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Expert Advice For Trail Success

If you are getting ready for VMM or any other ultra, you need more than just rigorous training – you need a strategic approach on race day. Here Nguyễn Sĩ Hiếu breaks down his top two areas of focus for success on the trails: Controlling your effort and managing your nutrition strategy. Read on.

Nguyen Si Hieu 100mile VMMSamWilsonVisuals_DSC2006 (1)
3rd place at first-ever 100miles distance in Vietnam - VMM 2022

The time has come. Vietnam Mountain Marathon, the oldest and biggest trail running event in Vietnam, will return this September and with the comeback of the 100 miles distance. Besides a proper and scientific training plan, an effective race strategy will help athletes successfully accomplish their goals. 

Runners will be standing at the start line with different goals in mind, but they all want one same thing: to complete the distance they signed up for.

 From my experience, the two most important factors in having a good run are effort control and nutrition, especially for VMM’s ultra distances of 70km, 100km, and 100 miles.

Focus one: Control your effort

You need to control effort throughout, but this is particularly important during the first part of the race when you feel fresher – this “first part” can be one-third or one-half of the course, depending on your view. 

I write here about effort rather than pace , as “pace” on trails is very different to pace in the city. On climbs, descents, or technical trail, you cannot look at your splits – you need to measure your effort, not your speed. 

For athletes with years of experience, this MAY not be a problem. But for athletes who are new to ultra running, starting out too fast is a very common mistake. 

Starting out too fast or hard will quickly burn the energy from the very limited glycogen accumulated in the body as well as damage the muscle fibers and make it difficult to recover. This in turn can lead to cramps, exhaustion, muscle pain and maybe a DNF. 

nguyen si hieu VMM 2023
Nguyen Si Hieu at VMM 2023
Nguyen Si Hieu VMM 2023 - on course
He is on the way to Nui Bo

What is too hard ?

So, what is considered “too fast or hard”? 

As already noted, it is your effort, not your pace you must control.

For ultra distances, running/walking parts should be maintained at a moderate level of exertion. 

For uphill and flat parts, your heart rate should not exceed 70-80% of your maximum heart rate. This will help reduce energy consumption and at the same time, ensure you are not running too slowly. If your watch does not have a heart rate measurement, you can feel your respiratory rate and adjust accordingly. A good respiratory rate while running is where you can breathe evenly and talk relatively comfortably.

Managing the downhills

When going downhill, you may not feel tired because you don’t have to put in a lot of energy. However, the pressure on the musculoskeletal system is huge, especially the thighs, hips and calves. 

Running downhill too fast can bring a lot of pain to your legs in the second half of the race. This is also a common mistake among less experienced runners: they try to run fast when going downhill to “compensate” for the slower uphill pace. 

You can save 1-2 minutes/km for just a few first km, but the price is a much slower downhill pace afterwards because of the pain. 

Those who have run many ultra distances and experienced the last 25km of the VMM route (with many steep concrete parts) will surely understand how “painful” going downhill is! You may even wish to go uphill all the way to the finish line instead!

nguyen Si hieu vtm
Nguyen Si Hieu at VTM 2024
Nguyen Si Hieu 1
Champ of VTM 2023

Hold steady

Ultra trail running is not a contest of who is the fastest, but who can keep the steadiest pace. Therefore, I would recommend you maintain the pace for uphill and flat parts at a moderate level of exertion. When going downhill, raise your cadence, reduce your stride, and land as gently as possible.

Maintaining a moderate pace will also help you digest the food better. The reason is that digestion activities require a lot of blood running to the abdominal muscles and gastrointestinal smooth muscles. Balancing the blood need of the digestive system, muscles and skin for cooling/warming the body is very crucial in maintaining long-term endurance. 

The only way to know how to properly distribute your strength is to train regularly so that you can find your exact running thresholds. 

Focus 2: Manage your nutrition strategy

For ultra distances, energy supply can be considered the most important factor in successfully complete the race. 

The longer the race, the more important it is to fuel up. In my ultra races, I usually consume about 200kcalo/hour, mainly from drinking Tailwind powder and gels. 

For races of more than 10 hours, I will also have solid food at checkpoints or bring my own favorite. 

There are many kinds of food at VMM checkpoints so most runners can make use of that. It is essential for 70km, 100km and 100 miles runners to eat regularly and with small portions to prevent stomach issues. The longer the competition, the more energy you need. For even without doing anything, your body still requires three meals a day.   

Besides, the digestive system will have to work extra on ultra race days to absorb a large amount of food, so I usually take some liquid probiotics to enhance the process. 

I also increase my protein intake with Tailwind Recovery every 2-3 hours. Protein supplementation during ultra racing has become popular and has been proven to be very effective in reducing muscle pain and fatigue.  

Ultra training is not just about running, the digestive system also needs training. You can start by having some snacks during your weekly running sessions. 

I hope this information will be helpful to you, especially the ones who are now training for VMM 2024. See you all in Sapa this September! 

Nguyen Si Hieu at finish line VMM 2023
His wonderful expressions at the finish line, VMM 2023
Nguyen Si Hieu VMM 2023 finish line feeling
Multiple Vietnam Trail Series podium, Nguyễn Sĩ Hiếu

Well known in Vietnam as one of the nation’s best trail runners and a runner with one of the biggest smiles, Hieu has gone from strength to strength since he entered the sport in 2017. Here, we talk to him about his inspiration, training, goals and more. Read more: Q&A Nguyen Si Hieu