By now, most runners realize that strength training is an essential component of their routine. (If you don’t, consider yourself now properly informed: You should be strength training.) But if there’s a particular subgroup of runners that really needs to get to the gym, it may be the trail lovers. Running in the mountains or on unpaved paths is a much more primal and primitive experience—sharp, sudden dips, climbs, turns, and debris like tree stumps and rocks—that can trip up even the most experienced road racer. “Going off-road presents an unpredictable environment and it’s much easier to get hurt in those situations,” says trainer Mike Simone, founder of DigitalFitnessAdvisor.com and HumanFitProject.com. “Every step is a potential obstacle.” That’s certainly not to say you should stay away from the trails.
All those obstacles are packed with distinct advantages: “The more varied surface forces your body to engage the muscles in different ways as you navigate things like trees, rocks, roots, holes, and more,” says running coach Angie Spencer of the Marathon Training Academy. And beyond the physical, there are mental benefits to be had. “Trail running requires that you take your focus off of pace and put it in on effort, which creates a better mind-body connection,” says Spencer.
But you can’t expect that simply logging more miles off the beaten path will boost your immunity to injury. “Strength training and mobility work is really the main way to mitigate that risk,” says Simone. This plan, created by Simone, builds strength where you need it most: “We start by bolstering the most vulnerable joints and then strengthen the muscles that support and protect them, from the feet all the way up to the glutes and core,” says Simone. “Additionally, these moves test and enhance your balance and proprioception—both key skills for trail runners.” Complete this workout two to three times a week on nonconsecutive days, choosing a weight that is challenging but allows you to complete all the reps with proper form.
1. Knee-to-Wall Ankle Drill
It’s easy to twist an ankle on the trail, but if they’re adaptable and able to move through proper range of motion, it’s less easy. This drill will help you develop that. “Start with your toe right up against the wall and as you get more mobile, move it further away by a few inches at a time,” Simone advises. You should be able to touch the wall with your knee but your heel just barely remains on the ground.
DO IT: Start with both hands and toes of your right foot up against a wall, left foot about a foot behind you, toes also pointing forward. Slowly start to bend your right knee until it grazes the wall, pause, then return to start. Do 8 to 10 reps, then repeat on the other side. Complete 2 sets.
2. Lying Scorpion
“Proper mobility in the hips and spine, which this move encourages, will ensure you can safely move through full range of motion when running on uneven terrain that requires your joints to work in varied and unique ways,” says Simone. “If you don’t have that proper mobility, other joints and muscles could end up overcompensating, leading to injury.” This is also a great way to bridge the warm-up and the workout.
DO IT: Start facedown with forehead resting on hands. Lift right leg off the ground as high as you can and then, rotating from the hip and bending slightly at the knee, lower leg to the opposite side of your body, aiming to tap the foot on the ground. Pause, then reverse the movement to return to start. Complete 2 to 3 sets of 3 to 5 reps per side.
3. Plank Row
“When you’re on uneven terrain, your core needs both qualities—stabilization and strength—to protect your joints from damage and to help you maintain balance and run your best,” says Simone.
DO IT: Start in a push-up position with feet out wide and with a dumbbell in each hand. Row your left arm up to your side while bracing all the muscles of your core, trying to keep your body centered. Return the weight to the ground and immediately repeat on the other side. That’s one rep. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
4. Single-leg Plyometric Lateral Hop
When running on uneven surfaces you don’t know what you’re going to step on, over, or in. “This type of hop preps you to be nimble and stabilizes your knees, while working your proprioception and balance,” says Simone.
DO IT: Start balancing on your left foot with a slight bend at the knee and bring your right foot slightly elevated behind your body. Using your arms for momentum and balance, jump from the left foot to the right, immediately bringing the left foot up and behind you. That’s one rep. Continue, alternating sides for 6 to 8 reps. Do 3 sets.
5. Single-Arm Dumbbell Front Squat
A study in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that when runners run on uneven terrain, they work two quad muscles in particular (vastus medialis and rectus femoris) more so than they do on flat ground. “This move helps ensure all of your quads are up for the challenge, plus further strengthens the core,” says Simone.
