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In Conversation with Skyler Tanner: How strength training helped me complete a 25K race

Skyler Tanner, Exercise Physiologist and course leader of the latest HITuni short course: Running with Strength, has recently completed the J&J Rrail Running Reunion, a 25K race. I had the pleasure to chat with Skyler about his experience, his training for the race and how he combines HIT with running and here’s what he has to say!



First of all, can you tell me what the race was?


Sure sure. So the race is called the J&J Trail Running Reunion.


Copyright Tejas Trails, 2019



The time that you got for the race was three hours and 15 minutes. You came 10th overall and 3rd in your age division. Were you happy with that result?


First of all, I was very happy. Coming into the race with the training volume I had, I was expecting to suffer because I had never run that far. But also I was excited about the time I got and the placing I got. I was ecstatic. For me being off of the finishing time by only 45 minutes (the winner was a twenty-four year old, who won in two hours 30 minutes), that was pretty good. Now I think I could have gone faster with experience on the course.

The gentleman who finished just ahead of me was a master athlete. He had run the 50K version of this race before, which is two laps of the same course, so he knew where he was in relationship to the total course length. I was blind to that! Had I known, I could have finished about 15 minutes faster, because I would have known where I could have pushed it and where I could backed off and things of that nature…! But that is a little bit of just reflecting on it a week later.

And then you know that could very well change. I could go back next year and I could finish faster because of that, or I could finish slower because of differing weather conditions.

So that’s part of the fun of trail running, that unknown element. It’s not like a road race, where it’s flat and it’s reasonably cool. Consistency is all but guaranteed!



I just had a look at the race you did on September 28th and the temperature on the day there was about 86 degrees Fahrenheit?


That’s about right. The course record overall was set when the race was in April and it was seasonally cool. It was like 40 something degrees Fahrenheit, which is just prime racing weather, especially in that terrain. So, if you look at the yearly results, you see when they switched the race from April to September it jumps 20, 30, 40 minutes for the winning times, just because of the temperature. And this year was hot!

This year was hotter than it normally is, out that far in the hill country. You don’t have the heat island effect of the city, there’s not much concrete., so the temperature is normally much lower. This year it was just maybe four or five degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the city. It was not a cool race by any stretch of the imagination!



The race is held in Rock Springs, Texas. And as I understand it is quite a lot of up and down, not much flat. Could you do any training in Austin to prepare you for the specific conditions of the race?


Yeah you’re right. So, on this race course there are two directions: up or down. There’s very little single track trail that would allow me to approach my threshold pace or my maximum long-term sustainable pace during the race. The kind and the size of the rocks, and the complexity of the trail, as far as picking my way over boulders or rocks, that could be mimicked here in Austin, but not the altitude.

My longest run, leading up to this race, was under 10 miles. It was nine and a half miles. And that was done once. It was more for a proof of concept, an idea. I had my cousin by marriage run the race with me and he ran a lot more in his preparation.

So, it was good to have this training race, where we ran together and I eventually outran him and finished that run by somewhere between 7-10 minutes before he did; based on some of the principles in the Running with Strength program that I was applying throughout my training block.


Skyler (left) on the day of the race


I want to get on to the training prep for the race. How many weeks out did you start specific preparation for the 25K?


I had picked the race in February. And I started, I call it an overly long training block leading up to the race.

I started off back in February, and we talk about this in the Running with Strength course, with a VDOT of 40. A VDOT is just a sort of a field test measure of relative fitness and it gives you some potential training paces to use based on that. So instead of saying I want to run this fast and I’m going to go on to use that as my training pace, VDOT attempts to say ‘here’s your fitness level’.

As a result of that, your training paces correspond with different types of workouts. That’s why I suggest using VDOT as part of the Running with Strength course. Over the training block for this race, very quickly I progressed to a 44 and by the end of the training block I was up at about a 48 VDOT, which is a giant improvement. I knocked over two minutes off of my two-mile time trial, which I used as the metric for my VDOT, because I wasn’t practicing the two-mile time trial, so I tried to reduce specificity as much as possible for accuracy of the VDOT test.

Initially, I was able to consistently do two workouts per week and then my son was born on 16th of March this year. While Sarah was on maternity leave, I was able to still make those twice-weekly running workouts. Then, as she comes out of maternity leave and goes back into work, the first faster workout during the week started becoming kind of touch and go. The workout on the weekend started to get a little longer in compensation, but if you look over the course of the entire training block, longer is relative. I averaged well below an hour per week training.

