Pacing tips for Otter African Trail Run

Save your Smarties

by Ryan Hodierne, Sports scientist, top 10 Otter finisher, and Otter African Trail Run coach.

Dom Wills finds yet another climb, this time out of Bloukrans River in the 2013 Otter. Photo: Jacques Marais/Sony

Not *another* one?! Dom Wills finds yet another climb, this time out of Bloukrans River in the 2013 Otter. Photo: Jacques Marais/Sony

So you want to be stronger at the end of the classic east to west Otter Trail Run route? Here’s how, but first, check out the challenges that make it such a fearsome course to run:

The flat sections toward the end of the Otter African Trail Run, that 42km up-and-down epic along the gazillion stairs of the spectacular Garden Route’s Tsitsikamma National Park are the nemesis of most runners, including me. By that time I am absolutely poked – but that is possibly primarily due to my lack of specific training distance and terrain.

It’s crucial to save your legs in the beginning. Walk the climbs steadily and don’t expend too much effort. Keep your heart rate down.

Save half of your Smarties for the final third of the race. This will require going through halfway with relative ease. The only way you can do that is by having a decent training base and to be technically sound on the rough stuff. You can lose a lot of time in the final stretch if you work too hard through the first two thirds.

Try your very best to run your own race. Don’t get caught up racing other people. The telling factor here is to run your prologue the day before cleverly. Run too hard and you set yourself up for failure; run too slow, and you will struggle to settle down en route, as you will keep catching people who slow you down. The idea is to run the prologue the day before at maximum speed but with minimal effort.

If you have been working on your skills over technical terrain like pebbles, sand, between low-lying branches and over roots, and feel better here, you are guaranteed to shave a considerable amount of time off. Fitness counts, but fitness with added technical skills and an efficient ability over the rough stuff counts the most.


The Otter is not about speed

by André Gie, Otter 2010 winner.

Andre Gie's face says it all at the end of one of the early Otter African Trail Runs. Photo: Jacques Marais/Sony

Andre Gie’s face says it all at the end of one of the early Otter African Trail Runs. Photo: Jacques Marais/Sony

If you look at the times run, (which are frikking crazy impressive these days by the way), the Otter is not a race about speed. If you can average just over six minutes a kilometre, you will go sub four hours, and take a lot of cash from the organisers.

Let me reiterate: the Otter is not about speed. It’s about rhythm and strength.

Look for a rhythm. The course changes constantly and whoever finds that rhythm will run a great race. A good mantra is “fast is smooth, and smooth is fast”. You should not feel that you are putting in effort. Relax.

Get strong. The course is up and down, over and over again. The singletrack and coastal sections will make you feel like a wet noodle if you haven’t done your homework. You don’t need gym or core training, just do fun stuff on unstable surfaces. Technical trail running and hiking, rock climbing, paddling, and surfing will all make you strong.

Train in the environment. If I have time to do stuff, I’ll rather do something rad and outdoors. I do climb and used to paddle lots (paddling in my opinion is the best extra training a runner can do, but the paddling in Cape Town isn’t as rad as Knysna). For leg strength, I’d rather hike and scramble up steep stuff than do lunges, thank you.

Need a strength boost? If you really feel the need to do extra strength, just do something that requires carrying a pack uphill. Trad climbing is the business for this. Carry 10kg or more of gear up steep hills beats squats every day.

book cover training for the new alpinismStudy strength tweaks. For the most epic book on training, read Training for the New Alpinism, by Steve House and Scott Johnston. Best training book for any outdoor athlete to read.

Aim for efficiency. Find out where your tipping point is with running and walking. Often it’s quicker overall to walk sections that are uphill so that you are fresh for the runnable sections.

Train on trail. Don’t do too much on the road. A frikking strong hike ability is much more important than leg speed.

Don’t dehydrate. Cool yourself off at every opportunity.

Don’t carry too much. A small pack helps to eliminate unnecessary gear. Consider a pack-vest, which fits close and makes running technical terrain easier.

Get shoes that are low to the ground. For me, Salomon’s S-Lab Sense/Sense Pro models are the way forward.

Good vibes and high fives!


Hill repeats: only cure for Otter Bite?

by Kane Reilly, best times: 2012 Retto (5th overall in 4h48min) and 2013 Otter (4th in 4h28min).

Kane Reilly Otter Trail Bloukrans River

Kane Reilly has been moving closer to a podium in recent years, and 2015 may be his year, according to former Otter winners. Photo: Jacques Marais/Sony

The 42km distance of the Otter’s pristine Garden Route trail is not what delivers the infamous Otter Bite. It’s the many short, steep, and often stepped climbs that do.

With an aggressive up-down-up-down route profile that resembles nothing else you’ll find in SA, it’s important you approach training differently.

Vertical matters. In your training in these last weeks to the event, focus on vertical gain, not only kilometres covered. Whether you’re running, walking, or crawling, perfect uphill practice makes perfect. Personally, I think that judging intervals on vertical metre gain rather than time or distance is a good idea. Do sets of intervals between 50m and 100m vertical gain. Try adding one of these sets into your week over the next six weeks. It will go a long way to getting you conditioned for the Otter climbs.

Get conditioned for what’s coming. Try adding some short hill repeats to your training which simulate the steep stepped Otter climbs.

Find climbs that simulate Otter’s. (There are anything from 7-11 significant climbs, depending on whose measure you use – Ed). Look for local climbs that are stepped and preferably extremely steep.

Race day tips. Once they hit you (and you will appreciate the deliberate use of hit – Ed), embrace the climbs. The more you enjoy a climb, the smoother it’ll be. This doesn’t mean attack them all! The classic ‘don’t overcook the beginning’ applies here. Climb within yourself, and embrace every step that comes your way.

Power hike or run, that is the question. I think the running versus power hiking choice is highly individual. Some athletes power hike a lot tactically, but personally I prefer to run slowly up climbs, taking small steps. The key isn’t whether you are hiking or running, but rather that you aren’t burning too much fuel too early in the race. If you feel your heart rate is getting too high, hiking is a good idea.

Podium pressure? Nah. Eleven months ago I just wasn’t sure what kind of running I’d be able to do again. So I’m just stoked to be running Otter!

Kit you recommend. I’ll be running in Salomon’s loose-fitting shorts, The Salomon Sense 4 hard grounds (perfect for the forest and coastal terrain), with a three-litre Salomon S-Lab hydration pack.







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TRAIL magazine became South Africa’s first print publication dedicated to the booming worldwide activity of trail running in December 2011. Since then it has enlightened its growing readership with the best places to run, the most suitable gear and the most popular trail running events from every angle; visiting the Himalayas, Sahara Desert, Amazon and many local trails, including the famed Otter African Trail Run and the arduous Skyrun. Now a bi-monthly (from March/April 2014), TRAIL retails for R45 (print) and R30 (digital special rate) and is available in one and two-year subscriptions (R195 for six issues, one year). In the Mar/Apr 2014 issue, you can: Win a 1,600 lumen LED Lenser X21 torch worth R5,000 when you subscribe! Go into the draw to win a TomTom Runner GPS sports watch worth over R2200 (you get double points when you enter the obligatory Reader Survey). Get a 32Gi Foodbar worth R25 posted to you (or given to you at Two Oceans Marathon Expo in April) when you subscribe.

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