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Gift ideas for trail runners

I thought I’d make a list of gift ideas for trail runners, partly for myself and partly as a resource for others.  Often when people ask me what I want for birthdays or Christmas, I can’t think of anything.  Trail running doesn’t require a lot of equipment, and usually, the things I need, I’ve already got.  Maybe with a few prompts, next time I might be able to think of something.

Around $20

These items are the kind of gift you can give without consultation, and they’re reasonably cheap, so if you get it completely wrong, it’s not the end of the world.

Books: Always welcome, and there are so many trail running and ultrarunning books to choose from.  Just check whether they want physical books, digital books or audiobooks.  I love listening to audiobooks when I’m doing treadmill workouts.

Socks: Receiving socks as a gift might be a bit of a joke for some, but they do wear out especially when you crank out the kilometres.  I particularly like the Injinji toe socks as they stop my toes rubbing together.

Cap: I suppose you can only have a few caps, but a good one will be useful for years.  Look for one that’s lightweight, and has plenty of ventilation holes.

Gloves: Handy (pun intended) in winter, especially in colder climates.  Check that the gloves allow you to operate a touch screen while you’ve got them on.

Gaiters: These little skirts for your ankles stop stones and dirt getting into your shoes.  They’re just the right price for a gift, and come in some pretty groovy colours.

Buff: Another item that is available in an infinite array of designs.  Handy for soaking up sweat, keeping the sun off your neck, or your hair under control.

Around $50

Resistance bands: A set of resistance bands of varying thicknesses are useful for strength workouts.

Foam roller: Not the most exciting gift, but useful nonetheless. 

Soft flask: A soft flask to fit in an existing running vest is a nice little gift for a trail runner.  They likely have soft flasks that came with their vest, but there are some available with better features.

Over $100

OK, most of these items cost quite a bit more than $100, and they’re the type of thing that you probably shouldn’t buy for someone without consulting them first.  Some even require fitting, so the person you’re giving to really needs to be involved.

Trail shoes: Shoes are a bit pricey to give as a gift, and obviously they need to be fitted.  So, maybe give a gift card instead.

GPS watch: Likewise, GPS running watches are generally a bit too expensive to give as a gift.  And it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to get wrong.  However, the number of models available isn’t too confusing, so your friend should be able to tell you which one they want.

Running vest: Definitely not the type of thing you would buy for someone without talking to them first.  They’ll need to make sure they get the right size and the features they want.

Headlamp: Handy for running at night.  Look for one specifically designed for running.  Pay particular attention to weight (including batteries), brightness, and battery life.

Wireless headphones: If your trail running friend likes to listen to music while running, wireless headphones might be a nice gift.  Look for running specific ones as they’re sweat-proof and better at staying in the ears.

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What is technical trail running?

Technical trail running is characterised by the terrain being quite difficult to traverse.  This may include obstacles such as rocks, loose surfaces, roots, mud, water, steep climbs and steep descents.  Some technical sections may also require the use of the upper body in order to negotiate.  Technical trail running is usually significantly slower than running on smooth surfaces, and there is a higher risk of injury.

Each of the terrains and obstacle types requires special skill and experience.  If you are planning to run a trail race that has technical sections, you should devote a significant amount of time practising running on those surfaces.

Obstacles

These are some of the most common obstacles you will encounter, and some tips for negotiating them successfully.

Rocks

Rocks come in all shapes and sizes and each one requires a slightly different approach.  Small rocks or pebbles can create a slippery surface or find their way into your shoes, making running uncomfortable.  Larger rocks can result in twisted ankles or stubbed toes.  The trick is to keep focused on foot position and plan your line.

Here’s a great guide to running on various rock types.

Loose surfaces

Loose surfaces such as gravel or slippy mud can be challenging, especially when combined with a slope.  Grippy shoes may help to retain traction, but in some cases, you may just have to slow down and take it easy.

Roots

Roots pose a similar risk to rocks, and come in many shapes and sizes, but tend to protrude higher from the trail surface and trap the foot a bit more.  They also have the added benefit of being slippery and can result in a foot unexpectedly loosing grip.  Because they differ based on the type of vegetation growing in a area, it pays to train in the area you’ll be racing in.

Mud

Mud can be some of the trickiest terrain to overcome, particularly the sticky, slippery kind.  If it’s really bad, it can coat the bottom of your shoes, adding unwelcome weight and providing a slick surface with no traction at all.  Sometimes there’s no alternative than to grab a stick and try to scrape the mud off.

Water

Usually, water crossings just mean that you’re going to get wet feet.  Fortunately, most trail shoes are pretty good at directing excess moisture away from the foot, and you’ll be reasonably dry in no time.

Steep terrain

Steep terrain is one of the most common things you’ll encounter while trail running.  To complicate matters, you’ll probably also encounter one or more other types of obstacle at the same time.

Refer to this article on downhill running for advice and tips.

Tips for technical trail running

Time and effort

If you worry too much about how fast you’re going and how much distance you’re covering on technical terrain, you run the risk of becoming disheartened.  Instead, focus on the effort you’re putting in and the time you’re investing.  If you find it challenging, the chances are that others will find it challenging too.  If you put in maximum effort, you can’t go wrong.

Balance

Balance is critically important on technical trails.  Try to incorporate balance (single-leg exercises) and plyometrics (split and squat jumps) into your training.  Refer to this training plan for examples.

Shorter stride

It’s important to reduce ground contact time and “float” over the surface.  This makes it easier to deal with unexpected changes in terrain.  Avoid stop and go movements, which will slow you down, waste energy and can make the terrain harder to negotiate.

