Trail-Optional Race Training

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Racing on technical trails is fundamentally different than racing on roads. Uneven footing, steep hills and tight turns are seldom seen in road races but are frequent challenges in trail races. The more you can practice these types of challenges, even if you don’t have adequate access to trails, the more equipped you’ll be on race day.

The ideal situation is to do your training on the course you’ll be racing but that isn’t always realistic. AJ Gregg, a chiropractor and strength coach in Flagstaff, Arizona, who specializes in runners, says to “get as specific with your training as you can, given your situation.”

According to Jay Dicharry, a physical therapist who specializes in runners and the author of Running Rewired, the first skill you miss out on is sighting and line selection. This is needed for looking beyond the rock in front of you while being able to judge foot placement. The second is familiarity with the kind of dynamic running that is required on trails that you don’t experience on roads.

These skills require more than just strength training. Richard Hansen, a Boulder-based chiropractor and head coach of the Roots Running Project, says, “You want overall athleticism, which includes endurance, general strength, plyometrics, proprioception and flexibility.”

The following workouts will help prepare your body for the demands of a technical trail race using the training environments you have at hand. The majority of them should be done on your “moderate” training days (tempo runs, fartlek and hill-workout days) or on your easy-run days, according to Dicharry. He says to start gradually and be careful not to add too much “extra” work on days when you already have a challenging speed workout planned. 

Mid-Run Mini Plyos

WHY: Dicharry recommends incorporating explosive jumps in the middle of your run two to three times a week.

It’s important that you practice being explosive “while running at effort just like you need to be on the trail” rather than doing exercises like box jumps in a gym.

This helps to recruit your explosive muscle fibers while fatigued from running.

HOW: Begin your run as normal, then add in 30 to 50 “jumps” in the middle. If you’re running on a sidewalk, Dicharry suggests shifting to the curb and running with one foot on the curb and one foot on the road for three to five steps.

However you choose to incorporate jumps into your runs, focus on being quick and explosive rather than focusing on height.

Color-Code Run

WHY: As Gregg says, “It doesn’t matter how fit you are if you don’t know how to move your feet.”

HOW: Mark a 50- to 100-meter stretch of sidewalk with chalk, rocks, sticks, dirt or anything else that will give you something to aim for. Run toward the marked area and just before getting to the chalk marks, pick (or have a training partner call out) one of the markers. Then work to step on each of the marks of that color (or just next to, if you’re using sticks) as you make your way through the area.

As you repeat this, Gregg recommends varying your running speeds, and calls this kind of work “multi-directional, non-linear running.”

Field Fartlek

WHY: Part of an inconsistent rhythm on the trail is often tight turns and varying paces. Being able to negotiate these is not something that you’ll get out of traditional speed work, according to Hansen.

HOW: Hansen recommends laying out a loop of approximately 800 meters that includes several quick turns (not just a circle or oval) in a field. You can do fartlek running on the loop, accelerating and decelerating at different points on each lap to practice changing speeds and sharp turns.

For extra benefit, Hansen recommends building five-inch tall “mini-hurdles” and placing them around the loop for practice jumping over obstacles on the trail.

Power Hills

WHY: You may find yourself power hiking on long, sustained uphills during your race but you’ll also likely find shorter, steep hills that you’ll want to run up, according to Dicharry.

Practicing running on steep hills will allow you to save walking for the longer uphills and save time in the race.

HOW: One day a week, Dicharry recommends finding the “steepest thing you can find near your house” whether it be hills, stairs or levees. The goal is to find something that takes about 15 to 30 seconds to climb. Then do six reps of the uphill with a 30- to 60-second rest after each.

Dicharry says to “practice short, light and quick strides” during this exercise so that “when you encounter these sections on the trail, you’ll power right up.”

General Strength Work

WHY: Incorporating traditional strength work is important as well. “Strength work can and should be done by anyone hoping to reach their potential in any trail or ultra race,” according to Rob Krar, two-time champion of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Krar says this will help you maintain form later in the race and reduce your risk of injury.

HOW: Hansen recommends doing your strength work while in a “fatigued state.” That means doing strength work after your run or on a harder training day so that your recovery days can be focused on recovery.

Gregg recommends step-ups, squats and deadlifts, and single-leg exercises to help improve balance while building strength.

Krar says a favorite exercise is a single-leg balance exercise on a Bosu ball that he has worked up to holding for three minutes. Says Krar, “The long duration builds endurance, especially in the glute muscles.”

Krar says consistency is key and that you should target two strength sessions a week during your training for best results.

This article originally appeared in the December, 2018 issue of Trail Runner. To get great content delivered to your door, click here.

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada