After returning from nearly three weeks off of running while in Italy, I’ve had more fun on the trails than I have in a long time.

It could be in part because I’m not feeling the pressure of training for a particular race, or it could be because I’m still exploring the trails outside my new home in Black Mountain, NC (just outside Asheville).

But I think more than anything it’s because I’m feeling strong. Possibly stronger than I ever have before.

Coming off all the training that went into the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100, followed by a nice long mental and physical break, my mind and body feel refreshed and ready to take on new challenges.

I have ideas for a few races this summer and fall, and plans for other big outings both in NC and out west, so I’d love to know exactly what kind of shape I’m in right now and where I should be focusing my efforts over the next few months.

The problem is, even though I feel strong, I have no way of knowing what kind of shape I’m actually in. No easy way to gauge what my progress has been over the past several months.

And it’s my own fault.

Since moving to Black Mountain, I’ve been terrible at tracking my training stats effectively.

Why It’s Important to Start Tracking Progress

I’m usually guilty of getting so caught up in a training plan that I don’t pay attention to what’s happening outside of the workout currently in the queue.

If it’s a long run, that’s what I’m focused on. If it’s a hill workout, that’s what I’m thinking about.

If I’m good, I’ll write down the data from that run. If I’m not so good, it’ll sit on my GPS watch for months never to be looked at again.

But relying solely on what your training plan tells you isn’t the best way to get stronger and faster.

We should be checking in on ourselves regularly to know where we’re improving and where we’re struggling to keep up:

  • Am I getting stronger at climbing hills?
  • Am I running faster on the flats?
  • Am I smoother on the downhill?
  • Am I more comfortable on rough terrain?
  • Is my endurance improving at the rate it should be?

These are all questions we should be able to answer throughout training.

Knowing not only where we’re improving, but also where we aren’t means that you can focus directly on your weaknesses.

Addressing those weakness, while staying within the confines of your training plan, will make you stronger and keep you healthier than running set miles and workouts without knowing where you stand.

Why It’s Particularly Important for Trail Runners

This might not be a popular statement for some runners, but road running is much more consistent than trail running.

What I mean by that is that a road course, even one with some decent hills, is nearly guaranteed to have a few similar characteristics across the board:

  • They will have sure footing
  • They will have stretches of straightaways
  • They will have flat sections
  • The climbs will not be as steep as many trail climbs

Because of this it’s easier to compare results between road routes and races than it is trail routes and races. Sure, their are going to be flatter and faster courses, but if someone tells you they ran a 3:30 marathon, even if you don’t know the course, you’re able to ballpark what kind of runner they are.

Trail running isn’t that simple. Trails vary so significantly with footing, grade, and elevation, that hearing someone say they ran a 6:00 50k means nothing unless you know a little about the course.

That also means that it’s hard for you to track your own progress, even if you’re racing several times throughout the year. You might feel strong, or weak, but without being able to truly match up your progress against something of equal difficulty, it’s hard to be certain.

The Base Route Approach to Tracking Running Progress

There are a few different ways for tracking progress, but today I’m going to talk about my favorite, which can easy be applied to both trail and road runners.

I call it the Base Route approach.

This approach is pretty simple if you follow these 3 steps:

Step 1: Establish a base training route. Roughly 5-7 miles in length for endurance runners.

A good base route should include:

  1. At least one long climb and decent.
  2. A section of flatter terrain where you can pick up speed.
  3. If trail running, a more technical/rocky section

Step 2: Over two weeks, run this route twice at a “hard” pace, noting your time at end of all the major sections.

For example, note:

  1. The time it took to reach the top of a climb
  2. The time along flat stretch
  3. Your overall time

Include any others that make sense for your route. The average of these two test runs will act as the starting point for your tracking.

Step 3: Test yourself on the exact same route two times per month.

Record your progress for each section, comparing it to previous tests. Note how you were feeling that day, the weather conditions, etc.

If you aren’t improving each week, don’t let that get you down. It’s impossible to continuously get faster every week. But you should be noticing improvements over time.

Use the data you’ve recorded after each test run to see where you’re improving and where you aren’t. For example, if you notice that you’re getting faster on the flats but not the hills, shift your training to include more climbing.

Being Competitive With Yourself is a Good Thing

The other, and possibly more exciting benefit of having a Base Route is that you can be competitive.

With yourself.

I love racing against myself up a major climb or seeing just how fast I can run a particular route. That self competition pushes me to get better and run stronger, and it’s also more than a little gratifying when I succeed.

Over the next several weeks I’ll set a few Base Routes on my new local trails. I’ll track my progress, adjust my training, and push myself towards improvements and new PRs.

Something I should have done immediately following the move.

Call for Comments: Do you have a base route or other way to track your progress throughout training? Have you found them helpful?

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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2 thoughts on “How to Track Your Running Progress (And Why You Should Start Today)

  1. This is such a great idea. I often run the same routes and actually timing myself and working toward some goals is going to make it so much more fun! Thank you for the challenge!

  2. I actually run the same route all of the time but never thought to “race” with myself. I’m coming off an injury so it will be awhile before I’m back to my old pace but I could note where I’m at now and see the improvement.

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