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A Trail Runner’s Survival Guide to Running Roads

Whether you're traveling or live in a place with limited access to trails, here’s how to survive—and thrive—while running roads.

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We know that trail runners are happiest on dirt. But certain circumstances can make it difficult to always run those sweet ribbons of single-track or the even wide dirt paths you love, meaning you have to trade trail running for road running.

For one, today’s global pandemic makes social distancing on popular trails difficult, especially when more people than ever are heading out for hikes and trail runs. The current situation might lead you to run more pavement than you’d like, as running down the middle of neighborhood streets from home makes it easier to maintain the recommended six feet of social distance (and also eliminates traveling to trailheads).

Plus, let’s face it: Not everyone lives in a trail mecca, and even the most hardcore trail runners are forced to roads in an urban environment or while traveling. With these circumstances in mind, we put together this primer.

We talked to Jason Koop, head coach for CTS-Ultrarunning, on the topic. Koop, a decorated ultrarunner himself, has coached many trail athletes to success with less than ideal miles spent off-road. For one, he coached Kaci Lickteig to a win in the 2016 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run training on a concrete bike path in Omaha, Nebraska.

RELATED: How Kaci Lickteig Won Western States

How to Survive Roads

1. Don’t Worry

“First things first,” says Koop. “Fitness is fitness, and it’s always going to be the biggest driving factor of success in any running event.” Koop says that he often tells his athletes who are confined to more urban areas and are training for mountainous trail events that they can be successful by training on roads.

That said, it might take more effort for a trail runner who regularly runs challenging trails to mimic the varying intensity they’re used to. And so…

2. Be Deliberate

“When you run on trails, your effort is never consistent,” says Koop. “You work slightly harder up hills, slightly less hard downhill. And your musculoskeletal system has an easier time running uphill, and a harder time running downhill.” For those reasons, Koop recommends being intentional with your road runs by, firstly, not always running the same pace on the same routes.

“Make sure you have some intensity distribution if you’re running on the road,” says Koop. That means mixing in some speed work…but not necessarily because the faster turnover will help you once you return to trails, according to Koop. “It’s more about the cardiovascular element,” he says, “especially for ultrarunners.”

Koop is a fan of doing speed work on an incline. “You get more cardiovascular development if you do it uphill, and you can use it as a little bit of a hedge against injury,” he advises. “Since ground-reaction forces aren’t as great going uphill, the slope reduces overall forces on your body.”

He adds that any sort of variation in terms of uphill and downhill on roads is helpful from an injury-prevention perspective.

RELATED: What Matters (and What Doesn’t) the Days Before a Race

3. Find Those (Paved) Hills

Just as running hard uphill will help you keep—or develop—a strong cardiovascular system, Koop explains how running downhill on pavement keeps your body ready for the downhill of trails, as well. He says running a couple minutes downhill will do more for a runner than contriving the pounding of running by doing eccentric exercises at home.

4. Don’t Overdo the Downhill Efforts

Avoid running hard downhill more than you need to. “If you’re stuck on the roads and you’re training for Hardrock, for instance, do maybe one session of hard downhill running every four or five weeks.” More than that, he explains, and you increase your risk for injury.

“You get big bang for buck by doing specific downhill work that incorporates intensity maybe once a month,” says Koop. “And I’m talking 4 to 6 minutes of downhill work. Sixty minutes isn’t better.” Koop points to Dakota Jones, who, in 2018, broke the record for the downhill descent portion of the Pikes Peak Marathon. “I never, not once, had him do a specific downhill hard session,” says Koop. “At most, on 4 x 10-minute training intervals, two of those minutes out of each interval were descents.”

You may not be a pro runner looking to set a record, but you get the point.

5. Heed This Gear Tip

“Shoe rotation becomes more important on roads than trails,” says Koop. “Tracking the miles in your shoes is more important when you’re running pavement because trail surfaces are more forgiving.”

6. Do Maintenance

With Stay-at-Home and Safer-at-Home orders in effect across much of the country, now’s a great time to get into a nightly maintenance routine. “Get out the foam roller, the TPT ball, and roll out tight muscles,” says Koop. Plus, if your body’s used to the softer surfaces of trails, you might need a little extra self-TLC from running roads.

And, maintenance includes strength training. Koop is in favor of air squats.“I think doing a squat is more effective than holding a plank because it incorporates more muscles needed for running,” he says.

RELATED: How Much Do You Really Need To Taper?

7. Get Balanced

“Only if you’re a relatively new trail runner or beginning runner do you need to do some balance work to get over the initial hump of having to focus on stepping over rocks and roots once you do return to trails,” says Koop, who adds that any single-leg balancing at home will do the trick. “If you run trails consistently, that all comes back pretty quickly when you return to the dirt.”

Which, hopefully, is sooner than later. But for now, if you find yourself running down the middle of paved streets instead of meandering on your favorite singletrack, following Koop’s advice will help.


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