There is nothing I love more than pulling on my trail shoes on a summer’s day, and heading out onto the trails to see where they take me. A feast for the five senses: the spectacular views, or even if you’re on urban trails, the way the sunlight turns a wooded path into a glorious green cathedral of trees; the sound of the birdsong – I’ve heard a few woodpeckers on my local trails recently – and even the deafening sound of silence; the feeling of the warm sunshine on your skin, the breeze on your face and the soft ground beneath your feet; the smell of the flowers, and the manure; the taste of flies ….
Trail running can be the best kind of training there is, even if you are a road runner. Trails strengthen you up, and help you speed up – believe me, I trained for a road marathon last year with all my long runs on the trails, and knocked 33 minutes off my personal best (read about it here) so hitting those trails really can be worthwhile. But they come in many guises: flat, hilly, paths, grass, forest tracks, rocky, full of tree roots waiting to trip you up, and they can all be used as a useful part of your training. If you’ve never tried the trails before, this time of year is the best time to get out there and explore, with the dry conditions and the long evenings.
Here are my top tips for getting the most out of trail running.
If you’re new to trail running, these are the best place to start. There are miles and miles of towpaths, river paths and old railway lines converted into cycle paths that allow you to escape the monotony of the road and feel like you’re in the countryside, even in an urban area. If you’re used to road running, you’ll feel comfortable here, and can easily do interval training on a wide, flat trail. The beauty is that there are fewer roads to cross to break your stride for.
Accelerations into a powerful stride for 10 seconds, focusing on being upright, pumping your arms and lifting your knees up, then decelerate. Repeat x 10
A fartlek session – accelerate from one bench to the next, or choose a tree in the distance to run towards at your fastest effort. Hop over that log, or sprint to the bridge. Have some fun.
Grass is a great surface to run on because it’s more forgiving than concrete on your joints. Grass is a fantastic surface to try some barefoot running, which gives you a more natural running form than when you’re in cushioned shoes which can force our feet into a certain position. Grass is also great for practising running drills on, barefoot, to get the most out of them.
Trails are fantastic for strengthening you up because their uneven nature forces all your proprioceptors – those sensory receptors which provide information about balance, force and tension – to wake up from their concrete slumber and get working for you. Your brain is incredibly capable at figuring out where your feet need to land, so rather than looking at the ground where your feet are, and risk running face-first into a low hanging tree branch (been there, done that), run tall, scan the area ten metres in front of you, and trust in your feet. Keep your cadence – how quickly your feet are moving – fast and light, and soon you’ll be skipping over tree roots and rocks. Many people are fearful of twisting an ankle on terrain such as this, but as long as you’re keeping your feet light, and you keep moving, you shouldn’t experience any issues. This kind of running is a workout in itself, so don’t worry about your pace here – adjust your pace according to the natural terrain. Hills, mud, sand, rocks will all provide extra resistance so will feel tougher, so adjust your pace as necessary and enjoy yourself – this is fantastic race training if you speed up wherever the trail allows, and allow natural obstacles to provide resistance. Alternatively try choosing a shorter more technical section, and practice a few repetitions of running over tree roots and rocks – it’s a great mental workout as well as an exercise in agility.
Trails often have the best kind of hills, and the fact that they’re off-road brings additional strength-building benefits. Softer terrain underfoot forces your body to work harder with its balance and agility, as well as the power needed to propel you forward, as well as reducing your chances of injuries caused by repetitive road running. You’ll need fewer reps off road as the workout feels much more difficult.
A great running workout if you’re training for a 5 or 10k is 6 x (up/down/up/90 secs rest/down/up/down/60 secs rest) on a medium hill.
For short hill sprints, choose somewhere grassy with a good incline and ensure the running surface doesn’t have any trip hazards such as rabbit holes, grass tufts or hidden rocks. Short hills are great for sprints, to boost power, speed and really improve your running form. Straight up the hill for between 8-15 seconds, at max effort, then recover for around 2 minutes. Repeat anywhere between 10-30 times depending on your fitness and goals. Focus on your arm drive and high knees, with the hips kept high, so that you are ‘running tall’, not leaning forwards. Your recovery can be long, a walk back down the hill, or a slow jog of 60 to 90 seconds.
You won’t use as much power on long hills, but they certainly help build endurance, particularly if you’re training for a 10k upward. Aim for 8 x 3 minutes with a recovery jog back down that will take you around 5 minutes.
Don’t forget the downhill running either. Downhill running is great for building speed. Choose a hill with a safe surface though without trip hazards and try a few reps. Downhill running is also fantastic for reducing muscle soreness after a particularly tough workout as it uses the muscles in a different way.
So what are you waiting for? Get out and enjoy those trails while you can, and you’ll really see the benefit for your autumn races.
I originally wrote this post for Aussie Grit Apparel, and a three part version appears on their website.