13. Februar 2021

Swiss Trail Tour, Beginning or Comeback?

Having signed up for the Swiss Trail Tour in September, I am wondering whether this is a comeback to ultra running, or rather the beginning of something else? Either way: why do this, and how to prepare for three days of trail running─and hiking─a total distance of 103 km and 6000 m elevation gain?

Why do this? Seeking to test out and push one’s limits has been a source of motivation for many hobby athletes. Some professional athletes are trying to find the limits of human performance but that’s beyond reach for those like me who spend only around five hours a week on training. Clearly, in my case, such a running challenging is about pushing my limits without exceeding my willingness to subordinate everything else in my life to that goal. However, I believe that regardless of ambition, pushing limits is a strong purpose for many. My favorite books on testing limits are A Life without Limits by Chrissie Wellington, This Girl Ran by Helen Croydon, Yucan by Neil Thubron─and also the drama movie about Shackleton with Kenneth Branagh.

Apart from this, I love being in the mountains. It is only logical to find hobbies that involve mountains. Since I already enjoy running─particularly in nature on trails─it’s a relatively obvious choice to combine mountains and running.

But why sign up for a race? Races cater to the competitive streak in my personality. A race requires preparation, and preparation means regular training. Regular training means I get healthy doses of fresh air and daylight, which in turn boosts the immune system and keeps me mentally well-balanced. All this is important, during a time where the Covid-19 pandemic goes on. But hey, health is important regardless of whether there are pandemics raging on this planet. There is a bit of “motivation hacking” going on: I have signed up for a race because a race on the horizon motivates me during training. The journey is part of the goal. Knowing that getting out of the house is part of the training, it’s way easier to go for a run 2-3 times a week. I enjoy running most days, but I still need to make room for it, or else it won’t happen.

Talking about Covid-19, won’t this race be cancelled just like all the others? It might be, it’s only half a year to go. But it doesn’t matter, if the race is cancelled, I’ll design a similar challenge and complete it on my own. So, mentally, I discount the possibility of the race being cancelled: it matters little and contemplating the possibility without having a backup plan would decrease my motivation during training.

Entering the Swiss Trail Tour is only somewhat of a comeback. My heydays of ultra running were in 2017 when I completed six ultra marathons within a single year. In subsequent years 2018-2020, I focused on other things in my life and races over long distances had to take a backseat. In that sense, joining a stage race with one ultra marathon (51 km) sandwiched in between the first stage (22 km) and the third stage (31 km) is a comeback. However, it is also a beginning, since I expect the stages on the Swiss Trail Tour be more technical, covering longer climbs, and totals far more elevation gain than I am used to from stage races in the UK.

The purpose now explained, how do I prepare for the Swiss Trail Tour? The 6000m elevation gain in the three race stages is 45% (63%, 72%) of the annual elevation gain of 2017 (2018, 2019). I usually need over a month to cover the distance of 103 km, and the race demands me to cover the distance in three days.

Unsurprisingly, as with many things in life─as long as you have a growth mindset and do not discard some physical realities: training is key. I have identified a few areas where I need to train deliberately: posture, technique, strength, and endurance. While I am no expert in e.g. physiology or kineosology, it doesn’t prevent me from thinking about these things. Good posture is important to me in life, not just for running. But good posture should lead to efficient running, allow the body to use the right muscles for movement rather than improvising by making other muscle groups compensate for bad posture. Technique is required on technical trails, and in particular on downhill sections. Just like posture, strength is important to me in life─though as a means, rather than the end. Particularly, ankle strength is useful to deal with uneven surface. Core strength is important to keep the body aligned. Whatever muscles are required to go up and down a mountain─they need strengthening, too. The need for endurance is self-evident. Phew… there is a lot. How to go about it?

Let’s get started. How to improve posture? Usually, my canonical retort to any question of the form “how to improve X?” would be “first, measure it”, then “set the target”, and finally “go to work until you reach the target”. I haven’t been as systematic. In 2020, I set off to do three brief (~5 min) sessions a day to attack forward head posture. While I did not diagnose myself as a bad case here, my desk work as a software engineer makes me prone to forward head posture. I failed though to do these sessions regularly (see my post Pursuit, a take on personal OKRs). In 2021, I am on target against a goal of two sessions per day: 86 sessions on 43 days. I take consultations (Massage et Mouvement) to help me choose good exercises. A sit-stand desk helps me to switch often between sitting and standing while working. I’m waiting for a pull-up bar. Since I don’t feel qualified to ramble on about how to get posture, there’s little else to tell you here other than: posture is important, developing good habits is important, don’t neglect it.

What about technique of running downhill? So far, I have mostly been learning by doing, combined with a few YouTube videos. I’m trying to increase the amount of downhill running gently over the year. My annual elevation gain quadrupled in 2020 after moving from flat parts in London to a town sided by hills in Switzerland (see my post Some hills, finally). In London, my standard running routes were along the Thames Path, or along Regent’s canal: as flat as it can get.

I don’t enjoy strength training as much. This is unfortunate because I believe strength training is important for endurance athletes as well. Since I am not entitled to get anything without putting the work into it, I do strength training anyway, albeit for the first half of 2021 only in a single session during the week which likely will lead to a very slow progression.

I’m also mixing in some hill training, plus some speed training on the track whenever it’s on the training schedule of my local running club. The speed training sessions are great because they serve me as a benchmark on where I am in my training. The hill training sessions are currently not very methodical (my annual goal in 2021 is 36000 m of elevation gain─but volume isn’t all), and I am pondering whether to adopt some scheme to train more efficiently or be happy with my approach of just making up training sessions on the fly. The luxury here is that─as a hobby athlete─you can afford inefficiency. It’s a hobby after all. But on the flipside, pushing the limits while spending limited amounts of time works better when training is effective and efficient!

Finally, there’s the endurance training. I usually go for a single long run on one of the days of the weekend, and otherwise keep to shorter runs with less than 10 kilometers during the week. My distance goal for 2021 is 25 km per week (1300km annually), which is a 35% (35%, 14%) increase over 2020 (2019, 2018). I am probably not doing enough slow long runs, but well, this is one of the areas in my training where I would have to make a choice on whether to invest more time.

I feel that many training aspects can still be improved, and improved by a lot: optimizing nutrition, fast hiking on uphill slopes, running uphill on long gentle slopes, smarter hill training, smarter speed training, back-to-back long runs to build mental resilience. But I am patient, I have started training─although not as systematically─a year ago, and I will become more systematic over the coming months as the race approaches. Since I am unwilling to dedicate far more time than I already do to running, I am also considering to learn more about training, such to train more effectively and more efficient, without sacrificing more time. We’ll find out soon enough. Happy running!