Trail Races are Hard(er)

I just wrapped up week 6 on my Unofficial Running Science 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks with a 5k trail race in place of the planned superset. And I have to say, trail races are significantly harder (read, slower) than your regular street 5k. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. Today’s race comes in at 6:53/mile, as per the Garmin.

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The plan seems to be going well. This week was the same total miles as last week (32), but had a bump in hard miles (from 18% to 25%). Still, I felt good. The hard runs were hard, but the long slow recovery runs actually did the “recovery” part quite well, and I felt almost as good at the end of my recovery days as I generally do at the end of a rest day. Almost.

So the question is, why was this run 17 seconds/mile slower than my street 5k a couple weeks ago, and a mere 3 seconds/mile faster than the trail run three weeks back?

I have some ideas:

  1. As noted in the title, trail runs are just harder, or at least slower. This course was about 75% winding single-track with switchbacks, tons of roots, some overhanging branches, and a few ups and downs (though not really much of the last). All of these things force you to slow down, and this slowing in turn makes it easier to settle into that slower pace without realizing. Plus, it can be deceptive: all those branches whipping by make it seem like you’re flying along. So maybe I need to compare this run only to my last trail run?
  2. I’m being ridiculously impatient. I was a bit out of shape after the injury/sickness/traveling layoff, and though I feel like I’m back in regular shape, it has only been six weeks. The plan calls for sixteen.
  3. I’m fatigued. The jump in mileage in week five and the jump in intensity this week might just have tired me out. I took a rest day yesterday, before the race, but I’m in the middle of a ramping-up section of the plan, not a taper, so I’m supposed to be fatigued! That’s the whole point of this part of the plan: get fatigued so my body will adapt.
  4. My running isn’t paced correctly. I’ve never been a long-slow runner before, so even though it’s only a couple days per week, I still feel a bit strange about those runs. The old “principle of specificity” says training is most useful when it’s closest to race pace. Obviously this would mean my plan is trash, so I’m not going here just yet (talk to me after week 17). But, I am thinking I might add a couple miles at lactate threshold into the middle of at least one of my long runs.
  5. It’s too hot. This feels like a bad excuse, but it is crazy hot here in the depths of south Texas just now. At 7:30 this morning it was about 80 degrees and 88% humidity. A slight change to those numbers and I’d be swimming. I know this matters, and one reason I started the plan now was so that I’d finish in late October or early November once it had cooled off (into the 60s at least). Still, I resist this explanation. Perhaps stupidly.
  6. I’ve hit a plateau. This may well be the case. Part of the impetus behind creating this plan was to break through that barely-over-20-minutes 5k plateau. But I’m not even back to that level. I’m a plateau down from my plateau.
  7. It was just an off day. They happen. Eat something that sets your stomach off, miss some sleep, forget your lucky socks: who know what causes them, but they happen. But again, that’s one reason I love the 5k—I can race another in a week if I want!

Any of these are perfectly reasonable explanations for a mediocre run. Maybe all of them.

But for the moment none of this is important. All that matters, really, is that I get up tomorrow and head out the door for my scheduled slow six miler.

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Author: Steve

Researcher of narrative and political identity. Teacher of English at South Texas College. Would-be middle distance runner.

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