A little over a year ago, I started the adventure of trail running. Transitioning from roads to trails was an adventure that was full of less than graceful falls, lots of running gear experimentation, and very long race days. At this point, I am by no means a professional trail runner; maybe not even a very good one. But I am a runner who has learned a few things along the way. So today I want to share five things that have made me a better trail runner (at least I think so).
5 Things That Have Made Me A Better Trail Runner
Running Hill Workouts
I remember, somewhat fondly, the times that I ran marathons that had course profiles described as “hilly.” Like the Austin marathon, known for being one of the most brutal courses filled with rolling hills and false flats. Looking back, I laugh at my grumbling and struggling, because trail running sometimes feels like one endless climb.
Practicing hill running (both up and down) was so beneficial for me as a trail runner. Hill workouts have helped me get more comfortable with anticipating footing, and since trails aren’t usually smooth and flat, trail runners have to learn how to spot safe places to land. Obviously, it gave me stronger legs, which improved my overall performance. And finally, it helped me learn how to pick up my damn feet. Having spent years on the road, I had perfected the art of moving forward without driving my knees to high up. Running up and down rocky hills sure corrected that quickly.
There are a lot of adjectives that can be accurately used to describe; patience makes neither the long or short list. My running habits were no exception. When you’re used to being able to stumble out the door after half a cup of coffee, and get in a 7-8 mile run in about an hour, what do you need to be patient about, anyways. I’ve written previously that the way I used to approach hills was to try to sprint up as quickly as possible to get it over with, but when you’re running on trails, you can’t afford to sprint the whole time.
Trail running has taught me to be more comfortable with slower, easy paces, and to enjoy the whole training process, rather than getting a run “over with.” Instead of going into 5th gear and then dying 30 seconds later, I’m now comfortable with long climbs. And to my own shock and surprise, I’ve learned to embrace the powerhike, and even do it half-way efficiently. With trail running, half the game is about banking energy, rather than time. So learning to slow down, be patient, and keep a consistent effort level has paid of in dividends.
Related Post: Trail Running Gear Essentials
Focused Strength Training
I’ve been a fan of weight lifting almost as long as I’ve been a runner, and I can’t think of a time where I didn’t value strength training. But transitioning to trail running gave me an opportunity to challenge my body and strength in ways that were completely new to me. Here’s a few things I’ve tried to incorporate more consistently into my strength training routine to help me maximize my trail running performance:
- Plyometrics: Movements like box jumps, burpees, and running up stairs have helped give my legs the strength to jump between rocks and push up steep hills. Incorporating these movements has also helped me to become more comfortable with higher rates for brief periods of time; something that definitely happens when you go from running downhill to up a 30 degree hill.
- Lunges: Both weighted and unweighted. Most of climbing involves pushing off of one leg onto the other, and lunges are great for building the strength needed to do that efficiently.
- Core and Ab exercises: Look, having a six pack just isn’t a high priority for me, so I can neglect my core for a long period of time if I’m not careful. But running downhill (without falling forward or smacking yourself into a tree) requires some core strength for sure. Movements like plank variations, hollow body holds, and single leg drops have helped avoid certain death multiple times.
- Ankle Exercises: Coming from a dance background, I’ve always enjoyed having fairly flexible and strong ankles. But two trails in, I quickly realized those ankles weren’t as strong as I originally thought. Looking for a few ankle exercises to help keep things sturdy? Check out some of these great options.
Used my Hands & Arms More
Running on the road, you use your arms and hands for exactly three things. 1) you pump your arms to improve economy 2) you might carry something like pepper spray or a water bottle and 3) you put snacks into your mouth. For the most part, your legs and feet get the majority of the action. This is not the case on the trails, but it took me a while to recognize.
I carry water in a hydration vest for most of my trail runs now just to free up my hands. I use them to grab onto trees when I’m trying to make a sharp turn, or to steady myself when I’m moving up or down really steep climbs and descents. I also started to use my arms to help me stay upright (always the goal) when running on uneven surfaces. Yes, my hands get significantly dirtier after a trail run than a road run, but having use of all of my appendages has really helped me move more efficiently.
Kept Some Runs on the Roads
When I first started my trail running adventure, I was in love. The trails are so much more challenging and interesting than running on flat pavement (in my opinion). And I figured that softer surfaces would be kinder to my body. What I didn’t anticipate was just how sore my body would get from constant trail running. Consistently having to pick up my feet a lot higher and climb hills that are much steeper made my legs ache. And I still haven’t had one single trail run where I haven’t rolled my ankle at least once.
The trails might be nicer to my knees, but repeated falling, tripping, and jumping onto hard rocks was rough on pretty much every other part of my body. So I went back to mixing it up. Currently, about 60% of my overall mileage is done on the roads. This gives some of those big muscle groups that I use for power hiking a break, and it helps me keep some semblance of speed and leg turn over.
Making these training adjustments hasn’t turned me into Courtney Dauwalter, but it has helped me learn to move more efficiently and confidently on the trails. Hopefully there’s one or two items you can try out to see if they might work for you. And please let me know, what has been something that has helped you on the trails?