12 Tips for Crushing Your Birkie Trail Run

Posted by Jan Guenther on Jun 27th 2017

Caught your attention? 

Ok, for some maybe it's not about “crushing” it. Let's try “Tips for Finishing Your Birkie Trail Run in Fine Form!" To me, the definition of crushing means winning an age group, winning overall, or creating a personal best. BUT, finishing with a smile, without leg cramps or bloody knees, and doing as well or better than you expected is my definition of “Finishing in Fine Form.”

It may be helpful to know that I, the "Tip Producer" for this article was not some past elite runner. I never ran for any team, and my first run was three miles in college when my boyfriend had to run backwards so I could keep up. In the ‘80’s when I did start running for triathlons, I had zero shoe knowledge and there was very little choice in running shoes. For some random reason, my feet ended up in “Brook’s Beasts” for the run legs in my early tri years. For those unfamiliar, Brooks Beasts are heavy, motion-control shoes normally fit large men who land heavy and pronate badly. Therefore, I have earned the knowledge behind these tips through trial and error, through being in the run business, and because I just do this stuff and it works for me. 

I won the Birkie Trail Marathon when it was in its infancy (meaning less competition!) for several additional reasons: I can absorb hurt and keep moving; my running and shoe selection have improved, and I really love trail running. I won the race when it was a point-to-point from Fish Hatchery to Telemark. At that time, the race had no singletrack and followed the Birkie and Korte trails exclusively. I love the newer route which eliminates busing and mixes the Birkie trail with some really fun mountain bike singletrack. For most consistent runners, completing the Birkie Half Marathon does not require large-scale training changes, unlike the marathon. To run the Birkie Trail Marathon well, you need to add mileage and may benefit from a training plan that builds in strength, speed, and distance. Below are my tips: 


Training Plan

Research running through reading about training and talking to experienced running friends. Find and stick to an appropriate training plan for a half or full trail marathon. When I raced the marathon, I completed one additional trail marathon earlier in the summer to toughen me up. This full-distance trail run should happen at least six weeks out from the Birkie trail run. Additionally, run some half marathon trail races. Check out City of the Lakes trail activities, Endurance United runs, or Rock Steady’s Afton and Superior races. 


Run Uphills

Focus one run per week solely on running hills, either on pavement or grass. Your training plan can suggest length and recovery times, but in general, run a bunch of hills as they will build needed leg strength for the beloved Birkie terrain.


Run Downhills Fast

Fly the downhills! Don’t break your legs so learn (practice) letting them go as fast as you safely can make your legs move. This feeling of nimbleness will bring a smile to your face" and you will pick up "free" time. Using the terrain to your advantage will improve your time over runners who gingerly pick their way down the trail and are too afraid of tripping on roots and grasses.


Economy of Motion

Learn to run efficiently. Drive your arms and legs in the direction that produce speed. Excess movement such as legs and feet that wing out, arm movements that cross over your upper body, slumping or dipping shoulders, and bending at the waist when tired are all motions that are detrimental to speed. Wasted movement costs energy and will tire you faster than movement directed in the correct way, forward! 


Forefoot Strike

Learn or at least play with mid to forefoot running form. Proper running form is similar to good ski technique ... forward lean/forward hips. My form evolved after age 42 when I started using "minimal" running shoes. Lower heel drop and a lighter shoe changed me from striking on my heel to landing on my forefoot. Running this way promotes a forward lean and allows your skeletal structure to support your body from the ankles, knees, hips, and all the way up. In contrast, a heal striker lands on the ground using more calf and hamstring muscles to absorb the shock. The runner’s weight leans against the direction of travel which reduces speed. Read about minimal shoes, forward lean, and midfoot strike and then get the appropriate shoes to help you achieve better running form (if you have not already). 


Core Body Training

 Efficient and proper running form cannot be maintained throughout a long run without strength training. All runners and aging runners, need core body strength training. There are many avenues to accomplish specific strength. You can build in body-weight strength exercises using an outdoor park during your runs. Or, join CrossFit or one of the myriad of boutique strength gyms out in the world. Definitely, cross train to avoid injury. Many injured runners believe their problems are due to shoe selection only. Nope, for many beginning runners, injuries develop when running form disintegrates during long runs and muscle strength is not developed enough maintain proper form. 


