The most important tip is to ease into any training program. Give your body time to get used to running over uneven, unstable, often steep terrain. Politely dismiss any thoughts of going as fast you do on the tarmac, or of covering similar distance.
Plan your first workouts based on time. Think in terms of running for 10 minutes today, working up to 20 minutes next week, and so on.
If you’re already well trained as a road runner, think in terms of gradually transitioning to the new terrain. If you’re already well trained as a hiker, think in terms of gradually transitioning to a new gait and new intensity.
Trail running is more dynamic than road running. You’ll find yourself switching gates, cadences, postures. You’ll find yourself switching between small steps and longer strides, between landing on your heels and landing your toes. You’ll likewise find much more variation between fast and slow on a trail run. Some of these shifts will feel intuitive, while others will come through experiment or through coaching.
The great news is that this all of this keeps life interesting for the trail runner. Evidence also suggests that you’ll be less susceptible to repetitive stress injuries. There are a few caveats. You’ll be somewhat more at risk for acute injuries, as from twisting an ankle or falling on your nose. So be cautious, especially when you’re new to the sport or when you’re tired. You’ll also probably discover all new varieties of sore parts the day after. So again, give your body time to adapt.
Training programs for aerobic sports are usual broken down into tempo, endurance, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and active recovery. You’ll find plenty of information online about how to structure a training program. I’d like to discuss some of the specifics as they apply to trail running.
Most coaches recommend four to six weeks of easy miles to build a training base before starting higher intensity training. If you’re new to trail running, this is the time to get your body used to the whole affair.
For most aerobic athletes, high-intensity intervals are the meat and potatoes of any program. It’s where you’ll push hardest, and where you’ll find the greatest gains. The simplest way to run trail intervals is to take advantage rolling hills. Push hard uphill, for an active interval of 30 seconds to five minutes. The intensity should be close to what you can manage without toppling over by the end of your fourth or fifth interval. Follow each active interval with a recovery phase of two to three minutes. Ideally this phase should be on the level or downhill. A brisk walk will offer an appropriate recovery intensity. Repeat for a minimum of four cycles, a maximum of ten or so.
If you’re looking for a magic formula—the ideal combination of interval length and intensity and ratio of active-to-recovery—I have a secret to share with you. Science has not discovered one. You might find articles by coaches claiming to have found a formula that’s better than all others. But a careful review of all the research shows only one thing: interval training works. Almost every variation on interval training works, provided the intensity is high enough. If any one formula does work better than another, we really don’t know, because the quality of the research just isn’t high enough. So this is one area where personal trial and error may be the best approach.
Once a week, a long trail run at an easy pace helps your body build endurance. One training effect is helping the body to burn a higher proportion of fats to stored carbohydrates. Anything you can do to preserve those vital—and limited—carb stores will benefit you on long days. You don’t get this training effect from shorter, more intense runs. When you’re a beginner, you might do your long slow distance as brisk hikes or laid-back road runs.
Tempo training is a grab-bag term for short-to-medium length sessions performed at a high intensity. Usually this means working close to your anaerobic threshold, which corresponds with your time trial pace—basically as hard as you can push for a sustained effort of over 15 minutes. Tempo training can be integrated with hill training or technical workouts.
You’ll need a recovery day at least once a week, and maybe two or three times. It depends on your fitness level and ambition level. Recovery is necessary to getting stronger. It doesn’t need to be total rest. In fact, you’ll recover faster with an easy hike or jog or bike ride than you would with a day spent in bed.
If you plan to run technical terrain—rocks, roots, ruts, mud, snow, bogs—you need to practice for it. Find technical trails that let you work on your skills in smaller doses before jumping onto a long and committed technical course.
Expect technical sections of trail to slow you down. Especially in the beginning, the most technical bits might slow you to a walk, even a crawl. Literally—I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve descended some sections of trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains backwards and on all-fours. In some places the line between a trail and a technical climb is a bit blurry, so don’t be dogmatic about running everything. Nothing will slow down your progress like a full-leg cast and traction.
On downhills practice keeping your weight forward, over your toes and balls of your feet. This way you’ll tend to slip into balance rather than out of balance. If your weight is over your heels, it just takes an inch or two of slip before your center of gravity is directly above nothing, making a pratfall onto your backside inevitable.
You may find it helpful to hold your arms looser than you would while road running. Trail runners often use their arms the way cats use their tails—out from the body, flailing around for dynamic balance.
You may find it helpful to do some cross-training in the weight room. A full-body workout is great for general fitness, but I’ll recommend three specific exercises for trail runners.
Exercise #1 is the free weight squat. It will take care of everything from your knees to your lower back. I’ll strongly recommend a session with a trainer or coach to teach you correct form. This is a wonderful exercise, but only when done correctly. Poor form, or too much ambition when you begin, can lead to all manner of regrets.
Exercise #2 is calf-raises, either with free weights or a machine. Strong calves are helpful!
Exercise #3 is a balance exercise, and can be done anywhere you don’t mind looking silly. It doesn’t require any equipment. Stand on one leg. What you do with the other is up to you. Resting your foot against the inside of your other calf is a popular option. You might also try it yoga-style, holding your ankle behind you with a hand, as if you’re stretching your quads. Hold the pose for 30 seconds to get warmed up. Then close your eyes and see how long you can continue. You’ll find it much harder without any visual cues to assist your balance. You’ll notice the little muscles around your ankle firing rapidly, working overtime to keep you upright. It may feel more like an ankle strength exercise than a balance exercise. This is excellent! Balance is
closely connected to the speed and strength of these little stabilizing muscles.
Some other exercises to consider: box-jumping, side-hopping, and anything that trains your stability and core (trunk) muscles.
You’ll of course need a good pair of shoes. For training, consider a generalist shoe that can handle a range of terrain. Make sure it’s heavy enough to hold up. Save the featherweight shoes for competition. It’s smart to bring a lightweight rain shell and a headlamp on any long or remote outing.
A hydration pack / running vest will be invaluable on all but the shortest outings.
Training runs are the best time to figure out what energy gels or sports drinks work for you. Generally, you’ll want to use a hydration bladder for pure water. Sports drinks work better in bottles, which are easier to clean. Sugary liquid in a hydration bladder can quickly turn into a biology experiment.
Consider bringing something to treat hot-spots and blisters, at least until you’re sure you can trust your shoes over long distances.
If your training course presents any daunting objective hazards—river crossings, bears, avalanches, etc.—consider a training buddy. Safety in numbers and all that. You may also appreciate the company and the motivation.