Adaptability on the Trail

by Martin J. Trout

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but rather, that which is most adaptable to change.”

This phrase is often attributed to Charles Darwin but was actually pronounced by the American business professor Leon Meggison. His aim was clearly to draw a parallel between Darwin’s central thesis concerning the evolution and survival of a species and that of industrial complexes, companies and models.

If you do not adapt to changing conditions you will not survive

And how true can we see this phrase to be, not only in our everyday life, but more particularly in our questionable activity of trail running and competition. Let’s face it, something is going to go wrong on the trails. Maybe not every time but according to Sod’s law it’s going to happen in exactly the moment that we really don’t need it to go wrong, and if not dealt with in the appropriate way will almost certainly ruin our experience.

Adaptability can be defined as the combination of flexibility with versatility

Flexibility is your willingness to adapt and is characterized by confidence, tolerance and positivity. That is to say your psychological reaction to the changed or changing situation.

Versatility on the other hand is your ability to adapt, and can be summarized as a high level of resilience, a vision of what can be done, attentiveness to the task on hand and competence.

Adaptability can be developed

An athlete with a high level of adaptability whether innate or deliberately practiced will be able to take on the situation, find a solution, deal with it and move forwards.

Low adaptability on the other hand acts as an outlet to system failure. The athlete with low adaptability will experience any problem as an excuse, as something external, which can be blamed for a poor performance. It can be used as a route of escape in an unpleasant and trying situation, and lead to a negative trail experience. One that as trail runners we try our best to avoid as we saw here in our article on how to aim for a perfect day on the trails.

Positive thought process

Visualisation is often propounded as a useful pre-race tool. We are told to imagine ourselves running down the final descent or coming over the crest of the final climb, or of powerfully walking up the steepest of climbs. This is a way of creating positive thoughts and emotions about the race. But it can also be useful to visualize the various scenarios in which things could go wrong. Imagine what may happen and then create a solution for that, thereby creating positive pathways for flexibility and versatility.

iRunFarMedia Video of Darcy Africa winning the 2013 Hardrock 100 (USA).
In addition, this clip contains Adam Hewey’s hunched-over inspirational 2013 Hardrock 100 finish (starting at 1:09). An example of how adapting to a condition on the Trails can enable us to overcome immediate difficulties. Hewey having suffered a physical setback during the race,  analyzed and judged his situation, and adapted by modifying his stance and using a prop, going on to conclude Hardrock.
Find out more about the intrepid trail runner in our interview with Adam Hewey where we discuss his Italian experiences.

Three different situations

#1 What happened: One of my athletes complained after the Cortina Trail Race (48km, 2600m+) that his race companion had forgotten his water bottles at home, and therefore they had done the whole race with only two half liter bottles between them.
Adaptability: If they had been adaptable they could have gone into any bar and purchased two half liter plastic bottles of water or even bottles of sports drinks. They wouldn’t have been perfect, but at least they would have had more bottles to fill up at the aid stations.

#2 What happened: Similarly a friend explained to me that due to a pole breaking in the middle of a long race (the TDS in France, 120km, 7200m+) he hadn’t been able to perform as he had wished and that he had suffered on the long climbs.
Adaptability: I showed him how long pieces of duct tape could be wound around the body of the pole before a race, and then used in exactly such emergencies to repair the poles or indeed anything that might break during a race, such as the sole of a shoe, a hole in a water bottle or a tear in a back pack. In extreme cases it can also be used to cover a blister. In this case visualization of potential problems and finding a solution a priori is the key adaptation.

#3 What happened: The batteries in my headlamp gave up on me during the nighttime part of a race while I was in a very dark and black forest, on a particularly moonless night. I got out my spare batteries and after much fiddling around I managed to replace the spent ones. Then I realized my spares were dead as well. What an idiot! What could I do? Sit there till morning or find a way to get to the next aid station and beg for batteries.
Adaptability: As a fellow runner came past I latched on behind him. The lighting wasn’t perfect but I was moving in the right direction. After a while I lost him so I waited for a new runner and repeated. Finally I got to the aid station and the kindest of volunteers gave me some batteries, which let me finish the race. I may not have finished in the position or time, which I desired, but at least I finished.

Being prepared to adapt and deliberately practicing the key components of flexibility and versatility will help you to make sure that your trail experiences are positive rather than negative.

Martin John Trout
Martin Trout is an all round Adventurer, an accomplished ultra runner, mountaineer, ski mountaineering instructor and trail running coach at Endurance Training in Progress. He’s been living in Italy since the 1990’s.