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Three Essentials Trail Runners Can Learn From Road Runners

In The Performance Corner, our expert strength running coach Jason Fitzgerald explains that training regimens for road racing have been honed to a science, and trail runners can learn a lot from them about improving performance.

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Around the world, trail running is becoming more and more popular. Who knew that natural beauty, stunning landscapes, and the absence of cars would be exciting for runners?!

According to the International Track and Field Federation, there have been an estimated 20 million participants in the sport of trail running since 2010. From 2013 to 2019, the International Trail Running Association counted more than 25,700 races in 195 countries with nearly 2 million participants. Clearly, trail running is here to say.

As the sport grows and evolves, the way that athletes approach the unique nature of trail races is also evolving. Many trail runners spend all of their time off-road, running gnarly terrain and getting a lot of “time on feet” on trails. But is that the best way to prepare for a trail race? 

While many training fundamentals stay the same (e.g., running a relatively high volume, prioritizing aerobic development, and including strength training), there are things we can learn from our peers on the road. Sanctioned road racing has been with us for decades longer than official trail races and we can certainly learn many valuable insights from this similar, but still different, discipline.

Tip #1: Don’t Ignore Speed.

Many trail races are ultramarathons on technical terrain at high altitude. In other words, compared to road racing, they’re relatively slow. But even for these types of races, speed workouts have their place. Fast workouts are part of the puzzle of putting together a peak performance. 

That’s because even if we don’t use the raw speed we gain from faster workouts, other aspects of speed training translate beneficially to the trails.

Those benefits include:

  • Improved coordination as you learn how to run smoother while running faster
  • Increased power output (great for running hills)
  • Better running economy (in other words, you’ll run the same effort with less energy)
  • Improved confidence (knowing you can go fast – even if you don’t use that speed – helps improve your outlook on what you are capable of achieving)

Faster workouts increase your “maximum ability” – the total amount of what you’re capable of. Even if you never use your newfound speed, your physiology won’t know that. You’ll have reserves of ability waiting for you when you need them most.

If you haven’t done any speed workouts recently, you can start with strides, hill workouts, or short time-based repetitions (fartlek training is particularly helpful to ease into harder training sessions).

RELATED: Anytime, Anyplace Trail Running Workouts

Most trail runners don’t need to do a lot of faster workouts, so prioritize your overall volume and long run first. A moderately difficult speed session once per week is a great place to get the benefits of running fast without overdoing it.

trail running drills
(Photo: Gabin Vallet/Unsplash)

Tip #2: Remember to Train Your Nervous System.

Road runners care about speed. And a big component of speed is training the nervous system to produce it in the first place. The neuromuscular connection between our brain and muscles is vitally important. It helps us run fast, improves our form, and helps boost our running economy.

But most trail runners don’t train the nervous system the way road or track athletes do. The first step is to add simple neuromuscular work to your program like form drills and strides. Choose drills that involve a variety of movement patterns that challenge you to move differently than you normally do. Some of my favorites include:

  • A-skip
  • B-skip
  • Carioca
  • Straight-leg pawbacks
  • Skips

Unfamiliar with these exercises? No problem. They’re all demonstrated in the video below.

Completing a set of 3 form drills 1-2 times per week (say, before your workout and long run) is an easy way to train the nervous system as you’re preparing for races.

Strides and other short, fast workouts (like hill sprints, accelerations, or repetitions under 30-45 seconds) all help improve leg speed, confidence, and neuromuscular coordination without a lot of injury risk.

RELATED: Tired of Your Strength Program? Here Are 4 Ways to Level Up.

Tip #3: Be Specific.

Time on feet is important, especially for trail runners who are attempting a longer race on more technical terrain. These events may include more breaks (have you seen the spread at some aid stations?!), hiking, and slower running. But we still have to prepare for the specific demands of each race. Depending on the type of race you’re training for, a coach may ask you:

  • What makes you think you can run a trail race on truly technical terrain? 
  • Have you practiced faster workouts or long runs on the same (or similar) trails? 
  • Will you spend a similar amount of time on your feet as the race itself (except for ultra distances)?
  • Are you practicing a similar rate of vertical gain that you’ll experience on race day?
  • Have you executed your fueling plan during a long run on similar terrain as the race?

The answers to these questions will inform how you train and prepare for an adventure on the trails. And if you plan right, you’ll have a much better performance. 

Road runners often leave no stone unturned in their quest to run the fastest possible time. Trail runners must also learn this lesson and look at the specific demands of their event (whether that’s a 5K trail race or a 100-mile ultramarathon) and train accordingly. 

The Bottom Line

While there’s no denying that the demands of a trail race are different from those of a road or track race, “running is running.” How we train for a given distance on the road can inform how we train for that distance on the trails, too. By learning the lessons of road runners who’ve been honing their craft for decades, we can improve our training, increase our fitness, and race faster – no matter the distance we’re racing on the trails.