Not all runners feel compelled to race on paved surfaces. Some, in fact, like to get down and dirty. Trail running has a lot of technical elements not found in road and track racing, but for all the root-hopping and creek-crossing the sport affords, it’s still governed by the same physiological laws.
That doesn’t mean the difference don’t count. Musculoskeletal strength and the brain’s ability to rapidly process stimuli are huge components of running fast in the wilderness. Mixing those variables into VO2 max training is a great way to make those gains even more specific to the trails.
At the same time, make sure you do these types of workouts on trails where it’s safe to run fast. Nothing ruins a workout faster than a bloodied knee and gravel under your skin.
Because many trail races are long—like, really, really long—there are myriad opportunities to combine workout stressors in a manner that better replicates race day (not that any of these workouts can really replicate a 100-miler in the Sierras…but I digress).
Much like the marathon sessions prescribed above, starting at tempo/lactate threshold effort and working down in intensity is a good option as it pre-fatigues the legs and helps you adapt to running intensely while tired. For a trail runner, proficiency in this department is vital to success.
- Example 6: 2 x 5 mins @ VO2 max (equal jog recovery), followed by 2 x 3 minutes (equal recovery) on runnable singletrack trail.
- Example 7: 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 minute fartlek, starting at tempo effort and picking up to VO2 max effort for the last few minutes (half-time recovery for first five intervals, then equal time)
VO2 Max Workouts on Hills
This is one last VO2 max workout I want to touch on, and it can be used for 5K runners, marathoners and trail racers alike: hill intervals.
Fighting gravity is an excellent way to get your respiration rate up in the first place; adding in a healthy dose of pace makes it all the more effective. Sessions like 6 x 3 minutes uphill not only maximize your oxygen uptake, they also develop power and efficiency in the process. As an early-to-midseason session, I cannot recommend this work enough.
In a perfect world, you’d find a long but not-too-steep hill (3-6 percent grade) with good footing. As far as recovery is concerned, you can jog back down to the base of the hill or, if you live in a mountainous area, progressively work your way uphill.
It may be tricky for everyone to find a suitable incline, but it’s amazing how many pancake-flat areas have a sled hill, tall bridge, or converted garbage dump just waiting to be scaled.
It may stink (especially if your hill really is a converted garbage dump), but you’ll be all the better for it.
- Example 8: 5 x uphill 800 @ VO2 max effort (3:00 recovery or jog to base of hill)
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).