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What’s Harder on the Body: Trail Ultras or Road Marathons?

"A trail ultra results in soreness that’s a mile wide and an inch deep," says Alex Varner, shown here on his way to finishing seventh at last year's Western States 100. Photo: Luis Escobar

As I gingerly descended the stairs from my apartment on April 22, my sore-to-the-touch hamstrings served as a sensitive reminder of the net downhill course I’d encountered at the Boston Marathon just two days earlier. My hammered hamstrings didn’t come as an unexpected surprise, however, as I knew from past experience that pounding the pavement for 26.2 miles usually left me pretty jacked up for at least a few days afterward.

While I shuffled down the steps, I couldn’t help but think of Alex Varner and Michael Wardian, both of whom had raced the Lake Sonoma 50—a relentlessly rolling 50-mile trail race in Northern California—just nine days before doubling back at Boston. Varner, who won Lake Sonoma in course-record 6 hours, 9 minutes and 39 seconds, ran an impressive 2:28:14 at Boston, negative splitting the second half of the race, while Wardian, who finished eighth overall at Lake Sonoma in 6:56:48, clocked a 2:27:20 at Boston and placed fourth in the masters division.

How were they feeling after racing over 75 miles in less than 10 days? And, more generally, did their bodies feel worse after racing an off-road ultra or a road marathon?

“A high level road marathon takes me longer to recover from,” admits Varner, 29, a member of the Nike Trail Elite team. “For me, it’s the repetition and pounding that occurs in the same few muscle groups in a road marathon—in my case, calves and quads—while a 50 miler requires some usage out of a much wider range of muscles. So, while I may be sore in more areas after a 50 miler, the damage is far less acute than it is in my calves and quads after a road marathon. The road marathon results in soreness that’s an inch wide and a mile deep while a trail ultra results in soreness that’s a mile wide and an inch deep, and for me, the latter has proven easier in terms of recovery.”

Wardian, a Hoka One One-sponsored athlete who races more than 50 times a year at various distances and over a variety of terrains, concurs, adding that factors such as elevation gain and loss in a trail ultra, as well as the technicality of the course and the amount of gear he carries with him can affect how different parts of his body feel in the days afterward.

“The same fatigue applies to both trail ultras and road marathons, but for a trail race you might have to also worry about recovery for your entire body,” says Wardian, 40, who lives in Arlington, Va. “You could have been carrying handhelds, so your arms are in need of recovery. You might have to deal with scrapes from trees, branches or falls, and those are some things that don’t normally creep up during a road marathon.”

Sage Canaday, winner of The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship in 2014, narrowly missed qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon earlier this year at both the LA Marathon and Boston Marathon. A two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, he cites the unpredictability and duration of ultra-distance trail races as the two biggest factors that affect his post-race recovery. But, like Varner, he says the consistently high intensity of a road marathon tends to take a more direct toll on his body.

“I’ve found the recovery periods of both trail ultras and road marathons to be pretty equal,” explains the Hoka One One-sponsored Canaday. “One saving grace with the trail ultras is that the softer surfaces and slower paces tend to work the leg muscles a bit differently. The extra distance, vertical change and duration of trail ultra races is tough on the skeletal muscular system, but the higher velocity and even consistency of pavement over 26.2 miles is brutal as well. Usually in trail ultras with a lot of vertical change, my quads and calves are pretty sore afterwards and during the race often my hips start to fail on the hills. In road marathons, usually I’ll start tightening up in my hamstrings first during the race but afterwards it is the quads and calves that are most sore.”

Different Soreness, Different Recovery Strategy?

Given that, should runners who race different distances that affect the body (and mind) in different ways, employ different recovery strategies afterward? Surprisingly not, according to many top athletes and coaches.

“The short answer is: the distance or gnarliness of the event doesn’t dictate recovery,” says Flagstaff, Ariz., ultrarunner Ian Torrence, the ultra coach for McMillan Running and a winner of over 50 ultra-distance races in his own right.

Torrence, 42, says post-race recovery boils down to three key factors, regardless of distance, duration or terrain:

  • Specificity in training. “If an athlete trains appropriately for a trail 50-mile or road marathon they will train on terrain, surfaces and for durations that the event requires,” he advises. “Do this and recovery from the event will be easier than if you had not.”

  • Experience. “Subsequent efforts are easier to recover from than the first,” he says. “The mind and body are more prepared for the next time the rigors of the event are presented.”

  • Race-day strategy. “Running harder than warranted in hot and humid weather, improper pacing tactics and unacceptable hydrating or fueling plans will negatively impact post-race recovery for both a marathoner or ultrarunner.”

Varner, who lives and trains in Mill Valley, Calif., follows a similar recovery protocol after any race that’s marathon distance or longer, usually taking 1-2 days completely off from running immediately after the race, followed by another 1-2 weeks of easy running before he attempts any faster workouts.

‘If I can, I get a massage, stretch, roll and take an ice bath if I’m feeling up to it,” Varner says of his post-race recovery protocol. “The biggest difference is that after a road marathon, I have to concentrate much more on those few muscle groups that are really sore while after a trail ultra, everything is kind of sore, so I go with more general rolling and stretching.”

It’s important to keep in mind that everyone recovers at different rates, emphasizes Torrence, and that rushing back into training after a tough race, regardless of how long it was, is usually a recipe for injury or burnout. “Take the time you need to feel good again, both physically and mentally,” he advises.

It took about five days after this year’s Boston Marathon until my hamstrings felt like they were functioning normally again, and at least another five before I could wrap my head around resuming any kind of regular running schedule. For me, this is pretty much par for the course following a road marathon. It hits me hard and the after-effects tend to linger for a while. Compare this to last December’s North Face Endurance Challenge 50K—my second trail ultra—where my feet, hip flexors and quads took a brunt of the beating, while my upper arms and lower back were also quite sore for a day or two afterward. Interestingly, I was ready, willing and able to start running again just three days post-race—empirical evidence that on some level, an ultra-distance trail race appears to take less of a toll on my body and mind.

While the speed in which you bounce back from a road marathon versus a trail ultra will likely differ from my experience or that of other runners, he universal take-home message after a long race is clear: respect the recovery afterward and give both your body and mind the time they need to fully recharge.

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