How to make the switch from road running to Hong Kong’s challenging trails

Experienced trail runners offer advice on the best ways to train and compete for off-road events, emphasising it’s better to focus on climbing and descending hills, rather than putting in the hard yards on the flat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2017, 2:42pm

Trail running has exploded in popularity in Hong Kong in recent years. If you wanted to try the sport, how would you begin?

The Post spoke to top overseas and local runners who have made the switch from road running to trail running. Here are seven factors to consider before lacing up for your first off-road event.

1. Just get out there

“One of the biggest things is just getting out on the trails and practising the hills,” says Sage Canaday, an elite US trail runner who came third at the Vibram Hong Kong 100km trail race in January. “Trail races involve thousands of metres of up and down, whereas road races are pretty flat. On the road, for example, 10 miles [16km] might go pretty fast but on trails it could take hours to cover that distance.”

Canaday, 31, began racing track events in middle school and has a road marathon (42.2km) personal best of two hours 16 minutes – just four minutes slower than the winning time of the 2016 Hong Kong Marathon and five minutes faster than the fastest time ever run by a Hong Kong man. Canaday started competing in trail running and ultra marathons in 2012 and won the US Mountain Running Championships that year.

2. Forget about how far or how fast you’re going

Tim Tollefson, 31, was third at the prestigious Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB, 166km) race last year – considered the Olympics of trail running – with just two years of experience in the sport under his belt. A physical therapist from California, he began competing in ultra-trail races after he fell into a “running rut” following deteriorating road racing performances and failing to better his two hour 18 minute road marathon personal best.

When he started trail running Tollefson shifted his focus to increasing his total vertical ascent per week during training, while also working hard on his downhill running – technically challenging and particularly taxing on the quadriceps.

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“I think it’s definitely important to go more on effort than paying attention to what your watch may tell you,” says Tollefson, the 2014 US 50K Trail champion who was fifth at the recent HK100. “If you’re caught up with how fast you’re going on the road per kilometre, you’re going to find it hard to adjust on the trail because the course changes so much.”

Canaday says: “Focus on how much climbing you’re doing rather than how much horizontal distance you're covering.” The skill of running technical trails and downhills improves with experience, he says.

3. Pace yourself

David Woo, 35, a regular podium finisher in local trail races including winner of the recent Green Race Braemar Hill 10km, started trail running in 2012 while taking a break from the local road running scene.

“An important skill I had to learn on the trail was when to run and when to walk, particularly going uphill. I had not known that running uphill all the time could be a waste of energy,” says Woo, a graduate student at Hong Kong University. “At the same time, I had to learn how to pace myself on different parts of a trail, because unlike a road race, I cannot simply maintain an even pace throughout the race.

“A delightful surprise was realising my short and stocky, southern Chinese body was ideally suited for climbing up mountains and bounding down them: my body type is definitely not ideal for running fast on flat, even surfaces.”

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4. Go long regularly

Tollefson’s favourite workout is the long run, which for him is a maximum of about 55km (even if he is preparing for a 166km race). “I think it’s important as you prepare for ultra-trails that you numb the mind and body to being out on the trail for hours on end. And it lets you practise your nutrition strategy as well as how you get through the mental lows,” he says.

Canaday says his longest training run is 50km. “The most important thing is to look at the elevation profile of the race you’re training for and see what kind of hills you have, whether it’s a lot of climbing, or steep hills, or technical trails. You should try to make your long run route similar to the race course so it’s more specific,” Canaday says.

5. Keep doing some flat and fast running

“Regardless of what distance or terrain you are racing, being more efficient as a runner is beneficial. Speedwork allows you to become more mechanically sound and more efficient,” says Tollefson.

Julien Chorier, a world renowned trail runner from France, only began running 10 years ago, at the age of 20 after a professional career in road cycling. In his second ever trail race, the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC – a sister race of the UTMB) in France, he was champion.

Speedwork, or interval running on flat terrain, is a key workout. “I try to be more efficient on the road because I was not a road runner before and I need to work a lot to learn to run fast,” Chorier says.

Besides, running uphill and downhill everyday can take its toll on the body. Mixing up your workouts helps to keep you fresh and injury free.

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6. Get geared up properly

The two essentials are a good pair of trail-running shoes, as well as a backpack to carry your gear, water and food.

While super lightweight racing flats are ideal for road racing, Canaday learned first-hand how slippery they can be during a muddy trail race. He suggests sacrificing a little weight for extra traction.

Tollefson recommends training with your pack to get used to running with a load.

7. Be willing to trip and fall

“Suddenly flying through the air and suddenly losing the way are some distinctive aspects of trail running and make this type of running exciting and fun,” says Woo. “Ironically, perhaps being too cautious about tripping and falling on the trail may cause tripping and falling.”