Updated: Aug 31
Are you training for an event in The Alps but currently living by the beach? Perhaps you're targeting an event closer to home but don't have the capacity to train on course. Let's explore the best ways to approach training for a race in a location you've never visited before. The nuts and bolts of training It's important to look at the best way to organise your training in the lead up to your goal event. An easy way of starting this process of organisation is asking yourself these three questions;
1. What fitness problem are you trying to solve? This is a simple way of identifying where you currently are and where you think you need to be by the time event day rolls around. For a huge amount of recreational runners this may mean focusing a good amount of time far removed from the event on building general capacity. But what is capacity? Bob Bowman, coach of 23 time Olympic champion Michael Phelps identifies capacity training as "enlarging the size of the cup that you pour training into". In a traditional running sphere this would usually be referred to as base training. Capacity training or base training for the most part is a repeatable process where the adaptations are chronic and essential for long term development. On the other side of the coin, if you've already spent plenty of time building your capacity and the race is looming then it may be time to get specific. Back to Bob Bowman for a little bit, Bowman identifies this type of training as utilisation training or the training you do to go fast while meeting the demands of a specific race. This type of training usually rewards you in the short term, which is why it is best done in close proximity to an event. In a recent training block for the 2023 Western States Endurance Run, Kevin Davis spent the first 4 months of his training focused on developing his capacity to be able to handle the demands of the training for Western States. This phase of training involved gradually developing endurance through long runs, lots of easy running mid week and a small amount of non-specific intensity targeting his weaknesses through workouts like short hill reps and flat intervals. As he got closer to the event his training shifted towards course specific long runs and workouts, hiking, and fuelling his endurance runs as he planned to fuel on event day.
2. What is the available time frame to work within and what are your training locations? Following on from the previous point, how long you have to train will often dictate how you frame your training. If in doubt, remind yourself that fitness makes everything easier and in almost all cases building fitness should come before training specificity. The importance of training locations varies relative to the event you're focusing on. For example it would be harder to prepare for an event like Hardrock when living in a flat area at sea level, just as it may be more difficult preparing for a track race when you're living in the high mountains. Strava segments, Youtube videos and race reports can all offer decent insight into how you may be able to replicate your race course in your local area. Pinpoint the key areas of the event like long climbs, descents or stretches of technical terrain and go about finding how to replicate these within your training week. Perhaps your event finishes with a long stretch of flat and faster running which means you can plan your long runs with a flatter faster finish. Maybe the middle part of your event is hilly so you plan to run a hilly run with a similar elevation change each week. Or maybe your event starts with a stretch of technical running which means you can introduce a similar run into your week where you're focused on the skill component of running on that terrain. But what if you don't have access to specific terrain? Planning a training weekend away from your normal training environment to somewhere that replicates the demands of your event is a great way to drive positive adaptations as well as build the psychological confidence associated with meeting the specific demands of your event. If you live somewhere flat and your event is mountainous you can make great gains with climbing and descending through a process known as the repeated bout effect (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12641640/). The repeated bout effect refers to the adaptation whereby a single bout of eccentric exercise (eg: running downhill) protects against muscle damage from subsequent bouts. So one or two weekends in the mountains can be enough to adequately prepare you for the demands of your mountainous event if you live in the flat lands. In a training block for the 2020 Coast 2 Kosciusko, Michaela McDonald planned a 3 day training weekend covering critical parts of the route. This included a long run through the dirt roads in the early part of the race, a second longer run on the asphalt climb out of Jindabyne and a final run heading up to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko from Charlottes Pass. Exposure to the demands of the course proved to be hugely beneficial on race day as Michaela had already experienced the wide shift in weather conditions across the entirety of the route and had a good understanding of the terrain and surface conditions in training.
3. Have you identified the demands of the event and will your training aim to meet these demands? We've mentioned how to identify the demands of the event with regards to terrain specificity, but have you thought about other factors such as climate, altitude, how you plan to fuel your event, aid station locations and frequency, crew access, mandatory gear, and even the event start time? Do you have the gear required to handle exposure to cold weather? Do you have an understanding of cooling strategies in hot temperatures and how will you manage this on the day? Do you need to consider heat acclimation prior to travelling to your event and are you familiar with the best way to do this from home? Have you had previous exposure to altitude and will your travel schedule enable you to acclimate properly? Are you able to replicate the fuelling you've been using during training during your event? Ben Harrison lives in Central West NSW and signed up to a high altitude race in Colorado called the Creede 100 Mile. The entirety of Creede 100 is run above 3300m and the race high point is over 4000m, whereas Ben's house sits at the humble elevation of 275m. After a great block of training on the trails at home building capacity and ticking the fitness box, Ben and his family took a trip en route to the race spending time staying and training in locations that gradually increased in elevation. In conjunction with acclimating to altitude, Ben spent plenty of time training in the high mountains and familiarising himself with similar terrain to that of Creede. This also offered Ben the opportunity to dial in his equipment choices and become familiar with managing his gear in that environment.
Getting a solid grasp on all of these variables early and spending the time answering these questions can go a long way to ensuring you set yourself up for a well executed run and avoid a poorly planned march.