “Year of FKTs” because of the many prominent FKTs that have been attempted and broken this year, including Jim Walmsely’s Hardrock 100 FKT, Sarah Hansel’s Unsupported Record on Nolan’s 14, The Boulder Skyline Traverse among many others.

Although an FKT attempt doesn’t replace the experience of racing, it does provide runners a creative way to stay competitive and test their fitness. Going forward into 2021, I’d expect to see runners continue to chase after some of the more prestigious FKTs and again raise the bar as to what times are possible to run on these routes.

In addition to FKTs, there have been other creative ways runners have stayed motivated and replaced cancelled races. Alejandro Venzor of Colorado Springs, Colorado challenged himself to a 100-mile solo run and we at the American Trail Running Association (ATRA) have just recently launched the Pikes Peak Elevation and Mileage Virtual Challenge to commemorate ATRA’s 25th anniversary. Join us and we’ll see you in cyberspace…..and maybe on the trails as well.

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