Footwear

Good trail shoes make a big difference on technical terrain and will give you a lot more confidence.  The lugs on trail shoes help grip the surface as you climb hills, rocks and muddy slopes. They also help you stop when you need to on steep descents. A good tread pattern will help to clear mud as you run.  You will find shoes designed specifically for particular terrain types.  However, to get started, general trail shoes with good grip should do just fine.

Find your line

Keep your eyes about 2-4m (5-10ft) ahead and look for the best path.  Try to plan your next few steps ahead of time.

Stay alert

Terrain and the obstacles you need to deal with will be constantly changing. You need to be constantly aware of those changes and plan accordingly.  This will take conscious effort to begin with but will become second nature as you become more experienced.

Aim to finish

Don’t take unnecessary risks.  Technical trail running takes time.  In a race situation, focus on finishing, not your position.  In training, challenge your limits gradually to improve your skills.  Run the same familiar trails at progressively faster paces.  Each time, you’ll make improvements in foot placement and you’ll become progressively more confident.

I hope you found this useful.  Do you have any tips or advice for technical trail running? Please leave a comment below to let me know.

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Can I wear my trail running shoes in the gym?

If you’re going to the gym to bust out some kilometres on the treadmill or do some weights, trail running shoes will work just fine.  If, on the other hand, you’re planning to do an aerobics class, trail running shoes will work, but they might not give you the most enjoyable experience.

Trail running shoes usually have a lot more grip than standard running shoes or cross trainers.  They’re designed for rugged terrain and unsealed trails.  They are also usually versatile enough for running on more stable surfaces like cement, roads, and pavement.  But, say you forgot you were wearing your trail shoes and headed off to the gym.  How will trail shoes perform?  Well, it depends what you intend to do while you’re there.

The main differences between trail shoes and road shoes are:

  • Trail shoes usually have thicker materials on the upper. They have strong mesh to prevent rips from trail debris. Most trail shoes also a bit of extra material around the toes, called toe bumpers, to protect your toes.
  • The soles of trail shoes are designed to grip an uneven trail surface. They usually have large lugs, teeth, and a sticky rubber for better traction to deal with dirt, mud, and rocks. Some also have a plate of hard plastic in the mid-sole area to protect the sole of your foot from rocks and sharp sticks.  They’re usually less flexible than road running shoes.
  • Many trail shoes include stability features to help prevent rolling an ankle on uneven surfaces.
  • Although there are light-weight models available, trail shoes are often heavier than the average road shoe.

Treadmill running

Today’s trail shoes have much more to offer than some of the older designs. The first trail shoes were bulky and stiff but today you can find lightweight trail shoes and most offer great flexibility. This makes them well-suited to running on a treadmill. However, if you’re doing faster workouts such as tempo runs or interval workouts, you may feel more comfortable and faster in a lighter road shoe.

Trail running shoes will work well on a treadmill.  You may notice that they feel different to when you wear them on soft ground.  Some trail shoes might even feel uncomfortable, as the lugs may dig into the bottom of your foot slightly.

If you wear trail shoes a lot on a treadmill, you may notice that they wear differently to road shoes.  Since trail shoes only contact the surface of the treadmill at the tips of the lugs, those lugs mar wear noticeably.  It shouldn’t affect their on-trail performance though unless they wear off completely.

If you’re going to be doing a trail ultra, it can sometimes be hard to get enough outdoor kilometres in.  And it’s important to wear your race day shoes in.  So, wearing them on a treadmill makes sense.  Also, many ultras have sections on roads and other hard surfaces, so getting used to running in trail shoes on surfaces other than trails makes some sense too.

Weights session

There’s not a lot of foot work involved in a weights session, so the type of shoe you wear is not particularly important.  Trail shoes will work just fine.

Aerobics class

Aerobics classes involve picking up your feet and putting them down a lot.  So, you might find that trail shoes feel a little heavy.

Also, trail shoes with aggressively lugged outsoles will cause a couple of issues.  Firstly, because of the good grip, your foot will stop abruptly when it makes contact with the ground.  Also, the grip makes it difficult to spin or change direction.

Most trail shoes are quite rigid.  This rigidity will stop your foot from being able to bend as it should.

So, you can probably get away with using a trail shoe, but it won’t be particularly comfortable.

Be considerate

Obviously if your trail shoes are caked in mud, don’t wear them to the gym.  You probably won’t be invited back if you put mud all over the treadmill or carpet.

I hope this helped.  Please leave a comment if you have accidentally worn your trail shoes to the gym.  How did it go?

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Trail running on real food: the ultimate list

On long runs, you will need to consume food on the go.  What to eat and how much to eat will be different for each runner and will depend on multiple factors.  This article serves as a rough guide, but each runner will need to experiment to work out what works best for them.

Eating while running

When you run, your body consumes stored carbohydrates as well as some fat.  The ratio of carbohydrates to fats depends primarily on the intensity of the activity.  However, your body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrate and it usually runs out after about 90 minutes of intense activity.  Whatever your intensity or ability to burn fat, you will still need to replenish your carbohydrates after roughly 90 minutes.  If you don’t replenish the carbohydrates, your performance will suffer. Your body will force you to slow down and will burn relatively less carbohydrate and more fat.

So, if your run is shorter than 90 minutes, you can get away with not eating, and just replenishing after your run.  But if you are running longer, you’ll need to eat along the way.

