Sunday, February 24, 2013

Road running vs Trail running

Whats the real difference between road & trail running?
The Napa Valley Marathon is next weekend and I have been prepping for it since the holidays in a variety of ways like making sure my legs were up to the distance and my endurance & stamina were in top shape. It didn't dawn on me that I had not really run a significant amount of road since last summers San Francisco Marathon. In fact the only asphalt I ran on was to and from the trails and sometimes I skipped that in favor of running on trails that are a few miles from home and better to drive to. If you ever wondered what it really feels like to compare road vs trail read on.
 
Normally it would be difficult to discern the real difference between road & trail for the average runner because they run an even amount of each or more likely they run more road than trail. Average guy may notice less stress when he hits the trail but maybe not because roads are flat and trails are usually climbing or falling so the extra effort needed for trail running makes average guy think trails leave him just as sore if not more so than roads. The truth of the matter became absolutely clear to me over the last month or so.
 
More difficult than hill climbing on the trails?
 Maybe after 20 miles of running.
Being conditioned to trail running and making a few thousand feet of climbing per week my norm made me look at road running as simple and maybe even a bit beneath me in some unquantifiable way. I knew I had to condition my legs for the upcoming race so I plotted out a running route that would bring me the most benefit. The NVM has rolling hills for the first 6 miles and is mostly flat from there on out. The entire course is a net downhill and that made me think I needed fast foot turnover. The route I designed was a flat asphalt course for the first 20 miles with the hills coming all in the last 6 miles. This route would give me the ability to practice a faster foot turnover for a couple hours and it would teach me to push hard in the late stages of the race by giving me the hills at the end. Downhill asphalt can be a quad pounding nightmare so my route will condition my tired legs to take the pounding a bit better.
 
I ran the route a little slower than I thought I would and couldn't figure out why at first. I aimed for a sub 4 hour time. Any time under 4 hours would do but I thought it might end up as low as 3:50 or 3:55. Instead I came in at 4:04:30. Somewhere between 5 & 10 minutes off my expected time. The obvious conclusion of the hills at the end slowing me more than I calculated is part of it but I have to ask why. It shouldn't matter that much because these hills are tiny compared to those I regularly train on in the Santa Cruz mountains. Why would these take such a toll on me?
 
Contemplating this for the next day or two it finally dawned on me how incredibly sore I was. My knees and my back were more sore than I had felt in a long time and it wasn't going away. My form was as good as it ever was. My shoes are not past their prime. It has to be the ASPHALT!!! I did not consider how the pounding on asphalt would slow me down. I was stunned at how different my body felt after a long easy run on asphalt as compared to a 50k on trails with 7000' of elevation gain. I was tore up as if I just started running last week. This was so shocking to me I had to try it again two weeks later.
 
Most people would not recommend doing a marathon every two weeks but it is certainly not unheard of especially for more advanced runners. I'm not suggesting I am an "advanced or elite" athlete but I'm certainly not a novice. I should be able to easily handle two easy marathons two weeks apart.
 
I did a fair amount of my weekly training runs on asphalt during the two weeks in between but nothing even coming close to a long run. I had a ton of commitments that took away from my training over these two weeks so I looked on the bright side of resting and repairing my worked legs while squeezing in a handful of miles here & there. I figured I had to be a bit more acclimated to the pavement so this attempt would land me closer to the expected 3:50 or 3:55 finish. I started off with my usual warm up pace and a couple miles into it I settled into my training pace of 8:45 per mile. I shouldn't have any trouble with this pace for at least 15 miles or more. I did and could not believe it. By mile 8 I felt the pounding of the asphalt and really started to get introverted about my running form. I did everything I could to minimize the shock of the road but by mile 15 I was struggling to keep that 8:45 pace. Miles 16 through 20 wound up being a combination of walking, running & stretching. I quit at mile 20 fearing a long lasting injury. My knees were screaming, my form was horrible and my back was beginning to suffer because of this breakdown. I stayed in pain for most of the next week.
 
I am now a firm believer that the trail is immeasurably better for your joints and body in general. I always thought this to some degree but now I know the degree is exponential. The trails will never leave me aching for days on end and the pain that you feel will likely be localized to your legs and attributed to a hard workout. Hard surfaces will jar your knees, tire your feet, break down your form quicker and possibly leave your lower and upper back aching. Simply stated, asphalt and concrete are the absolute worst surface a person could possibly run on and it is dramatically more destructive and injurious than most people realize. People do not realize this because roads are all they run. I can run 20 on trails and go out the next day and do 10 more and think nothing of it. I'm not sore and therefore my recovery time is minimal. Pavement pounding lingers. That can't be good for your body. Pavement pounding obviously requires a person to build up and adapt to it and anything that requires you to build up a tolerance for it is generally a rough process.
 
 That pounding you get from the road slows you down if you are not use to it, so the hardcore trail runner is at a serious disadvantage to the road chiseled warrior. The trail runner's joints must have a longer shelf life. I think that is evidenced by the average age of the top finishers in the ultra marathon world. You are more likely to see the youth dominate the road marathon scene and the veterans dominate the 100 mile scene. Marshall Ulrich was in his prime in his late 40's and early 50's and he broke down barrier after barrier of what was possible in long distance running. He would not make that same name for himself had he been running a road marathon against Ryan Hall. 
 
We have seen great road runners like Sage Canaday go to the soft trails and do a really good job. I have never heard of an ultra marathon trail runner switching over to roads and competing side by side with the elites. I attribute this to the destructive pounding of hard surface running. I have two ultra marathons right after the NVM and both are on dirt. I have no intention of signing up for anymore long distance road events unless I have a REALLY compelling reason. The only reason that comes to mind is Boston. I always wondered if I could train for and achieve a Boston qualifying time. If I do it will surely cut a few years off the shelf life of my joints. I'm sure of that! Now I have to determine if it is worth it to hold the title, Boston Qualifier. That's going to make me examine my ego. Whoever said running was therapy was absolutely spot on!
 
See you in the woods (after this coming weekend!)
Jonathan