This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. Subscribe today for similar features on ultra training, racing and more.
Sometimes just finding where to run can be a chore. The mental ping-pong game between doing something easy or designing an elaborate route can derail even the best intended ultrarunners. Over the course of my running life, I’ve learned that dividing the runs I do into three discrete buckets helps me with the chore of deciding where to go and what to do. The lines of demarcation that I describe below are not only effective for the workouts themselves but have the added benefit of taking thinking almost entirely out of the equation, which frees me up to enjoy the workout and chosen route. Plus, if I’m being honest, I can always use a little extra mental faculty. So, regardless of if you want to make your weekly routine more consistent, or if you just want to avoid a brain fart later in the day, I’d encourage you to think of your weekly routine in the following three cohorts.
THE WORKOUT: BUILT FOR PURPOSE
Any time I need to put my head down and get to work, I head over to Old Stage Road. Old Stage Road was part of the old mining network of roads and rails that the early settlers used to transport their precious metals from numerous mine claims back to Colorado Springs. After the mining bust, it was turned into a run-of-the-mill forest service road; eventually, too many runners and cyclists adopted it as a training haven, and the Pikes Peak Ranger District decided to close the road entirely to vehicular traffic.
It doesn’t matter if I’m doing a series of 15-minute torturous tempo intervals or shorter, high intensity efforts, Old Stage Road provides the perfect setup. The smooth, gravel surface is soft, easy to navigate and varies in grade from 3-12%. The benign surface allows me to focus on the effort at hand and not be concerned about tripping over an unsuspecting rock in a workout-induced haze. The gradual uphill also enables me to elicit a higher cardiovascular response compared to flat, level ground. Doing high intensity efforts uphill also acts as insurance against injury as the impact force from the ground will be less compared to running fast on the level. As a final selling point, there is a creek running alongside the road which cools the area by about 5 degrees, taking just a little bit of the edge off hot summer days.
FIND A WORKOUT AREA
When you are looking for a place to do a workout, seek three things (in order of priority):
- A gradual uphill (anywhere from 3-12% is fine, there is no magic number)
- A smooth surface
- An area that is cooler in the summer
While it’s unlikely that you’ll have the perfect setup for workouts, if you use these three points as a guide, you will be able to get a bit more quality out of your high intensity efforts. Don’t hesitate to use a shorter hill or climb for your workout area. You can always do your harder efforts on the uphill, then run easy downhill for the recovery.
THE STANDARD: BUILT FOR EASE
For a standard mid-week run, I’m headed to Section 16, one of the most popular trails in the area. This loop from my doorstep has a little of it all — rocky descents, smooth climbs, flatter sections and even a section that I can hike if I choose a more mellow day. To boot, there’s a brilliant viewpoint that gives way to epic sunrises on a consistent basis. The loop will take me 2-3 hours to complete depending on the variations and how frisky (or sleepy) I feel. Section 16’s most robust selling point for me, however, is its ease. I can wake up, be out the door in 30 minutes and basically do the loop blindfolded. I know exactly when I’m going to get back and can be efficient with my time and energy. The fact that I don’t have to think about much and can time the loop with precision frees up time and energy for the rest of the day, which further reinforces adherence to the weekly staple.
FIND A STANDARD
Ease of access is the key for your standard run. Remember your standard weekday runs should first and foremost be accessible and easy for you. In this way, ease of access trumps terrain specificity because it will drive compliance. Seriously, don’t get too picky. Find a route with one or two deviations and stick with it. For your standard route, consistency is the key.
THE LONG RUN: BUILT FOR FLEXIBILITY
Long runs are a bit of a different beast. Throughout the year, my long runs can vary anywhere from 2-12 hours and on the rare occasion, even longer. Depending on the race, sometimes I will require flat terrain and other times, steep and rocky. With a variety of duration and terrain at a premium, my choice of venue for a long run on most occasions is the Cheyenne Cañon area. With an endless number of bailouts, vertical relief ranging from the benign to steep and terrain from technical to smooth, I can customize just about any long run conceivable. Aiding the long run mission are copious creek crossings to filter and refill bottles.
FIND A LONG RUN
With variety at a premium, your long run theater should be one that offers the ability to add, subtract and modify a trail system to suit your needs. Strava’s “Create a Route” and Garmin’s “Create Course” features are excellent tools to get to know your local trail system by leveraging the running network in your area. All you need to do is pick a starting point, distance and let Strava/Garmin do the rest by designing a route of that length based on other runner’s routes. If you prefer to design your own long run and go exploring, trail apps like AllTrails or Gaia oftentimes reveal trails in your local area that you may not have been previously familiar with. You can manually create and download routes and maps offline for use if you want to modify your plans mid-run.
As you go about your training, workouts, weekly staples and long run venues can serve as anchors for the week. By establishing some consistent routes with appropriate deviations, you can make these runs more effective and simple, all at the same time.