Photo: Michael Wardian running on a trail in Marin, California
Michael Wardian trail running in Marin, California

Photograph by Tim Kemple, The North Face

By Kate Siber

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Runner Michael Wardian is a master of both road and trail running, with more than 150 marathons, 60 ultramarathons, and 20 triathlons under his belt. He has been the leading member of the U.S. 100K world championship team and has won races from the 50K North Face Endurance Challenge to marathons in San Francisco, Miami, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. He also holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon run in a superhero costume, which he clinched as Superman in the 2011 Lower Potomac Marathon.

1. TRAIN FOR TRAILS

Trail running takes a different skill set than jogging on roads, but it’s not hard to learn. “A lot of people say the only way to get good at running on trails is to run on trails, but a lot of us don’t live in the mountains,” says the Arlington, Virginia-based runner. “What I do is jump curbs or little fences or run on cobblestones just to break it up a bit.” Or take any little trail you find—it could peter out or connect two roads you never knew existed, says Wardian. The important part: Break up your strides so you’re landing on your feet differently, mimicking the hazards of trails.

2. MANAGE FEAR

On a quick lunch-break run last year, Wardian took a flying spill and wound up in the emergency room with a busted tooth and 12 stitches in his face. Still, he’s committed to learning how to run faster downhill. “You have to overcome that fear,” says Wardian. “You basically have to become comfortable with almost falling downhill and knowing that your feet are going to get there to catch you.” Practice will build confidence but there are also a few tricks that can help improve technique. First, don’t wear sunglasses while running trails, says Wardian, because dappled light can distort depth perception. Second, focus ten feet ahead on the trail. “When you’re running on bike paths, it’s easy to zone out and listen to your iPod,” he says. “But on technical trails, you have to pick your feet up.” Look about three strides ahead, and your feet will follow.

3. ATTACK YOUR WEAKNESSES

In 2009, Wardian returned to the 50-mile national trail-running championships to defend his title and had a reckoning. One competitor, a man who trained in the mountains, smoked him, gaining some 18 minutes in four uphill miles. “I ran the second fastest time ever on the course, and he broke the course record by like 20 minutes,” says Wardian. “I wasn’t running slow, but he didn’t slow down at all. I was like, hmmm, I’m not as good as I thought I was.” It’s a lesson we all could learn: Even the best runners have room for improvement. Pinpoint your own weaknesses by running with other people, whether it’s a race or with a local running club, then focus on improving, whether it’s climbing, descending, sprints, or endurance. “That’s what’s nice about running,” says Wardian. “Once you become good at one thing, there’s always something you can work to improve on.”

4. COMMIT TO A RACE

Wardian raced a mind-boggling 48 times in 2011, from Death Valley to South Africa, in search of the best competition he could find. But you don’t need to sign up for competitive races in order to reap the benefits of a game day. A race can give you something to focus on, an opportunity to be part of the running community, and a way to celebrate your training. “It’s cool to go out and run ten miles, but it’s really neat to run ten miles with 15,000 other people,” says Wardian. “Even if you’re not competitive, it’s pretty neat to be a part of that massive humanity moving toward the same goal.” Wardian suggests finding events, whether 5K races, marathons, or charity runs, on sites like marathonguide.com, active.com, and coolrunning.com.

5. CHANGE YOUR KICKS

It’s an age-old truth—repetitive motions can lead to overuse injuries—but Wardian has a novel and effective solution: Change up your shoes. “It keeps you from striking the same way,” says Wardian. “I love it, especially if you have the means to be able to get a couple different pairs.” He has a variety of shoes, including racing flats, hybrid road-and-trail shoes, burly trail runners, and even spring-loaded sneakers. Especially on days when he runs twice, Wardian switches up his kicks. “With different weights, you place your feet differently, and it helps keep it fresh.”

Next: "Barefoot" Running Tips >>

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