Many people start out running to lose a few extra pounds or to supplement a fitness routine in the gym. But over time, this thing that we did purely for a practical reason starts to grow on us, and we slowly become real “runners”: entering races, often on the roads in big city events. We get serious: trying to shave time off our 10K, half-marathon, and marathon times through several years of hard training and experiments with different training plans.
But sooner or later, many start to leave the road running scene for the trails. It could be because our road running times have reached an inevitable plateau, and we need a new challenge. Or it could be because we love immersing ourselves in beautiful scenery and experiencing the profound peace of mind that connecting with the earth brings.
But how can we make a smooth transition from road to trail running? How can we make the most of our road background to become good at trails?
The following are some tips that should help:
Becoming efficient at running quickly over technical terrain – defined as roots, rocks, uneven surfaces, mud and so on – is often the biggest barrier for road runners. While there may be some tips and tricks to get better at technical terrain, there is no substitute for simply spending a lot of time on difficult trails, and gaining experience and confidence on the terrain.
Hong Kong-based runner Darren Benson, who was an elite road ultra-runner (with a PB of 7h 17min at the 100km distance at the World Cup in Korea in 2006) before making the transition to the trails, says that it’s a bit like a road cyclist transitioning to mountain biking: you have to frequently practice on the demanding trails in order to gain the confidence to ride quickly. Similarly, according to Benson, running frequently on tough trails can help improve your efficiency and help you find your rhythm.
Road runners have a tendency to become fixated on pace and mileage. It may take years of training to improve a marathon pace by only a few seconds, from 4:20 min/km to 4:10 min/km, for example. To make these seemingly small improvements, many runners have target pace ranges for easy runs, aerobic runs, long runs, tempos and speed work, and running at each pace range helps develop different energy systems.
However, although there’s considerable merit to this scientific approach, an obsession with sticking to a set pace simply does not work out well in trail running. Running over technical and steep terrain makes sticking to a pre-determined pace almost impossible. Similarly, if you are set on running at a pace that you would normally run on the roads, you may find that you are exerting yourself well beyond your current capacity. You may even want to reconsider mileage per week (or kilometers per week) as a main metric that you use to measure your training, since a 10 mile run in the mountains may take almost twice the time as a 10 mile road run. Therefore, tracking time running per week may be a more valuable metric. Sage Canaday, a 2h 14min marathoner who has recently broken several trail ultra course records, such as the Speedgoat 50km (beating Killian Jornet’s time) says: “I also always record the time of my runs and some days this is more important than sheer mileage. I’m often flexible with my numbers now and don’t force a certain quantity”.
Track Vertical Elevation
While road races are mainly on flat surfaces, most trail races are on mountainous terrain and have considerable vertical change. Therefore, tracking vertical gain per week can be a good idea. Indeed, many of the top ultra runners – such as Anton Krupica and Nick Clark track vertical elevation gain, and see this as one of the most important metrics in their training. Benson notes that downhill running is probably the hardest part of trail races in Hong Kong, since there are lots of long, technical downhill sections. Therefore, incorporating downhill running into training is important.
Get Trail-Specific Gear
At first you may not think it’s necessary to buy trail gear – seeing it as unnecessary and just a waste of money. However, good trail shoes have several value-added features compared to road shoes. Lugs provide for good grip, which is vital on dirt, mud, or wet rocks. Toe-guards can protect the toes from pain sprains on rocks or roots. Rock plates can also protect your feet from painful bruises caused by pointy rocks. Unlike the hiking boots of just a few years ago, most trail shoes are only slightly heavier than road shoes, and many perform just as well on the roads. Similarly, good hydration packs can give you a way to access water in remote locations, and they can carry food, extra layers of clothing, and materials for emergencies as well. Hiking poles can give save the legs during steep ascents.
Do Strength Training
Numerous studies have shown that targeted strength training (such as half-squats or lunges) can improve running economy. For example, in a 2008 study, well-trained runners did a series of 4 x 4 sets of half-squats over the course of eight weeks, in addition to their regular training. Compared to the control group who did not do strength training, these runners showed a 5% improvement in running economy, which measures how efficiently the body uses oxygen at a certain pace.
For trail runners, strength training may be even more advantageous, since going up and down stairs and steep inclines can tax quads and glutes to a much larger extent than in regular road running on the flats. Moreover, due to the many twists and turns of undulating terrain, one’s core can become fatigued even when traditional running muscles are still relatively fresh. If this happens, you’ll run with bad posture, which inevitably leads to bad form and a slower performance. Besides strength training and core work, Darren Benson recommends cycling on hills, which can help prepare the quads for races with massive elevation profiles.
Many marathon training approaches could be applied directly to trail runners
Incorporate Speed Work
While there may be many new things to incorporate as you make the shift from roads to trails, it’s also important not to throw out “the baby with the bathwater”. Sage Canaday says there are things that trail runners can learn from elite marathoners: “…the scientific approach to training that many advanced marathoners take on could be applied directly to trail/ultra runners. Workouts like tempo runs and intervals on the track that many road runners do would help a lot of trail runners with their speed and ability to run strong uphills”.
By William Nee. This article originally appeared in our Jan/Feb 2014 issue.