Incorporating Short Trail Races into Your Training

Written by Andrew Simmons for the Summer 2018 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Andrew lives in Lakewood, Colorado where he is the head training coach, of Peak Performance Running. He is a USATF Level 2 Endurance Coach, TrainingPeaks Level 2 Coach, and Lydiard Foundation Level 2 Coach.

For most marathoners and ultra-distance runners, five kilometers describes how far they have left to go in a race, not their typical training or racing distance in its entirety. If this is your mindset, you may want to adopt a new strategy as there are some big benefits to reap from short-distance races as part of a marathon or ultra training program.

Aerobic capacity

Most endurance athletes are rock stars at low to moderate intensity exercise. It’s when you tap into high-end work you can see big results in a relatively short amount of time. Training for a 5-10 kilometer race requires structured speed work, which develops your body to utilize more oxygen (aerobic capacity). The more oxygen that can be consumed, the more physical work an individual will be able to do.

Density is everything

Short-distance running and the training it requires, can improve the flow of oxygenated blood to muscle tissue, and in turn can improve mitochondrial density. Mitochondria are muscle cells that help produce Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), which is the actual fuel that supplies muscle contractions. If you improve a muscle’s ability to use oxygen for shorter distances, you can see big benefits for a long race. Think of this as a major physiological benefit of short-distance training for long-distance runners.

Endurance won’t just disappear

Distance runners fear that if they exchange some long, slow running for a few short, speedy days – they’ll lose the ability to be strong over longer distances. You might consider that athletes who train for a mix of events tend to have better running economy, and ultimately have the ability to change gears and tackle technical sections in longer races. Integrating speed work into your training cycle and preparing for a 5K or 10K race increases your efficiency, and can increase your baseline aerobic running pace.

Leg speed and efficiency are boosted

It’s good to change speed and increase turn over. Using high aerobic workouts will increase your leg speed and help you become a more efficient runner. Turn over at your top end brings big benefits to your easy aerobic running pace. The same applies for lactate mitigation. By putting your body in a high lactate state, and allowing it to recover teaches your body to mitigate larger amounts of lactate over time. This ultimately helps your baseline easy running to help your body more efficiently handle the smaller amount of lactate produced at low to moderate aerobic intensities.

Balance in integration

Adding high aerobic workouts in preparation for a short distance race should be integrated with caution, and with a goal of building your time at a high heart rate over time. Keep to the 10 percent rule for new runners who are integrating this into their training regimen. If you did 12 minutes of high intensity continuous work in week two, you should complete 13.5 up to 15 minutes of work in the following week.

High aerobic work requires a significant amount of energy to complete, so if you’re looking to keep a mileage number you might want to pad your work with warm-up and cool-down miles, or utilize a second run on the day of a focused session at a very low heart rate to help flush out any waste produced from your high aerobic session.

Closing thoughts

Training for and racing 5- and 10-kilometer races, and taking time to integrate the training into your build-up for a long-distance race, will help you not only increase your baseline running pace, it will help direct the rest of your long-distance racing for your season. Use short-distance races as building blocks early on in your training, or use them to test your fitness in later stages of sharpening for a half marathon, a marathon, or an ultra-distance race.

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