When you run, you burn calories faster than you can take them in.  The average runner can digest somewhere between 150 and 300 calories per hour, depending on multiple factors such as effort, body mass, type of food, climate and more.  And, you’ll burn somewhere between 600 and 1000 calories per hour depending on pace, body mass, terrain, and more.

The idea is to give your body just enough food so it’s not starved of carbohydrates, but not more than you can digest.  Too much food will weigh you down and lead to gastrointestinal issues.  Don’t try to eat as many calories as you’re burning, or you’ll have a bad day.

The general rule is to start taking in calories after about 30 minutes and continue to take in about 100 calories every 30 minutes or so.  Obviously, this will vary based on the individual and a multitude of factors.  It’s important to experiment during your training runs to work out what works best for you.

What to eat when running

So, you know roughly how much to eat while running. Now to work out what to eat.

The macronutrients that make up foods are carbohydrate, fat, and protein.  For running, carbohydrates are the important ones and generally, you’ll be looking for food high in carbohydrates, although fat and protein shouldn’t be ignored.

Carbohydrates include sugars, starches and fibres.  They’re classified into simple and complex carbohydrates.  Simple carbohydrates contain just one (monosaccharides) or two sugars (disaccharides), such as fructose (from fruits) and galactose (from milk products). Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) have three or more sugars. They are often referred to as starchy foods and include beans, peas, lentils, potatoes, and whole grains.  As a product of digestion, complex carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars.

Another important class of nutrients for running is salts.  Sodium is probably the most important, but potassium and magnesium also play a role.  These are important for muscle and nerve function, pH and fluid balance.

You should also consider how portable a food is for trail running.  It’ll need to go in your pack and will be subjected to constant jiggling for kilometre after kilometre.

Why real food?

I’m not a big fan of gels and sugary drinks for race nutrition or for long training runs. I much prefer using real food. For me, it sits better in my stomach and feels better in general. It’s also a lot more palatable and doesn’t lead to a litter problem.

However, as I already mentioned, eating while running is a highly personalised thing.  Some people might not be able to handle any solid food at all

You can get away with eating just about anything when running.  The most important thing is getting the calories in and keeping them in.   

The list

So here is my list of real foods for trail running which may also be useful long distance running and endurance sports in general.

Bought and ready to eat

These foods don’t require any preparation, other than stowing into your pack.  These are good if you’re just starting out or if you’re in a hurry.  Also, if you find yourself out on a long run with a credit card, you can just pop into a nearby store and pick up some of these to keep you going.

Bars: This is a very broad category and includes a wide range of products.  Try to pick bars that aren’t too high in refined sugars and are made from whole grains.

Chips (crisps): These are great when you feel like a bit of salt.  They’re really light in your pack.  Just go for plain flavours as the spicy ones might not sit well.

Nuts: Nuts are a great combination of protein, carbs, and fat.  Choose your nut based on the macronutrient profile.  Don’t over-do the nuts though.  They can feel a bit heavy in the stomach sometimes.

Fruit: Some fruits are better than others.  Bananas are a common favourite.  I also like apples.  Be careful with fruits that are high in fibre.  Some of my favourites:

  • banana
  • apple
  • orange (pre-peeled or be prepared to get sticky)

Dried fruit: These are a bit more portable than fresh fruit.  As with fresh fruit, be careful with fruits high in fibre if you’re sensitive.  Just experiment with what works for you.  Some favourites are:

  • dates
  • cranberries
  • mango
  • apricots
  • pear
  • peach
  • apple
  • pineapple

Pretzels: Nice for a bit of salty starch.  Easy to pack and quite light.  Some people find them a bit dry though.

Junk food: Things like doughnuts, tarts, biscuits (cookies), pizza, and lollies (candy) are all valid foods during a long event.  Whatever you need to do to get the calories in.

Requiring some advance preparation/cooking

If you want to get serious, preparing your own running snacks is the way to go.  You’ll know exactly what’s in them and you can tailor them to your specific requirements and desires.

Boiled potatoes: If you can get baby potatoes, just boil and salt them.  If you can only get large ones, they can be cooked, oiled and salted.  You can also mash them and put them in a pouch.

Wraps: can be filled with just about anything, but here are some suggestions:

  • peanut butter and jam (or banana)
  • almond butter, banana, honey (+ soy sauce for salt if you want to go crazy).  I think I heard this one recommended by Dean Karnazes.
  • nutella and dried fruit

Croissant: Fill them with just about anything.  Cheese, jam, nut butter, etc are all good options.

Fruit cake: Either homemade or bought.  Cut into nice sized chunks and put into plastic sandwich bags.

Drinks

Water: My preferred hydration option.  If you want hydration, water is the original and the best.

Coconut water: Coconut water is full of handy electrolytes and some people live the taste.  I’ve tried it but it didn’t work for my tastebuds.

Iced tea with honey: Honey contains potassium, which is an important salt for muscle function. Honey is also a good source of antioxidants.

Fruit juice: Provides a nice little sugar kick.  Use with caution.  Can be hard for some people to stomach.

Cold brewed coffee: I’ve seen this at a couple of events, and it’s surprisingly refreshing.  The caffeine hit may also be desirable in the late stages of an event.

Chocolate milk: You’ll need to keep it cold, maybe by freezing it in a pouch, but chocolate milk is great to keep you going during a long run, and some people swear by it for recovery.

Flat Coke: Some people swear by flat coke for a bit of caffeine and a sugar kick.  I haven’t had Coke for years, though so I wouldn’t recommend it.  Other flat soft drinks would also be an option.

Semi-liquid

Baby food: If you get it in those squeezy pouches, it’s really portable and easy to digest.

