Running 101 with World Champ Michael Fussell

Apr. 13, 2017

A few weeks ago, we were running over ice and snow. Now, we are slogging through mud, joyfully shedding layers and looking forward to summer. After all, longer days mean longer runs.

However, as XTERRA heats up and heads south for next weekend’s races at XTERRA Victoria Bryant (Royston, GA), XTERRA Myrtle Beach (Myrtle Beach, SC), and XTERRA ATX (Austin, TX) it’s important to respect the heat and train accordingly for warmer weather and increased humidity.

To dive deeper into this subject, we caught up with the 2016 XTERRA ATX Trail Run men’s champ Michael Fussell who will be heading to the race a day early this year, not to walk the course, but rather to provide medical assistance for the XTERRA ATX off-road triathlon held the day before.

“Most difficulties in a race come from not training properly,” said Fussell, a Registered Respiratory Therapist. “Neither the course nor the body lie. If you’re training at a nine-minute pace, you shouldn’t start running at an eight-minute pace just because it’s XTERRA Worlds.”

Fussell knows firsthand what he’s talking about. The 2016 55-59 division XTERRA Trail Run World Champion started running in the 1970’s when it wasn’t just a sport but a movement. Think Bill Bowerman, Steve Prefontaine, and Joanie Benoit. He set records at Hagerstown Junior College and the University of Georgia and raced against greats Frank Shorter, Bill Rogers, and Marty Liquori. In 1980, he was a rabbit for Alberto Salazar as he tried to break Pre’s 5K American record at the Martin Luther King games in Atlanta.

Currently, Fussell works as a consultant to a medical device company that provides therapy to a failing heart, helping restore a more normal function.

He measures the success of the device the same way he measured the success of the high school runners he used to coach: by recording VO2max, which is the maximum oxygen uptake by muscles during intense activity.

“VO2max is another way of saying cardiac output,” explained Fussell. “If you bring more oxygen-rich blood to the muscles, you have less lactic acid.”

Just as diseased hearts can become healthy again, normal hearts can become fitter and better able to handle the physiological stress of an endurance event. “And the better a body is at undergoing muscular stress, the easier it is to run faster in difficult conditions like heat or altitude.”

The bad news is that increasing fitness takes as long as it takes, which is anywhere from two weeks to acclimate to heat and altitude and three months to significantly increase VO2max.

“During the first 90 days of training, intensity has very little to do with improving fitness,” said Fussell. This is because it takes a minimum of 90 days for the body’s biological systems to react and adapt to new or additional stress. “Your body won’t respond faster than it can inherently respond.”

The good news is that we don’t have to kill ourselves to get stronger.

“Start where you are,” advised Fussell. “Run or jog at a pace so that you can carry on a complete conversation – not just a few words or half a sentence. Enjoy your time running, because you won’t continue something you don’t like. Whether you are just starting to run or you are running at a hotter time of day or in a warmer climate, go easy on yourself to avoid heat exhaustion, dehydration, and injury.”

Next, Fussell suggests signing up for a trail run. “Sign up for the 5K at XTERRA Victoria Bryant or XTERRA Myrtle Beach. Start small and see where you are. Test out your fitness by kicking the tires.”

Then, ask questions. “Everyone at an XTERRA trail run is there because they like trail running and healthy living. It’s a wonderful community and most runners want to share what they know and what they’ve learned.”

Fussell adds that most runners are happy to help you find trail shoes, locate running groups in your area, and share training tips.

Finally, Fussell recommends that runners sign up for an XTERRA regional series. “Most of the same people come to the races in a series and you’ll have a whole new set of friends. When you’re at that stage, fitness isn’t work but a lifestyle and something you will look forward to every day.”

Find an XTERRA race near you at

Trail Run
Tips for the Trail
Trail Run Series