Alaska is a runner’s paradise with access to endless trails, long hours of daylight, and terrain to suit anyone’s skill level from novice to elite competitor.
Summer is just getting started. With summer sun, everyone from first-time runners to those elite competitors are lacing up their running shoes.
Unfortunately, many peoples’ running aspirations fizzle out by the Fourth of July. Runners of all levels forget how important goal setting, prioritizing, and proper training techniques are to their ultimate success. If done right a running program can be rewarding, but it can also leave runners burnt out, frustrated, or even injured.
- Health vs. Competition
There are two main groups of runners; health-oriented and competition-oriented. Health-oriented runners are not as concerned with race times because they merely want to reap the health benefits of running. Competition-oriented runners focus almost exclusively on race times and beating other runners. Clearly defining yourself as being more health or competition-oriented ensures proper goal setting.
- Beginner: In order to set a realistic goal, you must ascertain your current fitness levels. Be honest. A good practice is to pick a distance, like a half mile, mile, or 5k, and run that distance at race pace. This will reveal your cardio fitness level. Without this critical first step of honest evaluation, the rest of the goal setting process will be distorted and set you up for failure. You could overestimate your abilities, train too hard, and burn out before you reach your true potential, or underestimate yourself and not be sufficiently challenged.
- Intermediate: Since you are a more experienced runner, you have a pretty good idea how to set goals. The big thing is to keep challenging yourself. Instead of just running a certain time, you might say, “I’m going to run _____ number of races this year” or “I’m going to complete the ______ Trail in one day” or “I want to run 500 miles this summer.” Be creative. Be realistic.
- Competitor: Maybe you want to be recruited by a DI school or to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Maybe you have a specific person you want to beat. Either way, your goals need to be more specific and clear than novice and intermediate runners’ goals.
What is the point of goal setting without creating a specific deadline by which you want it accomplished? Having a deadline will motivate you when training becomes difficult.
Deciding where your running program fits in your life will save you endless frustration. Prioritizing your running program based upon your goals will allow you to successfully reach them.
Join a group or club that will help you stick with your plan. Having them around is critical to success. You might prefer running alone but pick at least one running group or club that will offer encouragement and (good) advice.
Training: Where the Rubber Meets the Road (or Trail)
- Even if your summer does not include a triathlon, your success is only as good as your plan. Here are some things to consider:
- Beginner: It might be an accomplishment to complete a mile without stopping. That’s fine. That’s progress! At this stage, consistency is going to be the most important part of your training. Try running 3 days a week consistently for 2-3 weeks before considering increasing your weekly mileage. At this point, (safely) increasing mileage will make you faster.
- Intermediate: At this stage of your running career, you have probably heard quite a bit about higher quality workouts. You will reach a point where consistently running everyday will not make you faster. That is fine if fitness is your only goal, but if you want to improve your speed you will need to start incorporating higher quality workouts into your routine.
- Competitor: If competition is your goal, you need to understand that an optimal training program does not mean you will feel great all the time. There will be difficult days. The important thing is that, just like everyone else, you must remain consistent. Competitors usually do not risk inconsistency for lack of discipline. They risk inconsistency when they don’t get the results they want as quickly as they envisioned and switch programs. Do not do that! With very few exceptions, it’s better to complete a program than switch. There are two major schools of thought when it comes to training for competitive running; those who focus on quality workouts and those who prefer building strength and increasing their mileage. Of course, most programs balance these approaches (while favoring one). It’s important to identify which approach benefits you most. Everyone’s body is different so someone saying he/she has a program that works the same for everyone makes for clean marketing but poor advice.
Many runners use a cycle strategy when creating a routine. It might look something like this;
Three weeks of consistent mileage buildup, followed by one week of “recovery.”
You see this cycle concept applied to well-coached cross country/track athletes who focus on volume (mileage) during the summer to increase their endurance and cardio capacity, build strength during the cross country season, and then fine-tune their foot speed during track season.
Incorporate challenging phases in your program but follow them with recovery periods to minimize injuries. If you have upcoming vacations or business trips, integrate them into your training cycle, so they do not inhibit your progress.
Planning adequate recovery at regular intervals can make or break any program. Now, recovery means different things as you improve. When first starting, recovery might mean taking a break for a few days. As you grow stronger, “recovery” might mean running slower on certain days or reducing mileage. It is a very relevant term. When starting out, err towards too much recovery. Recovering and rehabbing from an injury takes a lot longer than planning a few days of recovery.
