How to Get Faster at Running Trails

Q How can I get faster on the trails? – NICOLE


A You can improve your trail running speed by creating a training plan that includes both on and off road running. Here’s why.

When you split your time between the two (say, 50/50), you can develop the physical skills necessary to run faster off road, while continuing to work on foot speed, recovery, and endurance on the road and maintaining the ability to withstand the impact forces of road running. This is especially important if you plan on racing on the roads and trails.

The key is to understand that though running on trails is technically running, it’s entirely different than running on roads. Similar to road cycling and mountain biking, running on trails is skill-based and requires a level of strength, balance, and focus that is greater than running on a smooth road.

Both are challenging, but one demands your attention on every stride. For example, when on a road run, most runners can look over at a buddy and wink while telling her about the movie they watched last night – even while adjusting their ponytails. If you try this on a trail, you’ll end up seeing eye-to-eye with an egret waist-deep in a pond and wondering how it happened so quickly.

But that’s the joy of trail running – you have to run in the moment and focus on the next step, every step.

But this post isn’t about the joys of trail running; it’s about training to kick butt off road. Here are some tips for getting speedy on trails.


Develop your trail fitness first.

Running trails, especially technical singletrack trails, takes a lot more energy, strength, and balance than running roads, so it’s wise to start out on a groomed trail before you jump foot first into leaping over obstacles. If you start out with the challenging stuff before you’re ready, you will fatigue, your form will break down, and the risk for an injury increases.


Run by effort.

While you’re on the groomed trails, begin to run by effort or how you feel rather than pace, as your pace will likely be slower due to the demands of the trail. This will give you a better sense of how long your runs will take you at various efforts. Keep your trail runs at an easy-to-moderate effort while you’re at it to allow your body to adapt more readily.


Split your time on and off road.

If you can, try to run at least twice per week off road, as doing anything once every seven days or more is like starting new. Your body’s muscle memory works more effectively when you space your trail runs closer together – say, every three to four days. You can also run seasonally and vary your percentage of trail-to-road running throughout the year, running more trails in summer and autumn, and on more roads in the winter and spring seasons when the trail conditions aren’t optimal.


Run long, fast and easy on the road.

One thing that can happen when you go off road is your foot speed slows as your body learns how to adapt to the unevenness in the terrain. To counteract this, and to maintain your road-running fitness, invest in running short, fast intervals once per week or every other week (ie. 6-8 x 1-2 minutes hard with equal recovery or longer). Running easy and long on the roads is also a great way to avoid overtraining in terms of intensity and maintain your endurance until you can build up your time on the trail.


Build your long runs slower off road.

Again, it’s easy to think, “heck, I just ran a half-marathon, I can go run 16 kilometres on a trail.” You can, but it will take you much longer and require a lot more energy and wear on your body than the road. Much of that is because it’s new, and doing anything new at first demands more energy. Gradually increasing your time on the trail will boost your endurance and develop a solid foundation for more technical trail running down the path. Alternate a long run on the roads with a shorter long run on trails until you build up your time along the way.


Weave balance and strength into your routine.

One of the greatest things about trail running is that every step is unique. You might have your right foot land on a slight angle one stride and then hop over a root the next. Because of this, it’s wise to develop a solid base of body strength and balance before you run more technical trails. This will prevent ankle injuries and give you a greater sense of ease and power as you learn how fun it is to navigate what nature throws at you. Single leg exercises like squats, lunges, and standing balances are a great way to do so, as are other strengthening exercises like planks and mountain climbers.

Using objects like the Bosu, ankle foot maximiser, balance board, or even standing barefoot on a folded towel can help you challenge your balance and develop range of motion. Include a dynamic warm-up for your road runs with high and long skipping, butt kickers, and high knees to develop the power and strength it takes to leap and bound over everything on the trail. Adding jump rope training to your cross-training days is also an effective way to build the power and elasticity to improve your trail skills and stamina.


Run Techy Trail Intervals.

Now that you’ve built up your trail running foundation, it’s time to hit the technical stuff. Find a stretch of technical singletrack trail that includes logs, tree roots, rocks, and hills, and run my Techy Trail Intervals Workout. The purpose of this workout, similar to an interval workout, is to develop your trail running form and fitness and to break new trail (neural pathways). Keep the time short, as a little of this goes a long way. Once fatigue sets in and your form starts to break down, you’ll begin to develop bad habits.

  • Warm up on an easy trail or road with walking and easy running, and weave in some dynamic warm-up exercises (high knees, butt kickers, skipping, lateral hopping) for 20 seconds each.
  • Run for one minute on a technical part of the trail at a comfortable effort level (not fast).
  • Focus on keeping your elbows wide for balance and shoulders relaxed; try to land with short, quick strides.
  • At the end of the minute, turn around and walk the same distance back to where you started and repeat again for six to eight times, and finish with a cooldown on an easy trail or road.
  • As you develop your skills and create new neural pathways, this will become easier; when it does, add speed to your Techy Trail Intervals.
  • Once you develop speed in small bits, extend the time of the intervals and find other trails to build your skills. You can run hill repeats, trail tempos, and more. But the key is to learn the skills in small bits first.


Let the obstacles come to you.

When I first started trail running, a coach taught me to navigate obstacles in the most efficient manner. For instance, as I come up to root on the trail in this short video clip, I step right in front of the root then lift my heels up and back (like a butt kicker) to flow right over it rather than lifting my knee and leg up high in front of me. It takes some practice, but it makes all the difference in energy drain and avoiding tripping. Try it at home with a foam roller. Another place to pick up speed naturally is to practice your downhill running. On some trails you can run as you would on the downhill of a road, but others are so steep and rocky they require the “stair-stepping” downhill technique, where you go through the motions like you’re running down a flight of stairs (high knees, elbows wide, in a rhythm).


Create your own single-track.

If you don’t have access to a trail during the week, head to your local park and use man-made objects to simulate a technical singletrack trail. I’ve done this before in the urban jungle when I trained for a multiday adventure race. I’d run along the beach in the sand, leap up on benches as I ran by, climbed stairs, and jump laterally for 15 seconds while waiting to cross the street. When you start to look for adventure in your neck of the woods, it’s everywhere!


If you’re thinking about racing trails, start with a shorter distance like a 5K, and build from there – especially if it’s a challenging and technical trail. You’ll gain confidence with every race, and build the necessary skills, strength, and fitness, while having more fun along the way.

Trail running is one of the pure joys in my running life. It’s motivated me to train differently, focus more, stress less, and get much stronger on my road runs. The secret is to treat it like a new running habit and evolve slowly along the way.


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