Honey: A bit tricky to get into a pouch, but packed full of energy.  You can also buy honey in little disposable pouches, but then you end up with a litter problem. 

Home made gels: You can make your own gels, like these.

Pouch recipes: You can make your own semi-liquid creations to fill squeezy pouches. The No Meat Athlete has a collection of great recipes, including these:

  • Salty Sweet Potato
  • Date-Espresso
  • Banana-Date
  • Pina Colada
  • Apple-Banana
  • Beet-Ginger
  • Maple Cinnamon Oatmeal
  • Apple Maca
  • Banana Maca
  • Chia Switchel

Please let me know your favourite running snacks.  I’m sure there’s a heap of stuff I’ve left out.

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Things I wish I knew when I started trail running

It’s not long ago that I was new to trail running.  Here are some tips that I think would have helped me to keep things in perspective.  There’s no shortage of beginner tips out there already, so this is my unique perspective on it.

Keep it simple

You don’t need any special gear to get started. Standard running shoes will do just fine.  There’s no need to fork out hundreds of dollars on trail running shoes just yet.  You don’t need waterproof, highly breathable shoes with special flaps to attach your gaiters.  Likewise, you don’t need an expensive hydration vest just so you look like a trail runner.  Just running on trails will do that.

Shoes with grip are great

I know I just told you to keep things simple, but shoes with a bit of grip will make all the difference to your confidence on tricky terrain.  Just don’t rush into the purchase.  Standard shoes will do the job just fine while you get started.  If you’re aiming to do a race, maybe don’t bother buying your first pair of trail shoes until you’ve signed up for your first race.  Just make sure you have a few weeks to wear them in before the event.

You don’t need as much water as people tell you

When I first started trail running I would take a hydration pack on every run, stash water bottles along the trail and drink from streams I found along the way.  Actually, that last part isn’t true.  I’m from Australia.  We don’t have streams over here.  Not the kind that you would consider drinking from anyway.  All that water weighed me down, sloshed around on my back, and I didn’t even drink most of it.  Now I don’t bother taking water with me unless it’s very hot or I’m running more than about 20km.

You need more water than you think

Running out of water on a run when you’re a long way from anywhere because you read my previous tip is just plain silly.  What were you thinking?  If you’re venturing away from civilisation, just take a bit of extra water with you.  You spent hundreds of dollars on that expensive hydration vest I said you didn’t need, so fill it up before you head out.

You will develop a deep appreciation for watermelon

I have always loved watermelon, but since I started doing long distance trail running, I have and even deeper appreciation for it’s sweet, watery goodness.  There is nothing more refreshing and satisfying after a long, hot trail running event than to gorge yourself on a whole watermelon.

Run up hills

Hill training will make you stronger, faster and more attractive.  OK, maybe not the last one.  The point is, don’t take the easy option and walk up every hill.  Challenge yourself with hill workouts and I promise you will see improvements.  Not just with your physical performance, but also your general outlook on life.

Walk up hills

Obviously, running up every hill is not going to work.  Be comfortable in walking up hills.  Sometimes it makes sense to conserve energy and sometimes it makes sense to enjoy a walk up a hill.  Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing.  Sometimes walking up a hill is the most energy efficient way to get up.  Once it’s steeper than a certain angle, running is less efficient than walking. 

Strength training is important

If I say it enough times, I might do the strength training I know I should.  Seriously though, strength training is important for injury prevention, optimal performance and improvement.  Also, it doesn’t have to be complicated or take a lot of time.  30 minutes to an hour per week is adequate for the average recreational trail runner, and a small number of exercises will strengthen all the important muscles.  Keep it simple and you’ll be able to stick with it.

Keep things in perspective

Don’t complain. Running for recreation is an extreme privilege.  I have access to everything I need and I choose a physical challenge for recreation.

So, what have you learnt that you wish you knew when you started? Let me know in the comments.

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Trail running glossary

Like any specialised field, trail running and ultrarunning are full of strange terms that are quite perplexing to the beginner.  Some of them are even perplexing to the experienced trail runner.  Here is a collection of some of the jargon I’ve come across in my travels with the trail running community.  Some of these are also used by non-trail runners.

Aid station (also drink station, checkpoint): A table or shelter positioned along a race course, and attended to by volunteers.  Water, and sometimes food and medical facilities may be supplied.

Bonk: Suffer from extreme exhaustion due to depleted glycogen stores.

Buff: A versatile one-piece cloth band that wraps around the head, neck, wrist, and is useful for soaking up sweat, providing sun protection, and keeping hair under control.

Cadence: Number of steps per minute.

Crew: The group of people who support a runner during race.

Cutoff times: If you don’t make it to an aid station by a certain time, you will not be allowed to continue the race.

DNF: Did not finish.

DNS: Did not start.

DOMS: Delayed onset muscle soreness.

Drop bag: A bag to back various supplies that you might need during a race.  These are transported by race officials to designated aid stations and will be availav=ble for you to use when you get there.

Fartlek: Swedish for “speed play”.  A running workout in which the pace is varied, combining a mixture of fast, slow and moderate pace.

Fire trail: A wide, smooth trail, including dirt roads used by service vehicles.

FKT: Fastest known time.

Gaiters: Protective piece of cloth, fixed around the ankle to stop dirt and rocks entering the shoe.

Hiking poles: Sticks used by hikers and runners to provide extra support on the trails.

Junk miles: Long, slow runs.

Lugs: Bits of rubber on the outsole of a trail shoe.  Their function is to provide traction.

Midsole: The area of the shoe between the upper and outsole that’s
primarily responsible for the shoe’s cushioning. Most midsoles are made
of foam.