DO IT: Stand with your feet just outside shoulder-width, holding a dumbbell at your right shoulder. Keeping the dumbbell in place, slowly lower down into a squat until your quads reach about 90 degrees. Return to start for one rep. Do 6 to 8, then repeat on the other side. Complete 3 sets.
6. Single-Leg Deadlift
While quad strength is important, strengthening your posterior chain is possibly even more so. “Since you work your quads more while actually running, it’s easy to get imbalanced and end up with weak glutes and hamstrings,” says Simone. Strengthening them will ward off injury and this move also adds in a balance component and works on stabilizing the knees.
DO IT: Start standing on your left leg with a slight bend at the knee, dumbbells in each hand at your sides, right leg slightly off the floor. Slowly hinge at the hips to lower the dumbbells towards the ground (maintaining a slight bend at the knee), bringing the right leg straight out behind you aiming for parallel. Return to start for one rep. Do 10 to 12, then repeat on the other side. Complete 3 sets.
7. Glute Bridge with Dumbbell
“Runners—especially trail runners—have to have strong glutes; it’s important for the integrity of the hip and knee joints,” says Simone. “While a lot of the other exercises we have touched on glute activation, this move really zeros in on it, especially when you add an extra isometric hold at the top.”
DO IT: Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, hold a dumbbell with both hands against your quads just above your hip crease. Brace your core and bring your hips up as high as you can. Pause for 2 seconds while squeezing your glutes as hard as possible. Return to start. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.
“Just as we did with the single-leg deadlift, we’re continuing to work one side at a time—intentionally since runners naturally do this in their sport—here with the step-ups,” says Simone. This will further strengthen the glutes and eliminate any muscular imbalances in the hips and knees. “I recommend high-box step-ups one week and lower-box step-ups the next, alternating between the two. Because of the unknowns of the terrain, you may have higher steps, lower steps, and everything in between, so you really want to work the muscles in all possible scenarios.”
DO IT: Start holding dumbbells at your sides, right foot on top of a box or step. Brace your core and drive your weight through the heel of your raised foot while focusing on your glutes. Come to a standing position without letting your left foot meet the right, and immediately return to start and repeat for 10 to 12 reps. Do 3 sets.
Heel and Toe Walks
Your ankle is going to be in plantar flexion or dorsiflexion throughout the entirety of your run. “This exercise exaggerates those motions, helping to strengthen nearly every single muscle of the lower legs and feet,” says Simone.
DO IT: Stand on both heels with your toes raised as high as possible. Walk 20 to 30 paces. Then rise up onto your toes with your heels as high as possible and walk 20 to 30 paces. Complete 2 to 3 sets.
How to Prep for Other Unbalanced Surfaces
Running on sand fires up smaller stabilizing muscles in your core and lower body, which increases overall muscle activation and makes every step more challenging. But the granular, varying texture—particularly the supersoft stuff—can also put extra pressure on knees, Achilles tendons, calves, ankles, and hips, says Spencer. “It’s best to start gradually with low miles and slowly work up to longer distances as your body tolerates it,” she says. “And try to find harder-packed sand (near the water’s edge) because this won’t have as much instability.”
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Lace up in historic cities like Boston and Philadelphia and you’ll likely find yourself running down a few of these classic stone roads. “These are one of the most tricky to navigate,” says Spencer. Prepping for a race with cobblestones but live in an area that doesn’t have any? Vary your running surface—think: sidewalks, asphalt, gravel, grass, and trails—as much as possible during long runs. “Changing things up in this way helps train your brain, joints, and muscles into a state of greater awareness,” says Spencer. “You’ll also learn how your running shoes respond to an uneven surface,” says Spencer.
On the plus side, the wood surface is gentler than pavement yet firmer than a sandy or grassy surface, and tends to be separated from traffic, giving you a peaceful place to jog. The downside? Boards can be unstable and unevenly placed, which are near-impossible to identify until you’re literally running over them. The planks can also become super slick when wet. Your best line of defense is a light, careful step and a chilled-out pace. (Yep, this is not the type of surface for speedwork.) Keep your eyes a few steps ahead to scan for signs of loose, warped, or wet boards so you can hop around them.