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Hit The Dirt: Taking Your Workouts To The Trails

Use these tips to ease the transition from the road to the dirt.

Use these tips to ease the transition from the road to the dirt.

You’ve always done your tempo runs on the roads and your speed work on a track, but the next race on your schedule avoids the asphalt altogether. What to do? Should you do the same old workouts in the same places, or are there benefits to adapting your staple training workouts to a different surface?

There are numerous benefits to changing things up a bit, whether you’ll be racing on trails or not. I’ve come up with a few suggestions to help transition your training to the trails and smooth out the learning curve.

Trail Tempo Runs

A traditional tempo run, typically 20 to 40 minutes of continuous running at half-marathon race effort, is meant to increase running economy and aerobic fitness. Try your next tempo run on a smooth but winding or rolling trail and you’ll find that while you still increase aerobic capacity, your trail efficiency — how well you flow and maintain pace through an undulating course — will improve as well.

Hill Repeats

Hill workouts are an obvious transition from the road to trail, but for many runners the most intimidating part of jumping off the roads is the technicality of the downhills. Doing hill repeats will not only give you the cardiovascular and strength benefits of running uphill, but you can also practice running with good technique while running back down. Pick a trail that challenges you but still allows you to run at a good clip. Lean into the hill on the way down, take small quick steps and keep your feet underneath you. Try not to brake by putting your heel out in front of you and land softly on your forefoot or midfoot.

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Plyometrics And Functional Movement

You’ve likely seen people doing box jumps at the gym, so why not take it outside? During your next strength and agility workout, you can also work on your technical trail technique. Find a rock that is about the same height as the box at the gym (between 12 and 24 inches), and do some two-footed rock jumps to increase power and strength while out on your run. Incorporating gym-type workouts into some of your trail runs will help with balance and functional strength on uneven surfaces and with technical trail elements that the gym can’t give you. In general, a trail run will be of greater benefit than a road run of similar duration because it challenges your balance and proprioception while strengthening the small stabilizer muscles that get a free pass when running on flat even surfaces.

Fartlek Workouts

These are the most practical trail workouts and also some of the most fun. Most trail races will turn into fartlek runs anyway, with less technical sections allowing you to run faster and more technical sections forcing a slower pace. The days of picking arbitrary telephone poles to give structure to your fartlek workouts are over. Use the trail features and landscape to determine when to run hard and when to rest. Use a downhill to rest, a section of runnable trail to sprint hard and charge up that next hill until you reach the top.

Long Runs

When running on trails, change your mindset for long runs from logging a specific number of miles to just putting time on your feet. This will help you get more out of your long runs by not pushing them too hard. And because you’re running on softer surfaces, you’re legs won’t take nearly the beating that they do after a long road run.

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Simulator Workouts

Just as race-simulation workouts are important for road racing they are just as important for trail racing — maybe even more so. Do course research on your trail race and find out as much as you can about the elevation gain, the technical nature of the footing, temperature, humidity, aid stations and anything else that may affect your performance. Incorporate runs into your training that have an elevation gain similar to the race course’s and replicate the surfaces (soft forest floor, rocks, sand, etc.) if possible. Practice negotiating the aid stations — this will require you to carry more nutrition and hydration than during a road race. You want to find the right gear and fuel for you on your training runs.

The same training principles (aerobic capacity, threshold runs, speed, strength) apply regardless of the surface you’re running on, but the variability of a trail only adds to the complexity of your training. Trail running and racing will require special considerations to reach your potential. Whether your next trail race is a 5K, 50K or even a 100-miler, apply these tips to your training and learn something new each time out. The more knowledge — and practice — you have, the better prepared you’ll be for success.

This piece first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.


About The Author:

Salomon Running athlete Max King has won numerous USATF trail running national titles, as well as the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships and the 2014 IAU 100K World Championships. He lives in Bend, Ore., but he’s traveling more than usual this year and seeking new ways of optimizing his training time on airplanes. Check out his adventures around the ultra world at or on twitter @MaxKingOR.