Negative splits: Running the second half of a race faster than the first half.

Out and back: When a course head to a point, then turns around and head back to the starting point.

Outsole: The material on the bottom of a running shoe, usually made of durable rubber.

Single-track: A narrow trail, only wide enough for a single person.  These are sometimes used by mountain bikers, so be careful.

Snot rocket: Blowing snot from your nose by closing one nostril with a finger and blowing forcefully out of the other.

Strides: Short, fast, but controlled runs of 50 to 150 meters.

Taper: Reducing the amount or intensity of running prior to a race in order to ensure peak performance.

Technical: Uneven or steep terrain with numerous obstacles on which running is very difficult.

Toebox: The front portion of a shoe, where the toes go.

Ultramarathon: Any distance longer than a marathon (42.2km, 26.2mi).

Upper: The material on the top of the shoe.

Vest: Very lightweight backpack used to carry water, food and supplies.

Let me know in the comments if I’ve forgotten any.

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A quick, simple strength training program for trail runners

Strength training is a critically important part of a trail runner’s program, but one that’s overlooked far too often.  Runners want to spend their spare time running.  They don’t want to waste it beefing up in the gym.  Trail runners, especially, want to spend their time outdoors, enjoying nature.  Would you rather be stuck in a gym doing repetitive weights, or out on a trail enjoying the outdoors?

The benefits of weight training are well established.  Strength training can improve cardiovascular fitness, improve your balance, strengthen your bones, and help you lose weight.  Importantly though for trail runners, strength training can reduce the risk of injury by strengthening specific muscles and other soft tissues that are put under stress by trail running.  In particular, these are the foot, ankle and calves.  Also, strengthening muscles like the glute and the smaller leg muscles improves balance and agility, which leads to reduced injury.

This strength program is designed specifically for trail runners, but also suitable for non-trail runners.  These few exercises are all you need to maximise your trail running and reduce injury.  In fact, keeping it simple increases the effectiveness and makes it easier to stick to.  The best part is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.  One strength workout per week is plenty for the average trail runner.  And each workout will only take about 30 minutes.  Minimising the amount of time required for strength workouts makes it more likely that they’ll actually get done.

Single-leg deadlift

OK.  I started with a tricky one but don’t leave just yet.  The single-leg deadlift is the ultimate goal.  Start with a double-leg deadlift before moving on to the single-leg version or you’ll probably have difficulty or hurt yourself, and you’ll definitely have poor form.  

The single-leg deadlift does so much in one action.  It’s one of those compound exercises that develops functional fitness by working multiple muscle groups at once.  Deadlifts work just about every muscle in the leg, including glute, calf, quad, hamstring and Adductor Magnus.  They also work numerous back and abdominal muscles.  Single-leg deadlifts are even more awesome because they also require torso, pelvic, and hip stability.

How to do it

  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold the barbell with your arms fully extended toward the ground, hands shoulder-width apart, and palms facing your thighs. While lifting one foot a few inches off the floor to bring it behind you, slightly bend the knee of your supporting leg.
  • Push your hips backward, bending at the waist to lower your torso toward the ground as your rear leg trails behind you to help with balance. Push out your chest, only going as low as you can without your lower back rounding. Let the weights touch the floor, pause, and then squeeze your glutes to return to the starting position.

Instead of the barbell, you can also use dumbbells or kettlebells, or just one kettlebell for extra emphasis on stability and balance.

Weighted hops

Single legged hops with dumbbells or a barbell strengthen the calves, which are important for stability on technical trails and for powering up hills.

How to do it

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet together.
  • Lift one leg off the floor and balance on the other.
  • Hop up and down and do the same motion until exhaustion. Switch sides and repeat.

Do this exercise without wearing shoes.

Single leg balance

This exercise improves balance and strengthens foot and ankle muscles.

How to do it

  • Stand on a BOSU ball.
  • Lift one leg up, bending your standing leg slightly.
  • Stay in this position for as long as you can until your muscles become fatigued and cause you to lose your balance.
  • Repeat three to five times.
  • For an extra challenge, try it with your eyes closed.

Jumping lunges

This is another one of those exercises that work just about every muscle in your legs.  Specifically, it works the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves and hip flexors.

How to do it

  • To begin, start standing tall with your feet staggered, your left foot slightly in front of your right. Making sure you’re not too stiff, keep your stance active with your knees bent in a slight but not full lunge.
  • With your core engaged, push off the bottom of both feet into a jump, switching the position of your feet in mid-air, landing in a basic lunge with your right leg in front.
  • Without rest, repeat this movement alternating which leg is in front. To prevent injury, make sure your back leg is bent directly underneath your body and your front leg is bent at 90 degrees at the knee and hip.
  • Repeat to exhaustion.
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Why do my eyes water when I run?

Having your eyes water when you run can be annoying. There are a few reasons why your eyes might be watering, and a few solutions to the problem.

Essentially, it boils down to excessive tear production or poor tear draining.  But if it only starts being a problem when you run, then excessive tear production is probably the cause.  But what’s causing your eyes to go a little overboard with the extra tears?

Causes

Our body produces tears to keep our eyes lubricated, and to flush out any dirt and dust that might get in. But when the body produces too many tears, the result is excessively watery eyes.  The eyes kick up tear production under a number of conditions.  Tear over-secretion is usually caused by irritation or inflammation of the surface of the eye.  Cold weather, wind, dry conditions, and dust can all increase tear production.  Sometimes tear production increases so much that the tear ducts can’t drain it away fast enough.

