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Pro Ultrarunner Tim Tollefson’s Key Workout

It helped get him to a third-place finish at the 2016 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.

Marathoner-turned-ultrarunner Tim Tollefson nears the 100-mile point of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in the French Alps in 2016. He finished third. Peignee Verticale/Timothee Nalet

So many spectators wanted to high-five Tim Tollefson, a pro ultrarunner from Mammoth Lakes, California, at last summer’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc that he almost forgot to cross the finish line. Trail-running fans—who are far more numerous in Europe than in the United States—packed the streets of Chamonix, France, to watch the end of the high-altitude race, one of the most prestigious off-road ultras in the world. After climbing more than 33,000 feet over 106 miles, Tollefson notched an impressive third-place finish. “It was magical,” he says.

Tollefson may never have enjoyed this moment, however, if he had run 29 seconds faster at the 2013 California International Marathon: His time (2:18:29) missed the 2:18 required at that time to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. He tried twice more over the next two years, falling short of 2:18 both times. “I’d always wanted to venture into the trail world, but it never made sense,” Tollefson says. “Missing the standard was the perfect opportunity to explore that route.”

Tollefson’s shift to the trails brought immediate gratification. In his first off-road race and his first ultramarathon, the 2014 USA 50K Trail Championship, he won with a course record of 3:24:05. He quickly became one of the most competitive American trail runners on the world stage, placing eighth in his first international 50-miler less than three months later and second in his first 100K the following year.

Marathoner-turned-ultrarunner Tim Tollefson nears the 100-mile point of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in the French Alps in 2016. He finished third.

“Tim loves being out in nature by himself; he thrives on that solitude,” says Tollefson’s coach, Mario Fraioli. “He was looking for something new to rekindle his competitiveness.”

A significant change in training or racing can freshen up anyone’s running, Fraioli says.

Doing the same kinds of workouts training cycle after training cycle can result in plateaus

and maybe injury—even if you’re adjusting those workouts as you get fitter.

“Using the muscles in the same manner with every stride, every workout, can lead to problems,” says Tollefson, who is a physical therapist and physiologist at the Mammoth Performance Lab.

Variation may also increase motivation, which translates to better physical outcomes: You’ll bring more energy and effort to a workout you’re excited about. “Changing to a different distance, a different kind of running—those sorts of things refresh the brain,” says Sean McCann, Ph.D., a senior sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

And shifting from roads to trails, as Tollefson did, is only one way to reap the benefits of a change-up.

Of course, if you can’t seem to get into a routine, your big change may simply mean committing to consistency. “Any one workout won’t make or break you,” says Run SMART Project coach and former pro runner Malindi Elmore. “Getting out the door more days than not ultimately makes for good performances.”

Tim Tollefson’s Key Workout

What: Repeats of a technical climb and descent, both at tempo pace

Why: To prepare the body for muscular damage from hard downhills and the brain for the grind of long climbs

When: Every other week in place of a longer tempo run, stopping three weeks before race day

How: Run up a trail with a 12 to 15 percent grade for three miles. (You’ll gain 2,000 to 2,500 feet.) Descend the same route, keeping a comfortably hard effort level. Do this circuit one to three times. Start and finish with 20 minutes of easy running.

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