What Trail Runners can Learn From Road Marathon Racing Strategies

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Jared Ward pictured above at the 2019 Boston Marathon. Photo by Peter Maksimow.

To honor the 2019 Boston Marathon held this past Monday, April 15, this week’s tips focus on what trail runners can learn from the racing strategies of road marathoners. The road marathon shares many racing strategies with longer mountain, ultra and trail events. Listed below are my top three tips to incorporate effective marathon racing strategies into your next trail race to maximize your performance.

Refuel Frequently

Fueling frequently and in small amounts is a strategy marathoners use to maintain high levels of energy without bonking. The infamous “wall” many people say they hit in a marathon around roughly mile 22 is often a sign of muscle glycogen depletion. Fueling frequently with a small amount of carbohydrates and fluids can help avoid the dreaded bonk. Fueling frequently, as opposed to ingesting large amounts of calories all at once, helps avoid GI distress and can actually increase overall carbohydrate absorption to give you more energy.

Small and frequent refueling was studied by Nike in their Breaking2 Project. In this project, a team of Nike-sponsored scientists sought to idealize every possible racing condition to allow three Nike athletes to break the 2-hour barrier in the marathon. Nike optimized the athletes in-race nutrition as one way of bringing about the fastest possible marathon. The athletes utilized aid stations every 2.4 kilometers, roughly twice as frequent as the 5 kilometer standard at most major marathons. Of the three athletes, Eluid Kipchoge ran the fastest time of 2:00:25, which is the fastest ever recorded time for the marathon.

Jared Ward, 8th place male finisher at this year’s Boston Marathon shares his thoughts on refueling frequently during the race: “As temps climbed into the 60s, I knew staying hydrated was going to become an issue in that humidity. I began early to take preventative measures by carrying my bottles of Maurten twice as long, drinking and grabbing cups of water for an extra swallow even as early as 3 miles in.”

VIDEO BONUS: Peter Maksimow convinces Jared Ward to (consider) Mountain, Ultra and Trail racing.

Trail runners can similarly avoid bonking through more frequent fueling. Some examples of how to do this might include:

  • If you normally have one gel every 45 minutes, try consuming half at 20 minutes and the other half at 45 minutes.
  • Take smaller but more frequent sips from your water bottle between aid stations.
  • Cut energy bars in half. Eat one half, then wait 20 minutes to eat the other half.

Closely Monitor Your Effort Levels

Elite marathoners are constantly aware of their efforts during a marathon. Going even a few seconds too fast on any mile could greatly affect their energy levels and pace for subsequent miles of the race.

In trail running, the changes in terrain, steepness, and elevation add additional challenges to maintaining a steady pace. You should not expect to be able to hold the same pace on flat ground as compared to a steep snow-covered hill. Practice consistently being aware of your efforts and don’t stay too far from your average race pace. Learning to closely monitor how hard we are pushing helps us avoid over-exerting ourselves. This awareness is especially important during the beginning of longer trail races where it can be tempting to start too quickly.

2019 Boston Marathon photo by Peter Maksimow.

If you run with a watch, evaluate yourself every 15 minutes or so. Notice how you feel. Does it feel like you’re maintaining a consistent effort level? Have you pushed hard up a hill and now need to relax a little and recover? Being constantly aware of exertion levels can improve your pacing and avoid burnout.

Embrace Highs and Lows

Marathoners are mentally prepared to expect highs and lows during their race. The body feels great some miles and not as good other miles. Successful marathoners learn to expect this ebb and flow, which better prepares them mentally to overcome low points.

For trail runners in longer races, such as 100 milers, acknowledging the highs and lows is essential to staying mentally strong and avoiding DNFs. Over the course of 100 miles, even elite runners may need to stop and walk for several miles or take small naps because they are so tired. Recognize that these low points don’t last forever and you may rebound quickly if you just keep going.

Find Your Flow

Finding a “flow state” or “getting in the zone” can be an effective way to overcome challenges and seemingly speed up time during long distance running events. Although it can be described in different ways, many runners say finding their “flow” is about tuning out distractions from their mind and focusing on being present. Listening to your breathe, feeling your feet underneath you, and not allowing yourself to be distracted by thoughts of how far you have to go are all ways to practice presence and find your flow.

Scott Fauble (Flagstaff, AZ) ran 2:09:09 at the 2019 Boston Marathon. (Photo by Peter Maksimow)

Scott Fauble, top American male and 7th place overall finisher at this year’s Boston Marathon says he focused on cultivating a flow state during the race. Fauble says implementing daily meditation is a great way to find your flow during a race. He meditates 1-2 times per day and attributes this as a key factor in finding his flow and enabling him to be able to overcome the challenges of this year’s highly competitive Boston Marathon.

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