What to do about it

First, remember to blink. It sounds a little basic, but the mechanical action of blinking helps with tear distribution and drainage.  Often when you’re focusing on something, you don’t blink as much.  Maybe it’s a beautiful sunrise.  Or maybe it’s the distant city lights.  Whatever it is you might be focusing on, try to remember to blink while admiring it.

Since cold, dry, dirty, and dry air are all environmental conditions that you can protect your eyes from, simply trying some eye protection should help. Sunglasses, particularly the wraparound variety, will shield your eyes from the harsh conditions and keep the crying at bay.  You can even find glasses to won’t darken your outlook too much.

If excessive tear production doesn’t reduce, the condition may be treated with eye drops or medication.  Keep in mind that persistently watering eyes can be a symptom of other medical problems.  Obviously, see a doctor about that.

Further reading

I hope this was helpful.  Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or comments.  Do you suffer from watery eyes when you run?  Is it usually associated with environmental conditions?

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Article

Trail running for weight loss

Running can be great for weight loss, but to maximise its effectiveness, you need to incorporate some high-intensity interval training (HIIT).  This elevates the heart rate for relatively short bursts with lower intensity periods in between.  The great news for trail runners is that running on hills provides the perfect conditions for building interval training into your daily runs.

Running on trails or in the mountains has a significantly different impact on your body than running on the road. The cardiovascular stimulus is similar to what you might get from a fartlek workout, but as an added bonus you also work extra muscles.  When you climb a hill, you elevate your heart rate, your breathing intensifies, your legs burn, you work your quads, glutes, calves, and even your core and upper body.  It’s an entirely different workout to running on flat terrain.  And then you reach the top of the hill and let gravity do the work for you, giving you a rest period in your interval workout.

I have seen a few people claim that trail running burns 10% more calories than road running.  Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any studies that support that specific claim.  However, the support for high-intensity interval training as a weight loss tool is bountiful

If you want to lose weight, tone up and improve your fitness, but you want quick results, and you want to have fun doing it, I think trail running is going to be right up your alley. Getting onto the trails will take your running to a whole new level and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you notice changes in your body and your athletic performance.

So how can trail running help with your weight loss goals?

Become stronger

Trail running involves a lot of changes of terrain. Hills will obviously require more of your body than running on flat ground.  They work the big, powerful leg muscles like quads, glues, and calves. There will also be smaller undulations and obstacles that your body needs to accommodate for and will work your stabilising muscles.  Treadmill and road running is a much less varied style of activity.  Road running can still work some of the same muscles, but in particular, the stabilising muscles can be under-utilised.

Running on trails, especially downhill, builds strength and definition in your quadriceps. Your quads act as brakes to keep you from spiralling out of control downhill.

Running uphill engages your glutes for power. Also, on flatter ground, your glutes are used for lateral stability and negotiating obstacles.

Hilly terrain works your calves. They’re what propel you uphill.   They’re also recruited when running on technical trails and sections that require stability.  Each step starts with muscles in your feet and heads to the muscles in your lower leg.

All this constant stabilisation, adjusting to surface changes and avoiding obstacles lead to the strengthening of connective tissue.  With each step, the ligaments and tendons around the ankle and knee get stronger.  Stronger connective tissue results in fewer injuries.

Build your cardiovascular system

With every small hill and change in surface type, your cardiovascular system has to work harder.  These short bursts of intense activity followed by periods of lower intensity activity slowly improve your cardiovascular fitness.

Improved cardiovascular health will enable you to run progressively longer, faster, and steeper.  

Engage your core

Trail running involves more lateral movement and provides a greater challenge to your core muscles than road or treadmill running.  Downhill technical sections, in particular, activate your core to provide balance and stability.  Each step you take works to strengthen your core.  As well as helping to reduce the risk of injury, a strong core helps to improve your posture, your functional fitness and makes you appear taller and fitter.

Workout in all weather conditions

Trail running in differing weather conditions will require your body to adapt.  There are benefits for training in both hot and cold conditions.

Researchers have been studying the effects of heat on athletic performance for decades, and their results have been consistently surprising. Studies have found that training at high temperatures can increase an athlete’s blood plasma volume, which leads to better cardiovascular fitness. It can also reduce overall core temperature, reduce blood lactate, increase skeletal muscle force, and, surprisingly, improve performance in cold temperatures.

Cold temperatures require your body to burn more energy to keep warm, assisting with weight loss.  Also, cold temperatures have been found to promote the growth of brown fat.  Brown fat is a metabolic tissue that burns energy.  Once you’ve acclimatised and grown some brown fat, you’ll be able to endure colder temperatures with less discomfort.

Running in extremes of weather may also improve your mental fortitude.

Motivation

Sticking to a weight loss program is notoriously difficult.  Trail running provides its own motivation.  It offers motivating benefits such as awesome scenery, connection with nature, and optionally, solitude.  Trail running is so much more enjoyable and motivating than plodding away on a treadmill or flat kilometres dodging traffic.

Trail running gets you out into the fresh air, away from stuffy gyms and dirty streets. Breathing fresh air can do wonders for your body and mind. Exposure natural light can increase serotonin, improving mood and regulating biological rhythms.  Also, a boost of vitamin D levels will help you absorb calcium and phosphorous to build strong bones.  This all results in conditions perfect for sticking with the exercise for the long haul.

Become one with nature

Trail running enables you to explore the environment around you and, for most of us who spend each day in the relatively confined environments of our homes and offices, a run in the great outdoors where everything is calm around you can do wonders for helping you wind down quickly, effectively and completely.

