Get Ready to Get Dirty - Tips for Trail Running

There are many physiological benefits of running trails There are many physiological benefits of running trails

Training and racing on trails is a great challenge and fantastic fun. And there are many physiological benefits of running trails. However, for most people, trail running isn't always practical. Here are some great tips from running coach Matt Young on trail training alternatives.

Training on trails is beneficial for racing on trails

It goes without saying that training on trails is beneficial for racing on trails. If you have easy acess to trails, shoot for at least two runs per week on the trails (including your long run). There are many physiological benefits of running trails but the best benefit is simply experience that only time on the trail can bring.

Alternatives to trail running

However, for most people it’s not practical to run exclusively on trails. The good news is that trail racing doesn’t require that all of your training be done on trails. If you’re fortunate enough to have easy access to some kind of trail then use it as much as you can. But if not, here are some tip for preparing for a trail race:

Use a trail substitute - Parks, open fields, and any other grass terrain make great substitutes for actual trails. Run on the grass or dirt track to simulate the uneven terrain you’ll encounter on trails.

Try a Fartlek - funny name, great workout. A fartlek run helps to keep things interesting in training and helps you prepare for the rigors of the varying terrain of the trail. Fartlek is an unstructured form of speed work often done on varied or cross country terrain. During a moderate effort run, the runner varies their speed by periodically accelerating to harder efforts and then slowing back down to an easy effort. The object is to maintain an average level effort of about 80-85% of race effort. The surges push the effort to 90% or more and the slower paces are 75-80% for recovery. Fartlek is very effective simulation of passing and surging in races and is useful in building aerobic power and speed, especially on hilly terrain.

Long runs are the cornerstone to any plan - “Long” is relative to each runner and for trails it’s generally measured by time rather than miles. Your long run should be around 2 hours or more if you can get there safely. Your long runs should be completed without stopping because of important endurance and metabolic aspects of the long run that can only be obtained by continuous running. For example, one of the purposes of long runs is to deplete (or severely lower) muscle glycogen, your stored form of carbohydrates. When you deplete muscle glycogen, lots of interesting adaptations occur including the storage of more fuel in your muscles, greater reliance on fat by your muscles, and increased capacity of your liver to make more glucose for energy. Long runs also prepare your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments to handle the stress of running long races and callous you for the psychological fatigue that accompanies running for a long period of time.

Hit the Hills!!!!! - Hill repeats are ideal for preparing for a trail race or any other hilly race, but they also develop leg strength and efficiency. Even though some races have long sustained hills the training is best done with shorter repeats. Hill repeats accomplish several things including: 1) Building leg strength needed for hilly races 2) allowing you to practice good form that promotes efficiency 3) helping to prepare for downhill running to minimize impact, condition your legs, and work on "free" speed. Hill repeats should be done at an easy pace and not as a hard charging sprint. The point is to build strength and train your body to run hills as if you are in a race which means a steady and sustained climb. You will almost never sprint a hill in a race. So as you prepare for hills here are a few key elements:

  1. Always begin with 15-20 minutes of warm up and 15-20 minutes of cool down to reach your target mileage for the workout.
  2. To begin, each repeat should be 60 to 120 seconds long.
  3. The focus is on good form - running tall and lifting your way up the hills.
  4. Start the hill running easy and try to keep your effort relatively easy to the top.
  5. Down hills are for recovery and should be run and not walked. Relax your lower body, land your feet underneath, and pick up your feet so that they roll underneath you. You can get a lot of speed with very little effort.
  6. Start with 8-10 repeats and build to 16+ depending on the length of the hill.
  7. Try different hills - include a longer, sustained hill that isn’t as steep. This hill allows you run to the top and immediately come back down, lets your heart rate recover and provides work on downhill running. Include a second hill that is shorter and steeper at first and then flattens out at the top. Run to the top of the hill under control and then work on getting back in to race pace at the top. You want to hit the top of the hill and go back in to your normal pace instead of sucking wind.

Bringing it all together

Run trails when you can (because it’s fun) and don’t sweat it. Your training week could look something like this:

Monday: Rest

Tuesday: Warm up, hill repeats, cool down

Wednesday: Easy recovery

Thursday: Trails or grassy park run or fartlek (fartlek can be run on trails)

Friday: Easy or cross training (any exercise other than running)

Saturday: Long run on the trails (going for time not miles)

Sunday: Be flexible - easy run, cross train or rest

Matt Young

Matt Young is a Road Runner Club of America Certified Running Coach and owner of WV Run Coach. He is also the founder of the Genesis 5K Training Program. Matt's goal is to equip each runner with the knowledge and skills to take ownership of their own running career and success.