A normal week for me meant five to 10 minutes of high intensity intervals on Wednesday and then on the weekend, it could be anywhere from:

  • 30 to 35 minutes of intervals
  • or a 45-minute steady state run at approximate threshold pace,
  • or a seven-mile time trial at Townlake trail here in Austin.

And that time trial wasn’t for a specific pace. It was trying to figure out relative effort, my rating of perceived exertion to a given pace and have some of that environmental factor weighing on me to try to carry that into the race.



Did you slot your strength training workout in as well? Was it a weekly occurrence?


Oh yeah, absolutely!

So I would typically lift on Monday.

I would do my intervals on Wednesday or Thursday because as hard as they were, surprisingly, they didn’t leave any soreness or heavy dead leggedness two days later. The legs were tired on Friday but I could typically do my longer stuff on Saturday without too much of a problem.

I got sick once and it made me miss a week of training so that was kind of like a built in deload. And the first workout after that was rough, you know, missing a week is rough but you really only suffer for one workout and you’re kind of back at the level of effort you were at before.

The weight training as I got further along came down more and more because of the general accumulation of fatigue. And that’s what I mean by my ‘specific training block’, where I’m trying to push the paces every workout. Actually the training block was a little too long in total for this race.



How many weeks was the training block in total?


Well in total, it was February to late September. If we don’t discount the sick days, because we weren’t planning on that. I was typically doing 10 to 12 weeks on. And then I would skip the high intensity stuff, so I would take seven days off. But that was because I felt like it was kind of an initial general period and then being more specific towards the race after the first two months.

And frankly some of that was the uncharted territory of thinking ‘OK well I’ve never had the weaponization of concentration for a race before’. So some of that was excitement leading up to the race but certainly by the last two months, I was training only once a week and it was almost like it was maintenance, where I had reached this high and I could see the race in sight.

I’d been training for so long and I was just trying to hold onto that fitness before the race. So that was good. But also the lesson learned was that this is why they tell you 12 to 16 week training blocks work for a race because it becomes mental more than physical. It’s like I just want to hurry up and run this thing now.



Briefly touching on nutrition, did anything change for you during training? And did you do anything special in the 24 hours before the race or anything specific during the race, in terms of hydration too?


Sure, so leading up to the race one of the things that I did was throttle back my carbohydrate intake. In the three weeks before, I did not go super low carb, maybe close to a hundred grams a day, and then on the day before my longer workouts, I would add in another 50 to 75 grams of carbohydrates to try to top off my stores a little bit.

And then four days out from the race, I started eating more bananas, ramping up my simple carbohydrate intake.

This is a shortened version of some of the literature that’s been done on ketogenic diet in race walkers, where during a 12-week training block, they’ll do nine weeks low carb. And during this phase performance suffers. Then three weeks out from the race, they revert to a high carbohydrate diet. National and international records have been broken using this approach, documented in two different studies in Australia.

This is treating ketosis or a ketogenic diet a little bit like we treat altitude training; you don’t want to race in altitude it’s performance detrimental. But living in altitude and maybe doing a little bit of training at altitude and then coming down to sea level, that’s performance enhancing. It seems that ketogenic diets could be harnessed by using it for a period of time during training and then carb loading leading up to the race.

On the day of the race I took Ucan Superstarch. Imagine carbohydrate intake or carbohydrate oxidation and fat oxidation as being antagonistic to each other, what this stuff does is it pops up and it doesn’t spike your insulin and your blood sugar as high but it drips longer. So you’re burning more fat, you’re able to oxidize more fat, while also being able oxidized carbohydrates. So I took two servings of that at the start of the race.

I also took a little bit of exogenous ketone something called Keto Blitz, which is a ketone salt but it’s has less minerals in it than a normal ketone salt. And then at miles 8 and 12 I just took a goo. And otherwise I was just drinking water on the course and I never bonked and ever hit a wall nutritionally and I never felt like the gas in the tank was gone.



Did you have a mental strategy during the race or for the race? Were you able to follow that on the day? Was there any particular need for mentally digging in, or mental fortitude? Were there any challenges?


Yes. So I knew there would be some suffering. That was part of the challenge of having done under race distance during training. One of the challenges that people face with these long-distance events is that they initially think that if they train right, then they won’t suffer. Suffering is guaranteed. It’s an endurance event!

