5 Trail Running Workouts to Tackle This Spring

A man wears a pair of Altra trail running shoes

There's something unique about trail racing, whether it’s the solitude of the forest, the changing light of a desert sunrise or the fun-loving participants that make up the community.

Unlike your local 5K, trail races—many of which extend beyond the marathon distance—include a host of obstacles rarely seen on the roads: challenging terrain, long stretches with no crowds or medical support, and hours upon hours on your feet. The challenges mean poor training can lead to a very long day (and possibly night) out in the wilderness.

Despite those risks, thousands of runners thrive off the beaten path every year. To help you have a positive experience, we spoke to several experts about how to make this year your best on the trails.

Trail Running Workouts to Prepare You For Anything

A woman running on a trail through the forest

Workout #1: Back-to-Back Long Runs

Example: 14 quicker miles on Saturday; 3 ½ hours on the trails Sunday

Who: Racers going over the marathon distance

Why: Unlike 10Ks and half marathons, it’s difficult (and not particularly wise) to run longer than race distance if you compete in ultras. Instead, elite ultrarunner and coach Patrick Reagan says you need to find other ways of introducing a big dose of training that simulates and prepares you for what you’ll encounter on race day.

“It all comes down to the fact that most trail runners are working professionals, and, during the week, are not going to have as much time to train,” Reagan says. “This (type of session) best simulates that theory of fatigue.”

Back-to-back workouts are strenuous and need to be respected accordingly. “I would recommend you take Monday, and even Tuesday, very, very easy,” Reagan says.

Workout #2: Fartlek Ladder

Example: Sets of 1-2-3-4-3-2-1 minutes hard with equal rest between

Who: Runners looking to compete the distance, not just complete it

Why: For competitive athletes, there is a difference between running and racing a trail race. Those who wish to mix it up with the leaders or those in their age group need to have a high level of fitness coming in. Tara Richardson, a Coloradoan who was runner-up at the 2018 USATF Trail Marathon Championships, believes that getting in some faster training can’t be overlooked.

“Doing workouts on the roads at greater speeds lends itself to fitness increases, while running on the trails helps improve technical skills and strength,” she says. “However, don’t expect that just because you are fast on the roads or trails that you will automatically be good at the other. In order to be successful you have to put the time in, building up different muscles, mechanics and even mental strength.”

For this reason, Reagan likes to have his athletes occasionally adapt their roadwork for the trails and use heart rate and perceived exertion to help them feel those types of efforts out on terrain similar to what they will race on. He tells them to turn the lap splits off on their watches and just go by heart rate and feel.

“One of the things I’ve found is that it helps by taking away one of the variables,” he says, noting how a fluctuating pace can be distracting on uneven trails. “By the time you hit race day, it’s just what you do.”

A photo of a sunset over a running trail

Workout #3: Hill sprints and/or long repeats

Example: 10 x 3 minutes @ 5 percent grade

Who: Anyone and everyone

Why: Living in the coastal plain of Georgia might not seem like an ideal place to train for the Western States 100-miler with its 18,000 feet of vertical gain. Reagan would be the first to agree. That’s why he makes good use of the treadmill every week.

“To me, the workouts all depend on the race in terms of specificity,” he says. His treadmill intervals often top out at a 15 percent gradient, but it gets the job done. “That’s the most important part. If you live in a flat area and are going to be doing a really hilly race, the treadmill is a great tool. Even if you just have one hill in your area, that is going to be a great tool.”

Richardson agrees. Picking up trail running in the valley surrounding Glenwood Springs, Colorado, she found there was only direction she could run to leave town: up. “I had to be okay with going much slower and even walking during training and races due to the amount of elevation I was gaining,” she says.

Richardson was warned that all the slow climbing would hinder her speed, but three weeks after her runner-up finish at the trail marathon championships in Moab, she came back and ran an Olympic trials qualifier of 2:42 on the relatively flat Cal International Marathon course. “I attribute that to the strength that mountain and ultrarunning provided,” she says. “I do believe that they all complement one another.”

Workout #4: Continuous Tempo Run

Example: 4-8 miles at tempo (lactate threshold) pace on track/road

Who: Anyone looking for a fitness boost

Why: As much as Richardson and Reagan love the trails, it’s not wise to do all your workouts on singletrack. “The more you can mix (surfaces) the better,” says Reagan. “There’s going to be certain things that you can get in terms of running efficiency and economy on a track that are going to be a little difficult to simulate on an extremely hilly or technical trail.”

Fitness matters on race day more than anything. Tempos and long cruise intervals (reps of 1-2 miles at tempo pace with a short recovery in between) are an excellent way to build the stamina needed to maintain your pace and form for the duration of a long race. Staying in the proper training zones, though, usually requires a flat or relatively consistent surface.

Richardson concurs. “Overall my main focus is building fitness,” she says. “The race-specific days are just to allow me to gain confidence on the trails, and so I am not surprised by anything come race day.”

An empty trail in the day time

Workout #5: Simulation Long Run

Example: A long run with over 5,000 feet of climbing for a race with 4,000 of vertical gain

Who: Runners who want to be confident heading into race day

Why: When Richardson signs up for a race, the first thing she does is geek out on the specs. She looks for the amount of vertical gain, the technicality of the course, the toughest climbs and elevations. “This information helps me visualize the race and can help pinpoint strengths and weaknesses that I know I will need to work on during training.”

To gain confidence, Richardson does several long runs in a training cycle that have more vertical gain than her race. This gives her a chance to work her climbing skills and technical descents, a skill she is still working on after years of racing cross country and track.

“It sounds fun to run fast downhill for several miles, but it comes back to bite you,” she says. “In training, I actually do downhill repeats to help build up my quad and hamstring muscles so they are able to hold up to the relentless pounding many trail races have.”

Reagan can’t get into the mountains as much, so he uses less important races to help prepare him for the epics.

“Sometimes before a 100-miler I’ll never run more than a 35-mile run (in training), other than maybe a 50-mile and 100K race,” he says. “Even then, I’ll think, ‘Anything can happen in a 100-mile race because you just don’t run that far too often.’

“You just need to get out there and be smart on race day. Trust your coach that you’re doing the right amount of training per week, or per month, or per training block that’s going to prepare you for the distance.”

By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).

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