While running on a treadmill can become monotonous and running through the streets can be frustrating, as you dodge crowds and cross roads, trail running is a great way to illicit a sense of freedom, independence and will immediately clear your head and de-stress you.

Finally, nature can have a soothing effect on the psyche. Studies have shown that post-operative patients who have a view of trees require less pain medication and fewer days in hospital than those whose rooms have a view of a brick wall. So, getting out to run some trails can be a simple way to not only boost the physical results that you get with your exercise, but also to give yourself a much-needed emotional boost that will translate into improved results in every area of your life.

Reduce risk of injury

Most trail surfaces will absorb some of the energy of each step you take, meaning your muscles work harder while the impact on your joints is reduced.  This results in fewer repetitive strain injuries. Also, because the uneven terrain makes your whole body work a bit harder, you’ll develop new strength, fitness and resilience that will result in improved performance and reduced injury risk in general.

The fewer injuries you suffer, the more time you can spend training without having to take enforced breaks.  Extended breaks can eat away at the gains you made.

Balance and agility

Trail running can help improve your sense of balance and agility, which translates to improved sporting performance.

Trail running also improves your balance and sense of proprioception.  Proprioception is your body’s ability to know where it is in space.  This is a benefit that is useful all the other sports and activities you do.

Improved balance and agility results in fewer injuries, which mean more time training.

Focus and Appetite

Trail running requires more concentration than road running and, while sometimes it’s nice to clear your mind and achieve a zen-like state during your workouts, you’ll experience faster fitness gains if you’re fully engaged in your activity.

Focus on training translates into focus in other aspects of your life.  Studies have convincingly shown a link between mindfulness and weight loss.

Some people believe that time spent in a natural environment can improve your sense of smell and taste, which results in an improved ability to regulate your appetite and tune into foods that are good for your body.

How did you find this article?  Was it helpful?  Please leave your questions and comments below.

Categories
Review

Altra Escalante review after 2000km

I’ve been running in the Altra Escalante 1.0 for the past year.  These are my primary shoes for non-trail running. I’ve put an impressive number of kilometres into them and I must say they’ve served me well. They’ve done nearly 2000km (1242 miles) and to be honest, they still feel pretty good.

And that’s just the running. I also wear them casually, so they’ve probably done a similar amount of non-running kilometres. I actually don’t feel an urgent need to replace them just yet. There’s a bit of wear on the outsole. In fact, there’s not a huge amount of grip left at all, but the upper is still in great condition and the mid-sole is still quite spongy.  Although the outsole is considerably worn, I think I’ll probably get another 500km out of them.

Before we get into my thoughts, here’s a quick overview of the specs of the shoe.

Quick specs

  • Weight: 196g / 6.9oz (US women’s 8.0); 221g / 7.8oz (US men’s 9.0)
  • Drop: 0mm, 25mm heel/25mm forefoot (includes a 6mm insole)
  • Upper: Engineered knit mesh with no overlays and a well-padded, but fairly minimal heel counter.
  • Midsole: EGO foam is responsive at high speed but pleasantly plush at low speed. The foam doesn’t suffer from compression over time as some other Altras do.
  • Outsole: FootPod outsole is a durable rubber that covers selected points but leaves parts of the midsole exposed.  This allows for awesome flexibility but doesn’t compromise on durability.

Enough of the marketing nonsense.  Let’s get into my thoughts on the Escalante after nearly 2000km.

Upper

The upper is one of the Escalante’s best features.  The knit mesh is a comfortable, lightweight fabric. It is flexible and soft and is quite unrestrictive to toe movement.  Coupled with the foot-shaped toebox, the fabric gives the toes plenty of room to move and splay. I have seen some people complain that the upper sometimes pushes on the toes causing pain, but I didn’t experience anything like that.  The fabric breathes very well. I didn’t have any issues with dampness, and the shoe can be comfortably worn without socks if desired. The tongue material matches the upper fabric and is quite comfortable. It provides a layer of protection from the laces without excessive padding but is soft against the skin.

Lacing

The Escalante has a traditional lacing system that works well, is comfortable, and holds the foot fairly securely. I did find that I had to double knot the laces to avoid them becoming untied.  Invariably, the laces would untie themselves within a short distance. Presumably, this is due to the flexibility of the knit upper.

Heel

The heel collar of the Escalante is very soft, yet more than capable of holding the foot in place.  The inside of the heel collar is impressively durable. This is an area that I often see considerable wear early on, but after nearly 2000km, the Escalante shows only minor wear.  It’s a pretty important area as any wear here can lead to irritation of the back of the foot, especially when running long distances or lots of kilometres per week.

Minor wear on the heel counter
Minor wear on the heel counter

Midsole

The zero-drop midsole is fully cushioned and is a good balance of soft cushioning and low weight.  The Altra EGO foam provides the kind of cushioning that people fall in love with. It is durable and soft and provides a responsive and springy ride.  The feel of the foam does not appear to significantly degrade over the life of the shoe.

This shoe is awesomely flexible but doesn’t lose its shape over time. However, because it’s so soft, it sometimes feels a little squishy.

Insole

The insole is pleasantly comfortable and the drainage system works well.  I rarely experienced excessive moisture in the Escalante, even sockless, and at distances up to about half-marathon. When moisture was inevitable (such as while running on my treadmill in an un-airconditioned shed in the Australian summer), it didn’t cause any major issues.  I suspect the breathability of the upper was important here, but there are also moisture ports on the bottom of the insole that help to channel the sweat away.

