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#AboutTrail Episode 12: Short to Long to XL

Tackling Longer Distances | with Megan Mackenzie

Tackling a longer distance, like entering the long courses of the Spur Trail Series® doesn’t have to be as daunting as you think. Elite trail runner, 2015 South African champ and running coach Megan Mackenzie offers a sound strategy on how to tackle longer distances.

You’ve got a few shorter distance races in the bag, say for example the short courses of the Spur Trail Series®, and you’re ready to tackle the long course – or so you think? With a keen interest to run further seems to come an equally keen sense of dread brought on by a fear of not knowing how you’ll cope with a longer distance. Elite trail runner and coach, Megan Mackenzie, shares how she encourages her athletes to overcome tackling longer distances, and how you can too.

Megan Mackenzie hardly needs an introduction. 2015 SA Trail Champ and three-time winner of the African X in the Western Cape, amongst a host of other trail running accolades, Megan spends large portions of her day traversing mountains, exploring trails and training for her next big race. When she’s not training she’s coaching and inspiring all levels of trail runners to better themselves so they can get out there and enjoy the trails too.

But like everyone, Megan had to start out somewhere, which is why she was a great candidate to chat to about bridging the gap between shorter distances and longer distances, and how to do it without running into injury or worse, simply not enjoying it. The Spur Trail Series® offers two main distances, the short course and the long course, and with Megan’s advice and a change up in your training programme, you could be entering and tackling the long course series for the first time.


It’s all in the mind

Often the main reason people don’t take on longer distances is 100% mental. The thought of taking on a longer run far outweighs the logic or practical reasoning. “When we are comfortable doing something we usually resist change and continue in the same pattern that 'works' for us,” agrees Megan. So how do you overcome that and change the way your mind rationalises things? “It’s about a conscious decision to set yourself a challenge outside of that comfort zone,” says Megan who identifies the following steps as a method of overcoming your mental block.

1. Identify your comfort zone.

2. Think of a distance/event/time goal that is a 20 % stretch out of that comfort zone (be it time, distance or terrain - or all 3!)  20 % is usually attainable but you'll have to work hard to get there.

3. Pick an event (like the long courses at the Spur Trail Series®) to take part in so that you can be held accountable for the goal. It can be a bit difficult to know when you are physically ready, but I would say that your mind and body are so linked - that you actually do know when you're ready. You just have to pay attention to the mind-body connection. If you can imagine yourself doing it, and gaze longingly at photos and results of the longer distances and feel ready for a challenge - then that means you're probably ready!

Expect to ‘work’ longer hours

The longer the distance you want to tackle, the longer the hours of training you’re going to need to put in. Increasing your training load comes with risks too, so follow Megan’s advice to stay within your abilities and to avoid injury or burn out. “My advice would be to build up your fitness slowly and smartly. Don't rush anything. It should be so gradual that you hardly notice the change anymore, and before you know it - you've conditioned your mind and body for those longer days out,” she says. Additionally, and equally as important, incorporate strength work into your weekly routine. So many trail runners aren’t aware of the benefits of this, nor do they consider adding it to their week. “An increased strength work routine is also really necessary for longer distances,” says Megan. For a better understanding of the benefits of strength training, read strength coach Mike Watson’s approach and understand how it can benefit you.

It’s all about the nibble

With increased distance and more time on your feet, you’re going to need to refuel more. Eating on the trail is actually harder than you think, for a number of reasons  -from not being able to physically eat, to forgetting to. The best thing you can do to prepare for longer distances and ensure you’re eating enough is to practice during your training sessions. “My first piece of advice regarding nutrition is to try it in training. Everyone is different, so you have to find something that works for you,” she says. Regarding how much you should be eating, Megan talks about ‘the nibble’. “I would recommend trying to have a small bite of your bar of choice 45 minutes in, and every half hour after that (dependent on how long you'll be out for of course.) Practice this in training, and try not to munch down the whole bar in one go - it may lead to heaviness and tummy cramps. Just nibble,” she says.

Don’t go in undercooked

If you want to increase the distance you are running and more importantly, actually enjoy the experience, you simply cannot arrive at the start line undertrained. “The worst way to approach a longer distance run is to practice inconsistent training. For longer distances, you can't be lazy all week and then spend your weekend playing catch up. It will either lead to over training (weirdly enough), panic training or cramming, and injury,” says Megan.  Remember - you want to train for ease of running and this will be achieved through consistency.

Wipe out the ‘unexpected’

Conditioning your body against what Megan dubs ‘variables’ is also an important part about increasing your distances. Think about it, if you’re suddenly out on the trail for an extra hour, your body may start to respond in ways you’re not accustomed to – think chafe, blisters, tummy aches, etc. For that reason, it’s important to start increasing time and distance in training to condition your body so that you can avoid any of the above happening. “It’s important to practice going further in training so you can pin down a few variables. Nutrition is a big one. You'll find you can run fine for a certain distance using what you've always used, but tummy cramps, sugar lows, over hydration and dehydration all start to play a role in longer distances. Practice eating while you're running, and take note of what and how often and how you're feeling so you can change it for the next time if necessary,” says Megan. “Blisters and chafe are other variables you'll want to have nailed down come race day. Vaseline and double socks are often good solutions!”

All the gear and the ‘right’ idea

Be sure to get used to running with a hydration pack before a longer race, don’t leave the trial period for the actual race. Get used to where your food goes and how you can reach it on the go. Get a feel for the weight and fit of the pack, and ease your shoulders, neck and back into trail running with a load. “Train with your gear so that you get used to carrying a pack, where to find your food, where all the little pouches are and the feeling of it jiggling around on your back,” says Megan. Doing this during training could avoid major discomfort during the actual race.

Why should you bother?

So why should you bother upping the distance, hurting your body, stressing out? It’s simple, the reward of crossing the finish line is bigger! “In my experience, you'll get a heightened sense of accomplishment. A sense of awe that you yourself traveled that distance on your feet. You generally go through a lot more ups and downs, so you learn more, and get more perspective. Plus, you have more time to spend out on our beautiful trails, it’s a no brainer,” says Megan. So what are you waiting for? Lace up those trail tekkies and hit the (longer) trails…. Not before entering the next Spur Trail Series® long course that is! See you on the start line.

Written by Bryony McCormick