Assessing your progress as a trail runner

The diversity that trail running offers is one of its main appeals, however it can be difficult to assess how our training is progressing. The variability between sessions on the trail can hamper our ability to predict future performance. Similarly, races differ in terrain, technicality, and elevation, so comparisons between race performances aren’t like-for-like. 

Trail runners aren’t alone. There are other sports (for example climbing and sailing) that have a similar challenge of setting performance checkpoints to assess training progress. This post outlines some objective measures that you can use to rate your trail running progress. I’ve also added some of the more subjective measures that I use to assess my own trail running fitness. 

Note that when I say performance, this isn’t just restricted to speed. Improvement can also be about running longer, maintaining good running form, or finishing strong.

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Some (loosely) objective measures

Repeating the same race
Pros: Good marker of improvement (if the course doesn’t change).
Cons: Weather conditions can (and will!) influence the race outcome. Some races are long and don’t reflect fitness perfectly. Main events only happen once a year and it is not a useful or practical measure for day-to-day fitness assessment for training purposes.

Enter a road race
Once in a while it is useful to enter a road race.
Pros: A more predictable environment and course. Good indicator of overall cardiovascular fitness. Running a short road race can also be a good training session.
Cons: Performance in road races doesn’t always translate to trail running results (especially if your trail race is hilly and technical). There is also a risk of getting injured if your body is not accustomed to road running.

Short hill time trial (3-10min)
Instead of running a road race, you can choose a time-trial course, which could be a local hill or hilly stretch of road.
Pros: More controlled course and conditions. Hill/trail running specific. Short duration time-trial performance tests are reliable measure of performance.
Cons: Less predictive power for longer trail events.

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Laboratory testing. 
Trail running may differ to road running, but it is still running! Laboratory testing is sophisticated way to look at major physiological and biomechanical elements of running performance, such as maximal oxygen consumption, lactate thresholds, running economy and metabolic efficiency etc.

Pros: Objective assessment of physical capacity. Controlled environment. Easily reproducible protocols.
Cons: Expensive. It can be useful to assess fitness (VO2maxand lactate thresholds) but it doesn’t necessarily correlate well with trail running performance. Not every trail runner is proficient runner on the treadmill.


Personal experience

As a scientist and ultra-distance runner, I use rather subjective ways to assess my progress. Whilst I regularly enter road races and have my fitness tested in the lab (it’s part of my day job - lucky me!), I pay attention to several things to understand the state of my fitness.

When regular long road and trail runs feel easy
Do I find regular 10, 20 or 30km (road and trail) runs easy? At the start of the season even 20km can feel a bit awkward. I usually feel pretty happy with my form when a 30km run becomes “a routine” run rather than long run, and ‘long run’ status is elevated to 40km+ runs or runs longer than 4 hours.

How vertical ascent feels in my legs
Feeling the effect of sessions with 1km, 2km or more of vertical ascent in my legs. I am slowly building my strength to feel good with 2500m+ vertical ascent runs, which is a good indication of fitness necessary for a mountainous trail race.

I have several locations that serve as my vertical ascent ‘testing lab’, that range from 200 to 1000m of continuous vertical ascent. If I can run a VK (vertical kilometre) non-stop it gives me a good idea if my uphill running fitness has improved. If I am struggling with that, I complement my training with more strength and conditioning exercises, as well as short and medium uphill intervals, to build necessary strength. My 12-week training plan provides a systematic approach to uphill training and includes hill and strength sessions. The plan is delivered through Training Peaks: "Uphill strength for trail runners: 12-week training program".

Observing my running technique and finding the edges of my limits
I observe my body during 2+ hour runs and see how long I can maintain good running technique. Ideally, a 4-hour run should not affect running technique that much. If it is a road run, I compare how the second half of my run (pace-wise) is different from the first one. Also, it’s sometimes good to push yourself in the final 5km of your 20km or even 30km run and see if you’ve still got reserves. Be careful not to use all your reserves in training sessions, you do not want to reach an excessive fatigue level. You want just the right amount of stress so your body can recover quickly.

Running short road races
A 5K time trail is a good (and pretty objective) tool I use to assess my fitness. It’s also an ideal way to compare against any previous efforts and a 5km performance is a good indicator of cardiovascular fitness. If I can run sub-16 min for a 5km, I am usually happy with that part of my fitness and can move to training specifically for trails.

And to extend this assessment beyond just running for me it is important:

⁃      How I feel the day after a long run. I usually ask myself whether I would be able to repeat yesterday’s session again today. I pay attention to muscle soreness and any pains and niggles. If you feel extremely sore after a session with 1000m ascent and descent, it means that your body is still not conditioned properly to step up or even race (if you are training for an ultra in particular).

⁃      I make a mental note of how long I can run without taking energy (i.e. gels, fruit or carbohydrate containing drinks). This gives me a good indication of how efficient my fat burning is. Fitter athletes usually burn more fat-based fuels than unfit.

⁃      I also pay attention to how I tolerate heat. Acclimatising to hot environments is one of the key success elements for summer races.