Outsole

The outsole rubber provides good grip on roads, paths, tracks and indoor surfaces, even in wet conditions. It’s not awesome on harsher terrain or mud, but it’s a road shoe, so it’s not really supposed to.  The outsole rubber is divided into sections with exposed midsole in between, providing the impressive flexibility. After a few hundred kilometres, however, a section of the exposed midsole suffered some noticeable wear.  It was as if that section of outsole rubber was slightly misaligned with the part of my midfoot that strikes the ground. I have seen others mention this as well, so it’s not just me. It doesn’t appear to compromise the function of the shoe though, so it’s not a major issue.

Altra Escalante forefoot outsole after nearly 2000km.
Altra Escalante forefoot outsole after nearly 2000km.

Fit

The Escalante has a foot-shaped toe-box which lets the foot relax and spread out naturally and comfortably.  The padded heel collar locks the heel in place and feels snug and secure.

The Altra Escalante has a standard running length and comes in the standard medium width of D and B for men and women, respectively. Also, its wider toe-box makes it suitable for runners with wide feet and those who want to encourage natural toe-splay.

Initially, the shoe felt a bit tight, but after a few runs, the upper relaxed and the fit seemed much more comfortable on the top of the foot.

For me, this shoe appears to fit true to size.  I usually wear a size 11, but I went with an 11.5 after reading recommendations to buy a half size larger than normal. In my case, I think it was slightly too big and the 11 would have been correct.  I wasn’t able to try the shoe on before purchasing as we don’t have any stores locally that stock Altras. I wouldn’t recommend sizing up if you’re thinking about it.

Stability

I only use the Altra Escalante for road/path running. I wouldn’t venture too far off the beaten track with these as they do feel a little sloppy on uneven terrain.  I find that if I step on uneven surfaces, the shoe has a tendency to try to roll my foot off the side. It hasn’t resulted in any injuries, but it just feels a little unstable.  However, I haven’t really tried to lock my foot down aggressively. I leave the lower section of the laces fairly loose to allow my forefoot some extra freedom and tighten the upper section as required.

Durability

I’ve heard some people complain about durability, but I’ve found the Escalante particularly durable.  The upper is virtually unscathed, and the mid-sole is still quite spongy. The outsole, however, is the part that can’t hide the punishment it’s received after nearly 2000km of use.  There are significant sections that have been worn completely smooth, and even some parts where the mid-sole is wearing. However, even with this worn outsole, the shoe only lacks traction on very smooth surfaces.

Usually, by the time my shoes have reached about 1000km, some of the outsole pads have worn through or have begun to become unglued.  I haven’t experienced that with the Escalante though.

As well as being, light, flexible and comfortable.  The Escalante can take a bit of mistreatment. They hold up perfectly well to being bunged in the washing machine when they get a bit stinky or dirty.  Although I’m sure it’s not officially recommended by Altra, it makes maintenance a breeze. Even without the washing machine method, the shoe is easy to keep clean.  The texture of the upper hides the dirt and the white midsole is easily wiped clean.

Even though the upper is a thin, soft material, it is particularly durable. After over a year of running and casual use, the upper is still in perfect condition.  There are no rips, snags or wear to speak of.

Altra Escalante - upper
The upper is still in great condition

Style

I usually don’t worry too much about how a running shoe looks, but the Escalante has versatility nailed. It works well as a running shoe and a casual shoe, and if you’re lucky you can get away with it at work.  Although at first, I thought it looked a bit like a bowling shoe, I got used to it and wear it pretty much everywhere. There are plenty of colour options from drab to bright. I chose grey which looks quite subdued when I wear it to work.

What I like

  • lightweight, yet durable
  • super comfortable
  • responsive, yet well cushioned
  • zero drop
  • flexible
  • big toe box
  • can be worn casually
  • reasonably affordable
  • breathability and sweat handling
  • good grip

What’s not so great

  • stability on uneven surfaces
  • looks a bit like a bowling shoe

Summary

This shoe will handle any pace on the roads and distances up to a marathon without too much trouble. I’ve done just about everything in this shoe. Recovery runs, sprint intervals, 5k tempo runs, 17km work commutes and a couple half marathons. I still haven’t done a road marathon though. I’ll save the long distances for the trails.

Once you feel how comfortable this shoe is, you’ll want to wear it all the time.  In fact, it’s nearly midnight and I’m wearing them now writing this review.

These were my first pair of Altras and it’s safe to say I was not disappointed. I’ve since bought the Lone Peak for trail running and am equally happy so far.  I ran a 56km event in September and didn’t even think about my shoes while I was doing it.

So, what will I be buying next?  Probably another pair of Altra Escalante to be honest.  I think I’ll give the 1.5 a try.  For weekday road training, they do everything I want beautifully, and they don’t leave me wishing for anything else.  So there’s no need for me to try anything new at this stage. I’ve never bought two of the same shoe in a row before, so that’s saying something.

Purchasing Information

If you’re looking for a shoe that you can run, walk and work in day after day for at least a year, you won’t be disappointed with the Escalante.  It’s not what I’d call a super expensive shoe, but it’s not super cheap either. However, it is definitely good value. Since the 1.5 has been out for a while, you can probably find the 1.0 for a bargain and I’d highly recommend snapping it up if you can.

Have you tried the Altra Escalante 1.0 or 1.5?  What were your impressions? If you’ve tried both, how did they compare?  How did you find the comfort, stability and durability? Let me know in the comments.

Note

I bought these shoes with my own money, ran in them for about 2000km with my own feet, and made them stinky with my own foot sweat bacteria. I haven’t received any incentives for this review.