Quality vs. Quantity
For our purposes, we will define quality workouts as any workout structured to simulate race intensity. These workouts include fartleks, track workouts, tempo runs, steady states, even long runs to a certain extent. These are more intense and geared toward building strength, endurance, and overall foot speed rather than just running for a specific distance or time.
If you are competition-oriented, expect to do a fair number of these. If you are more interested in fitness, you could throw a few of these into your routine to keep things interesting.
Quantity, on the other hand, is the overall mileage you run each week or during a specific part of your training cycle. If you are interested in competition, I am a huge proponent of incorporating as much quantity as possible into training.
Whereas quality workouts help you achieve a higher percentage of your aerobic capacity, high mileage increases overall aerobic capacity. Slowly building up, being consistent, and taking adequate recovery time is key.
When I was trying to get in shape to walk onto my alma mater’s cross country team, running 50 miles a week was my goal. So, doing what any responsible novice would do, I started with 35 miles a week and tried increasing 5 miles a week to get there ASAP.
I over-trained so much that walking winded me and my heart rate was near 100 bpm while sitting. My school and work suffered as I struggled to keep up and I felt perpetually cranky. Instead of achieving my goal faster, I had to take unscheduled recovery time.
As a rule of thumb, you should increase your overall mileage by no more than 10% from the previous week and ensure you have recovery time built into your week and your training cycle.
Dr. Alec Levesque of Healthwise Care Center & Physical Therapy in Eagle River advocates for running, saying that running can be very healthy if done safely.
Stretching correctly is key. “It’s better to do a warmup in which you’re moving around, rather than just static stretching. Static stretching basically just means standing in one place and stretching your muscles out.” Save static stretching for after your workout.
Dr. Levesque recommends runners incorporate cross training into their routines to prevent injuries. Most injuries associated with running are over-use injuries, so cross training with events like biking or swimming provides an excellent way to minimize these while maintaining fitness. Because running only works muscles that move back and forth, cross training also helps runners to be more balanced by engaging lateral-moving muscles.
Self-Treatment and when to See a Professional
Despite warming up, cooling down and cross training, runners can expect aches and pains. If injured, Dr. Levesque recommends people apply RICE (rest, ice to the injury, compression of the injury, and elevating the injury). What distinguishes an ache that will go away with RICE and an injury that requires professional assistance? Dr. Levesque suggests people seek professional assistance when:
- Pain continues after their runs
- Pain recurs 3-4 times in a row
- Pain increases
Sara Kennedy, a nutritional therapy consultant, recommends runners reduce their processed food intake and increase nutrient-dense foods. Foods enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals should also be replaced with nutrient-dense options. Examples of nutrient-dense foods include fresh produce and organic, pastured chicken, cold-water fish, grass-fed beef and wild game. Fats should come from a variety of sources like olives, avocados, and coconut.
What foods should be avoided?
“On my list, the #1 worst offenders are vegetable oils like corn, soy, and canola,” Kennedy said. “People react differently to the oils. Some experience joint pain, recurring injuries or exercise-induced asthma from bronchial inflammation. Many restaurants prepare their dishes using these oils and they are present in boxed and bagged foods.”
Kennedy continued, “Running doesn’t cover up a bad diet. In fact, it often exacerbates it. Poor nutrition, plus the nutritional cost of exercise, can lead to deficiencies and greater health issues. Symptoms such as stress fractures, chronic aches and pains, and injuries that are slow to heal may indicate nutritional deficiencies.”
Safety in Alaska
If you utilize one of the many trails in this area, take precautions for wildlife encounters. Consider the following:
- Do not run alone
- Take bear spray
- Wear bright clothes
- Wear a bell (if you’re OK with that sound for a long time)
- If using earbuds, keep one out so you can hear better
- Tell someone where you will be and when you expect to return
Whether you are beginner, intermediate or run competitively, you are part of a privileged few who have the opportunity to run in the Alaskan summer. This can be a great time of year as you reach new levels of health and fitness while appreciating some of the best scenery in the world.
Healthwise hosts a local running group on Thursday evenings for runners to improve fitness and socialize. For more information, check their Facebook page at “TNR with Healthwise”.
Jamin Goecker: walked onto Angelo State University’s track and cross country teams in 2011 without competing in high school. When his NCAA eligibility expired, he broke the school’s 10,000-meter record with a time of 31:32.69. He has coached numerous teams and individuals and loves answering questions for fitness and competitive-oriented runners. Currently, he is training to run marathons as he works as a licensed realtor. Contact him at Jaminwrites@gmail.com