Rotate Run Shoes

For me, I train in two or three pairs of shoes. I do not say this just to sell more shoes; using multiple shoes means each pair will last longer. For me, running in more than one type of shoe also reduces injury. Like different skis or bikes, certain designs of running shoes have unique properties. Thick-soled shoes like Hokas offer my feet more cushion when sore. Minimal shoe such as the Brooks Pureflow, hug my high-arched feet and help push me into a forward lean. My Salomon Sense Pro trail shoes offer great grip on rocks, are super light for better trail feel, and have a low drop for proper running form. The variety keeps my feet fresh and helps me run better. 


Add Speedwork

Vary your speed. In addition to practicing running fast on the downhills, just train your body to run faster, even if it is not fast by other people’s standards. As long as such effort raises your heart rate for an extended period of time, and you practice fartleks or pickups within your training runs, you will improve run times. Add some 5-10k road races into your training plan to teach your body to handle a faster pace and the lactic acid that accompanies it. Speedwork focus = faster time (if you don’t get injured).  


Good nutrition and hydration

 Of course! Discipline your food intake in life and during the race. Learn your sweat rate and your specific nutrition needs to correctly replenish electrolyte and calorie loss. There are reams of information on this topic. Experiment with nutrition while you train. Everyone differs in sweat loss and in stomach tolerance. I always eat breakfast a couple of hours before an event, but many of my friends cannot manage solid food prior to a hard effort. How you ingest calories before a race will affect calories needed during a race. In general, I drink at every aid station, never skipping the earlier ones. To save time, learn to drink while jogging through aid stations so you don’t have to stop to swallow (unless you are really hurting and energy depleted). Pay attention to your body requirements which will vary by race weather, race length, personal race day "feel" (not every race will you be "spot on"), and adjust calorie and salt intake properly. Nutrition knowledge can make or break your race experience. 


Chose clothing thoughtfully

Having the right stuff for longer races is very important. Shoes: Again, know what works for you. If you run fast down hills and the terrain is rocky, you may want a trail shoe with a rock guard in the sole to decrease bruising. Or, to prevent debris collecting in your shoes, choose a sock (never cotton) that extends over your ankle bone and/or use a run gaiter attached to your shoes. Bring Body Glide or some anti-chafing cream and rub liberally underneath bra straps, on upper thighs, armpits … any place where the material may cause painful abrasion. Bring a run hat, ear band, or Head Buff to collect sweat that otherwise might drip into your eyes, sting, and attract bugs … ick! Beware of sunglasses as most trail runs dip in and out of sunlight and it is often easy to trip on roots while wearing shades, in the shade. Try sunglasses with light-adjusting lens (found at your knowledgeable run and xc ski stores ??). We all know well enough to use breathable, lightweight synthetic clothing, correct? Cotton is heavy, it chafes, and it is not fun to run in for long distances. A run belt or water system is often needed to carry extra liquids between aid stations. Any pack you strap onto your back or waist should be researched before the event. For races where aid stations are plentiful (like the Birkie) I wear a smaller, stretchy belt (such as a Spy Belt) which holds a few GU gels, and I can pin a number on the elastic. For longer races that require more fueling, there are many well-designed performance backpacks beyond the common water belt. Beware of running long distances using just a waist belt water bottle as upright bottles often dig into the back of shorter-waisted women (me!). 


Don’t Rely on Technical gadgets

Garmin and other run watches are certainly fun to wear and provide you with pace information. My only advice on race day is to pay more attention to your body than the Garmin. I believe you should know your body and have learned how to "feel" your performance. Oftentimes, discouragement sets in if your fall short of expected mile times and a "head game" can ensue, which could affect an otherwise positive performance. Remember, your physical and mental strength will ebb and flow during a long event. Push through the low points, and don’t become instantaneously bummed out from electronic feedback. 


Positive Mental Attitude

“Love and Gratitude” is my mantra during longer races. Short races don’t offer time for much reflection. Longer races are really cool because they invite in the many varying moods, which you must embrace and work through. Feel alive and appreciate that … you did it! The training, the learning, the journey to the event is done and now all you must do is embrace the experience and allow the best of it to filter in. You chose to do this. Appreciate those who are out on the trail supporting you, and deliver your best attitude to the finish line. You will finish in fine form!


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-Posted by Jan Guenther on Jun 27th 2017