I had to do a lot of negotiation with the central governor near the end of the race. It was miles 12, 13, and 14 and not knowing how far I had left to go. I only knew those were the miles left in hindsight. There was a lot of ‘OK you can run two of those miles and then walk one’.

Ultra-running or trail running it’s really more like relentless forward progress. There is a lot of walking and it’s about strategizing that walking. So from the beginning, I was walking some of the more severe hills that I couldn’t see the top of. That’s actually a line ‘If you can’t see the top, walk!’, because you’re not going to save any time running up it. And you’ll actually gain back time running down the back of it on relatively fresh legs. So I tried to do that when there was a downhill that wasn’t overly technical. I would push the pace and if I couldn’t see the top of the hill (because a lot of the climbs were of the switchback nature), I would power hike the uphill. And so I followed that strategy really well.

That mental strategy worked really well. Knowing that there was going to be suffering and kind of expecting it and being surprised it wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would. You can’t plan for the lack of experience on a course and the only way to get that is to go out and run it.



Going back to something you mentioned at the very start about your longest training run being 9.5 miles. From your perspective would there have been no extra value in running the race distance during training, over getting a decent percentage of it in training as you did?


It depends on the person. I mean I’ve seen people, who train the elites, and they say they’ve had some people where their longest training run is a quarter or a half of the distance they’re going to race. And we’re talking 50, 60, 100 mile races here. And others they need a higher percentage of race distance and so that becomes athlete dependent.

Given the demands of my life, 9.5 miles was about the longest training run I could get away with. I think there could have been some value in going a little longer in training. But now that I’ve run a 15-mile race with my longest training run being nine and a half miles, after finishing and reflecting, it’s like I can run a longer race. The longer a race is, it becomes much more mental. Remember that I never approached paces that were my fastest paces in this recent race, the environment wouldn’t allow for that. So, it became the mental game and now that I’ve run this distance, I go “I can run a 30K”. I know what it feels like, I know how my body’s going to feel and that all counts.

I kind of think about it a little bit like a racecar. What I’m trying to do and what we’re trying to do with this Running with Strength course is build the engine with the lowest amount of wear and tear.

Understanding that the only way to maximize the speed on a given course is to drive the course, to actually run it. Having better suspension, stickier tires on a bigger engine, in the hands of an experienced driver, means that their run will probably be faster than somebody who is a little beat up, their car’s a little worn out from the training block. They’re a little injured, they’re nursing an injury, but they have more time in the seat so to speak. So, that’s the tradeoff I’m willing to make.

It’s like when we talk about intensity, volume and frequency in resistance training. It’s a bit like that. We have the size of the engine, we have the time in the seat (or in this case the time on the trail), and we have the sort of injury risk potential. A lot of people try to taper down before a race. They want to hold a really high volume and taper down and try to hold on to fitness and hopefully recover from injuries. I want to come in fresh and be a little undertrained, because I know have the mental advantage and I can go a little further as a result of that. So that’s how I look at it, but again it was in the context of ‘I have a real life and I have responsibilities and you know a business that’s doing 120 some sessions a week and employees and three children’. And nobody paid me to run this race, so it was about having fun and the experience.



Who would benefit from taking the Running with Strength course?


I wasn’t a runner growing up, so this is something relatively new to me and it’s provided enjoyment, a way of kind of directing all the strength I’ve been building through strength training. It’s very easy to get into a very myopic view of muscle strengthening exercise. Do we strength train so we can do more muscle strengthening exercise? At some point you’ve got to say ‘OK, I don’t want this to stagnate but I want to do something with it’.

And the environment we’re in, here in Austin, these trail races are plentiful. I can fit running into my life and I can use the strength and fitness I’ve built in a way that is kind of like completing a project. Because of the value of strength training, it is something that we’re gonna have to do some version of until we die. But to be able to focus that strength and do some specific conditioning towards a goal that can be completed in 12 to 16 weeks, and seeing it through, and checking that box, and seeing what this body is capable of… and I have no injuries.

I have zero injuries from that race. My feet are a little sore because of the zero drop shoes I wore, not having a strike plate. So my feet are bruised but that just meant I was wearing socks on hardwood floors for the next two days after the race. And so I achieved what I intended to achieve. And that’s really cool.



I’m assuming you will race again?


Oh absolutely! I’m already like, well there’s a 30K in March so we’ll see about that. But shorter distances for the time being, because that’s closer to home.


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