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Everyone starts as a beginner. At some point, Albert Einstein solved his very first math equation and every presidential candidate told their very first lie to an Iowan.
Over time, though, if you stick with it, what is hard becomes second nature and what is impossible becomes merely difficult. Trail running—like math or lying to Iowans—takes an investment of time to get to that point of expertise. But when you allocate that time the right way, you can get the ultimate return on your investment: winning the Iowa caucuses. I mean, life-affirming trail runs. I always get those two confused.
When starting out in trail running, it is essential to plan strategically to avoid injury or burnout. In addition to designing smart running workouts like those in this article (see #4), make sure to apply these principles.
1. Focus on Form
Endurance running is weird. All your life, you have been taught to run for speed. Pump the arms! Lift the knees! Puke when complete!
To get the most out of endurance running, though, your form must be efficient and sustainable. Here’s more on form and arm-swing technique to guide you, but the main things to think about are maintaining a short, soft stride, with movement flowing backward through the hips, and not having tension anywhere.
2. Frequency Over Volume
I distinctly remember the first time I ran seriously (as a sophomore in college). I made it 800 meters before I stopped, winded and demoralized. My calves were sore for three whole days! But it got better and better, until a few months later I could go for 10 miles without getting sore.
The key is to build up to at least four or five runs a week before increasing the volume of any one run to more than five miles. The musculoskeletal stress of running takes some getting used to, and it’s better to do many short runs than a few longer ones. For example, I’d rather an athlete do six two-milers than two ten-milers. So be patient and build up to near-daily running, then think about getting complicated and going longer.
3. Practice Prevention
Much like a yoga class with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, running will quickly expose any imbalances in your body. To prevent those imbalances from becoming injuries, be sure to foam roll and do dynamic strength exercises, like yoga or leg swings. (Check out our 10 Commandments of Healthy Running for more on injury-prevention techniques.)
4. Work Up to Workouts
As I said earlier, the goal of starting (or refocusing on) trail running is to work up to at least four or five healthy, efficient runs a week. All of those runs can be easy and aerobic, but to get the ultimate bang for your buck, start mixing in the following workouts. Do one of these workouts once a week (if you are running at least three times per week, but under 15 miles per week) or twice a week (if you are running at least four times per week and more than 15 miles a week) for an extra stimulus that will jump-start your progression.
Hills for Breakfast: 10-minute warm-up run, 4 to 6 x 60-second hills, 10-minute cool-down run
Hill intervals are a good way to get started with structured workouts. Focused hill efforts build strength, durability and mental toughness.
Start with a short warm-up of 10 to 20 minutes of easy running. Then, on a hill with a grade between four and eight percent, run hard for 60 seconds, noting the landmark that you reach on the first interval. Turn down the hill and walk (if you are new to running) or jog (if you are a bit more advanced) to where you started, before running each subsequent interval to the same landmark without looking at your watch. Finish with a cool-down run of 10 to 20 minutes, and you will be satisfied by your hilly breakfast and ready for what’s to come.
Strides for Lunch: 20-minute warm-up run, 6 to 8 x 30 second strides, 10-minute cool-down run
Think of this as the midday of your journey into trail running. After a few weeks, when you start to feel coordinated and stronger, strides teach your brain that this whole “running fast” thing can actually be easy and fun. Put another way, strides build neuromuscular efficiency, allowing you to use energy in a more economical way at all paces.
After a slightly longer warm-up run, find a flat section of road or trail for the strides. Start relaxed and build up the pace until you are running the fastest you can without straining. The key is to stay comfortable, smooth and lubricated, like a gazelle that just took a bath in KY Jelly. Just like the hills, walk or jog back to where you started before beginning the next stride. Strides are the biggest bang-for-your-buck workout for beginners—you’ll notice nearly immediate gains from learning to run fast.
Downhills for Dinner: 20 minute warm-up run, 2 to 4 x 3 minutes slightly downhill, 10-minute cool-down run
After a month or two, you’ll be a grizzled veteran of the running journey. You’ll understand why trail running is so amazing and why we make jokes about bloody nipples (and that those two things are somehow not mutually exclusive).
Now, you can use your hill strength and stride speed to work your high-end aerobic capacity with longer intervals. In other words, this workout will help your heart and lungs deliver more oxygen to your muscles. After a warm-up, find a slight downhill of one to three percent—enough to help you out but not so much that your form changes. A path that runs alongside a flowing creek works well.
Run for three minutes powerfully and confidently at a sustainable pace (one that you could hold for at least 10 minutes) before jogging back to where you started for the next interval.
“Time on Feet” for Dessert: 90 minutes to 3 hours exploring
Now you have almost all the pieces in place, with only one thing left.
Once you’ve worked up to four or five runs a week and done the workouts above, you are ready to go longer. Long runs are the ultimate workout for trail running; they build strength, endurance and even speed. (There is research indicating that faster-twitch muscle fibers pick up the slack when the slow-twitch fibers weaken, which means running slow and long can help you run fast!)
The key with long runs is to throw your agenda out the window. There are no specific goals; just spend time on your feet and have an adventure. When you are ready to run long, once a week, head out onto the trails and explore, walking when you need to, stopping to take photos if you want and generally removing all stress.
After working up to your first long run or two, you’ll have a realization. When it comes to trail running, you’ll think, I’ll never be a beginner again.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.