Trail running is not just about running along trails. If you want to become a better trail runner and enjoy it to its fullest, then I suggest you incorporate the following 10 strategies into your training. I know they will help you achieve your running goals. Not in any particular order, these have worked really well for me:
1. Get riding
Cycling can help make you a better runner. Many runners will only be forced to turn to cycling due to injury as part of their rehab. You can introduce cycling into your running schedule as a form of active recovery on your rest days or easier days. You can also use it as an actual session to help improve leg strength and leg turnover. Joining a spin class at your local gym is a fun and safe way to try cycling.
2. Do strength training
Trail running requires more total body fitness compared to road running. You will find yourself having to support and control your body as you throw yourself around sharp turns and over high obstacles. Hit the gym and do some strengthening exercises to help improve your lower and upper body strength. A personal trainer will be able to design a programme tailored to help you perform better on the trails.
3. Get the correct kit
Besides a good pair of trail shoes that will give you proper protection on the upper from stones and other debris, you also want a pair with a grippy outsole that will give you good traction over various terrain. For longer trail events invest in a quality hydration pack with a decent size bladder (usually 1-3 litres) and sufficient space for food and extra gear. This is a piece of kit that will last you years if cared for properly, so invest wisely. You will also need wet and dry weather clothing as weather conditions can change very quickly and unexpectedly when running in remote areas out in the bush or mountains. A base layer thermal and a light rain jacket are recommended additions to your kit.
4. Run trails
Running trails presents new challenges compared to running on the road. The terrain is ever-changing and there is much more lateral movement which places more stress on your body, especially your ankles and hips. Running on a surface that is constantly changing can make trail running seem exhausting. Hit the trails as often as you can so that you can get used to running over uneven surfaces. Practice makes perfect.
5. Fuel correctly
Ensure that you carry a sufficient amount of food and fluids with you at races and out training. Many longer trail events require that you be self-sufficient and carry your own nutrition. You will need a sufficient amount of carbohydrate for brain and muscle function and protein for muscle protection and repair. Test different foods and drinks in training first so that you know what works for you and agrees with your stomach. Back in my triathlon days I made this mistake and tried a new gel before an event. I paid the price and had to retire. Eat regularly to ensure your energy levels are topped up and drink when you feel thirsty.
6. Get regular massages
This is important to help you remain injury-free. Many people will only see a sports massage therapist or physiotherapist when they are injured. The key is maintenance. Trail running places a lot of different loads and stresses on your body. Regular massage will make sure that you keep on top of any aches and pains and ensure that they do not turn into problems that could prevent you from running. You take your car for a regular service so why not your body too?
7. Run hills
Trail runs generally require you to run up and down many hills. If you want to be strong on the hills you will need to train on them. This can come in the form of doing hill repetitions where you run the same hill over and over, or running on a hilly route where you run all the hills at a higher intensity. Hill running is not only good for strength but for your speed and technique too.
8. Vary your training
Whether it’s changing the duration of your runs or the intensity, variation is important. If you continuously train at the same effort and the same distance then you will only improve to a certain point before your improvements stagnate. You need to challenge your various energy systems by incorporating long runs, tempo runs and track and hill sessions. Do this gradually and allow your body to adapt to your current training before loading it with more mileage or intensity.
9. Refine your technique
It is difficult to find a good rhythm when running trails because of the constantly changing terrain. You will find yourself ducking under branches, jumping over bushes or skipping over rocks. Practice running with a higher cadence and taking smaller steps. This will help you to change direction more quickly and easily. You will find yourself skipping over obstacles with much more ease and fluidness.
10. Manage your fear
Every trail runner I know has fallen one way or another whilst trail running. You need to overcome any fears and learn to become more comfortable running faster downhill. You basically have to become comfortable with almost ‘falling’ down the hills and having confidence that your feet will be there to catch you. You need to practice this in training to gain confidence. Focus a few metres ahead of you, scanning the ground for any obstacles that you need to avoid, so that when you reach that point, you already know exactly where to place your feet. Also focus on lifting your feet a little higher than normal, so that you don’t get caught out by kicking anything that can cause you to fall.
I hope you try all 10 of these tips and reap the benefits. They are not difficult and will work for you!
by Claude Eksteen
Former professional triathlete and now converted trail runner, Claude has an ongoing passion for the outdoors, especially if it involves new challenges.
Originally published in the September/October 2013 issue 61.