Workouts for Trail Runners that Don’t Like Workouts
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
If you grew up running, there’s a solid chance that a track or road workout makes you have a nervous flashback, causing your bowels to plummet to your feet.
If you started running on your own, maybe trail hill repeats make you want to stay in bed where it’s warm and cuddly and where gravity won’t be such a pretentious jerk.
The criteria for these workouts: they can be done without a watch, they never involve running back-and-forth like someone doing a speed-search for lost keys and they can be as hard or easy as you feel like.
Heck, even if you just read this column, you’re probably sick of numbers and scientific studies that make it feel like you’re back in high school Biology class with that teacher that is trying way too hard to be cool.
But workouts don’t need to be anything to dread. You don’t even need a watch to get effective, race-specific training. They can be spontaneous, joyous celebrations of running even for people that hate workouts.
The criteria for these workouts: they can be done without a watch, they never involve running back-and-forth like someone doing a speed-search for lost keys and they can be as hard or easy as you feel like. Essentially, after each of these workouts, you can come away with the conclusion that should be the goal of most workouts: “Guess what?” your internal monologue should say. “I AM A FREAKING TRAIL BOSS.”
Here are four workouts that can improve different elements of your trail running without worrying too much about the details. As always, most of your running should be easy and chill, so do harder efforts every two or three days at most.
Animal Style: Go out super easy, come back fast
In-N-Out in a fast-food chain, and their “animal style” burger is off the “Secret Menu,” involving extra meat and spice (I hope the Secret Menu isn’t like Fight Club, in which case I just broke the first rule). This in-n-out workout adds extra meat and spice to your run in a fun, relaxed way. As an added bonus, it gets you back home more quickly for post-run burgers.
Start super relaxed, well below aerobic threshold. Hike when you need to if the trail is steep; stay patient and make sure you are kicking into fat burning by staying low intensity. Then, take a caffeinated gel (metaphorically or literally), turn around and KICK IT. Retrace your steps purposefully, approaching or exceeding lactate threshold on climbs. You want to get back quickly, but not so hard that you need 30 minutes to regroup when you finish. One option is to imagine that you have a business call you need to hop on right when you get in the door. Since it’s fun, maybe it’s a call with dogs that have an 89-point presentation about how much they need belly rubs.
You can have the turnaround point be the end of a trail, a random tree or even a mountain summit, depending on your goals. Make sure the easy section is long enough to fully warm-up and jump-start your aerobic system. Animal Style can make a great long run up to a few hours or more, or a quick mid-week workout for when you have a non-dog conference call to get back to. Adjust pace as you need to: if doing a long run, your high gear on the way back will be cruisier than on a short run.
Freefallin’: Easy on ups and flats, let it flow with purpose on downs
A big component of trail running is controlling effort on varying terrain to avoid overdoing it on uphills while still using free speed from downhills. Freefallin’ has you running as smooth as a song from pop-rock supergroup Train, learning to control effort while improving downhill running skills.
Stay below aerobic threshold on uphills, running conversationally and relaxed. On all downhills, focus on letting your body use the gravitational push, channeling Neil Degrasse Tyson as you thank Earth’s mass and the theory of relativity for making trail running so fun. Do it right, and you’ll find flow, that transcendent moment when your sense of self-consciousness falls away, replaced by a sense of purpose in the moment.
Even if you don’t reach a peak of spiritual well-being, you’ll develop neuromuscular skills for downhill running and musculoskeletal strength to withstand eccentric muscle contractions. For some athletes, Freefaillin’ might even provide a great template for race strategy, especially in ultramarathons. However, this workout involves increased impact forces from downhill running, so only do it when you are rested, and make sure there is plenty of recovery afterward.
A Case of the Zoomies: Every once in a while, run fast to a landmark during an easy run
On Saturday afternoon, my dog Addie and I went for a run with Trail Runner Magazine editor Megan Janssen. It was the first time Megan and I had met in-person, and I was so excited to show her Addie’s zoomies. Even though Addie dog is almost 40 in dog years, she still loves doing fast sprints in big circles as if she’s trying to start an F5 puppy-nado.
About a mile in, on the lower trails of Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado, Addie saw something, stopping dead in her tracks. Then we saw it: a massive black bear sprinting down the hill a few meters in front of us. What would Addie do? This was her first time encountering a bear. She is a submissive dog that, only moments before, had laid on her back for a corgi, so she’d be smart, right?
Wrong. She took two slow steps, then sprinted down the hill after the bear. NO ADDIE, we both screamed, chasing after her like idiots. Then, five seconds later, RAWWWWRRRR. Two seconds after that, Addie came sprinting back up the hill faster than she left. She survived! I learned to keep my dog on leash. And we all got a great workout.
A Case of the Zoomies harnesses a dog’s ability to run with joy on the trail, but without any bears needed (or wanted). After going easy for long enough to feel like a puppy, periodically choose a landmark in the distance and run to it with effortless speed (preferably, the landmark will not disembowel you). It can be a tree, a rock, a fellow runner, a golden retriever, anything really. Then go back to your easy pace until you fully recover and see another enticing landmark up ahead. Do as many as you want—anywhere from just a few to a few dozen.
This workout targets your running economy, making faster paces take less energy. Don’t go too hard—you don’t want to get to the point where you have to stop after, which introduces an anaerobic stimulus that is probably non-specific to trail racing. Instead, run smooth and strong, like a puppy that had an espresso. Just don’t get eaten by a bear, a good “A” goal for any training run.
Hike Hard: On steeper grades, hike as fast as you can during an easy run
Hiking is an essential part of trail racing, especially for hilly races. Above a certain gradient, hiking is more efficient than running for almost all runners (one study in the “Journal of Applied Physiology” puts that grade above 15 degrees), and in longer races, most extended uphills are hike-worthy. Purposeful hiking isn’t a break from exertion—it’s a workout too. So practice it.
During Hike Hard, the running is the easy part, and the hiking is the workout. Run really relaxed on your favorite trails, and any time the trail pitches above a certain grade, hike with authority, practicing form and optimizing power output. Lean forward, relax and generate power from your butt, as outlined here. Hike Hard is especially valuable in the month or two before a race that will involve a lot of hiking, in order to adapt to the unique neuromuscular demands.
All of these workouts can be adapted to suit your goals and background. Just remember the big rule for workout analysis: no matter what, you freaking crushed it and you are a trail superboss.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play