If you’re thinking of adding trails to your usual running routine, don’t be fooled in thinking that your years of road running experience will lead to a smooth transition off-road. There are a few key differences to consider before hitting the rugged terrain.
Invest in a Pair of Trail Shoes
A decent pair of trail shoes is your best investment. A trail shoe has many distinct features, including a rugged outsole to grip whatever surface you’re running on; a protective toebox and rockplate to protect your feet when running over rocks; a stronger and more durable outer material to keep the moisture out and to prevent a tear when running against sharp branches or rocks; and for the more challenging conditions, more rigid structure and support bars to provide better stability when running on uneven terrain.
Get on the Trails
Aim to have at least one run per week on the trails, adding more as you adjust to the differing terrain. The more time you spend on the trails, the more your body and fitness will adapt and the more comfortable and confident you will become. Once you start looking for trails, you might be surprised to find that they are closer than you think, often even in the middle of the city! Speak to other runners or your local running store to find out where the closest trails are. Many running stores and groups also offer group runs in the trails.
Run by Feel
Your pace will vary considerably on the trails due to the ever-changing terrain and elevation, and trying to keep a steady pace will only lead to unnecessary exhaustion and frustration. Furthermore, your average pace will be slower, as even the most gentle trails provide some level of resistance. Finally, readings on GPS devices are often inaccurate in the trails, making it less reliable. You will find it much more enjoyable (and efficient) if you learn to run by feel, rather than being glued to the pace on your watch. Focus instead on keeping an even effort throughout your run by paying attention to your breathing.
Strengthen Your Body in New Ways
Unlike road running, which is predominantly a front-back motion on smooth surfaces, much of trail running is non-linear with unstable and undulating terrain. This makes it more intense, involving greater muscle recruitment of your legs and ankles and the stabilizer muscles of your abdominals, hips and pelvis. Consider adding some strengthening exercises that incorporate lateral movements such as side lunges. Strengthen your ankles with one-leg hops in different directions. Practice step ups, step downs or diagonal monster walks to strengthen the larger muscles of your legs. Double-leg jumps or short explosive hill sprints will help to recruit muscles needed to power up steep climbs.
Throw in Some Speed
Similar to your training for the road, you can add in a weekly session where the focus is on speed. Although this may sound intimidating given the many tripping hazards and daunting hills, keep in mind that this should be a gradual approach. A good place to start is with a fartlek workout where you alternate between hard and easy sections. This can be a timed effort such as one minute fast followed by two minutes easy, or it can be dictated by terrain such as running the flatter sections hard and the hillier sections easy. As you gain more experience and confidence, incorporate more challenging workouts.
Practice Makes Perfect
Trail running is all about technique and learning to tackle challenging hills and tricky terrain as efficiently as possible. Small tactics can have big effects, such as pumping your arms to gain momentum and keeping your chest open and your gaze looking ahead when running uphill. Taking smaller and faster steps when running on slippery surfaces or widening your stance and sitting low when running down a steep hill will make you feel more steady on your feet. There are many online resources or books that review such strategies, or you can check your community for trail running clinics. I hold clinics and camps and a large amount of our time is spent practicing proper form. I see the positive results time after time!
Jennifer Faraone is an avid trail runner and coach and offers trail run camps and clinics. Her next Trail Run Camp in Ontario is June 1-3 www.runtrailswithjenn.com