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How To Get Into Ultra or Trail Running Without Hurting Yourself

Author: Hilary Oliver

June 23, 2015

For women, ultra trail running is a special sport: “As race distances get longer, the performance difference between males and females shrinks,” says ultra runner Paige Pattillo. “Elite females are finishing mountain races just minutes behind top-notch men.” The sport is taking off like never before, she says, with more road runners transitioning to it and more money and sponsorship opportunities popping up. But the higher mileage can come with a hefty price when it comes to injury—especially if you’re not delicately in tune with your body and ready to stand up for its health.

“In college I suffered from multiple stress fractures which reflected the high volume of training we were doing,” Paige says. “At the time, I wasn't confident enough to take on more ownership of my body.” Since then, she’s learned a lot about how to monitor and balance her stress—both physical and psychological—and how use recovery and nutrition to her advantage.

Now a certified strength and conditioning specialist, Paige is focused on filling the knowledge gap about training for ultra and trail running and helping more extreme athletes extend the lives of their careers. “There is a giant black hole when it comes to proper, science-based training and preparation,” she says. “Unlike the marathon, where we have years of research telling us how to prepare, everyone is just taking their best guess in this scene.” She’s also gearing up for a couple of skymarathons of her own this August and September.

Thinking of upping your own mileage or entering a trail race this summer? Here are Paige’s tips for caring for your body, so it will keep caring for you back.

Wake up your muscles before you hit the trail. As you increase your mileage, any weaknesses or imbalances in your body will amplify, which can lead to problems pretty quickly. Paige knows it’s tough for most people to fit in a full strength-training regimen, so she recommends investing in a set of resistance bands. “I do one set of bodyweight planks and band walks with resistance bands around my ankles before I head out on runs. This gives key muscles involved in running a little wakeup nudge to activate them before you hit the trails.”

Pay attention to when you eat, not just what you eat. “Timing your fueling can be huge and will help you keep the quality of your runs high and enhance recovery between sessions,” she says. “The most critical time to consume calories is right after working out, so if you're driving to the trails to run, think ahead and pack portable nutrition like protein powder, trail mix or bars. As you start training more, focus on eating more frequently throughout the day to ensure your energy supply is matching your energy demand.”

Run mindfully. “Being present for your runs is huge. It allows you to listen to your body and assess how you feel every time you head out the door,” she says. “Often injuries can be avoided just by paying a little more attention to your body when you're asking it to perform.” Make a point of checking in with yourself every 10 minutes or so, focusing on breath or the rhythm of your foot strike, she suggests. Pay attention to subtle signals like general fatigue or muscle tightness, that can indicate overtraining.

Vary your training surface. “When you’re running on flat, repetitive surfaces, you tend to recruit and fatigue the same muscles,” Paige says. Mixing it up with hill training and more technical trail work forces you to use a wider range of muscles, and will help prevent repetitive stress injuries.

Aid recovery with self massage. “Golf balls, tennis balls, foam rollers and other home-care accessories should always be a part of your training routine, but they become more and more of a priority as you begin to increase your mileage,” she says. Paige suggests devoting at least 10 minutes toward recovery-oriented activities like foam rolling for every hour you run.

Hilary Oliver

​Hilary Oliver is a freelance writer and creator of TheGription.com. She loves climbing, biking and writing about climbing and biking. Her work has appeared on Adventure Journal, The Dirtbag Diaries, Freehub Magazine, Women’s Adventure, The Clymb, Women’s Movement and several other publications and web sites. If she’s not on the trail or up a rock, you can probably find her typing away on her laptop, hopefully within close proximity to strong coffee and hot breakfast burritos.