How to Improve Trail Running Speed

How to Improve Trail Running Speed

Q: I want to get faster on the trails, should I focus more on running on the road or on the trail? ~Nicole

The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is one way to improve your trail running speed is to create a training recipe that includes both on and off-road running and 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 maintain 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 in understanding that although 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 however, one demands your attention every stride. For example, when on a road run, most can look over at their buddy and wink while telling her about the movie you saw last night and adjusting their pony-tail. If you try this on a trail, you’ll end up seeing eye-to-eye with a bullfrog waist-deep in a pond and wondering how it happened so quickly. 

That is the joy of trail running. You have to run in the moment and focus on the next step, every step. Here are some tips for getting speedy on trails.

Develop Your Trail Fitness First

Running trails, especially technical single track, takes a lot more energy, strength and balance than the 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.

In January, I set a resolution to learn how to ride an MX dirt bike. I’ve ridden mountain bikes and motorcycles on roads for years, which gave me an understanding of how to ride a bike, but when I started to ride my MX, I didn’t have the faintest clue how to do so. It felt like I’d never ridden in my life. It was similar in that I knew how to change gears, use the clutch and break, but vastly different in that it requires more balance, strength, and skill to ride off-road on technical terrain.

In my first lesson, my coach had me ride around a flat, well-groomed oval in his mom’s backyard. Yep, not exactly hardcore MX-ing, but I was able to learn the fundamentals of foot and body position on the bike, how to corner and shift gears before I hit a technical trail or track. 

I was also creating new neural pathways in my brain, which over time when these skills are repeated, become familiar and easier to accomplish and will allow me to ride on more challenging terrain (at least that’s my hope).

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 are 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 as your body’s muscle memory works more effectively when you space your trail runs closer together, say every 3-4 days. You can also run seasonally, and vary your percentage of trail-to-road running throughout the year, running more trails in the summer and fall season 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 maintaining 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 10 miles 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 natures throws at you. 

Single leg exercises like squats, lunges, and standing balance are a great way to do so – as are other strengthening exercises like planks and mountain climbers. Using objects to challenge your balance and develop range of motion like the Bosu, Ankle Foot Maximizer, a balance board or even standing barefoot on a folded towel can help. Including a dynamic warm-up for your road runs with high and long skipping, butt kickers and high knees can help 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 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 single-track trail, one 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, fitness and to break new trail (neural pathways). Keep the time short, as a little of this goes a long way and once your form begins to break down when fatigue sets in, you begin to create bad habits and form (and that’s not a good thing). 

  • 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 – think of me putting around on my MX bike). 
  • Focus on keeping your elbows wide for balance, shoulders relaxed and landing 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 6-8 times and finish with a cool-down on an easy trail or road.
  • As you develop your skills and create new neural pathways, this will become easier, and 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 tempo’s and more.  But the key is to learn the skills in small bits first.

Let 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 a long or 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 clipping your toes and falling. 

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 a downhill on a road, but others that are steep and rocky require the “stair-stepping” downhill technique, where you go through the motions like your 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 manmade objects to simulate the Techny Single track trail. I did this when I trained for the Eco-Challenge in the Chicago urban jungle. I’d run along the beach in the sand, include step up’s on benches or leap up on the benches as I ran by, climbed stairs, jumped 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 is a challenging and technical trail. You’ll gain confidence with every race, build the skills, strength and fitness necessary to run it with less risk and have 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, much stronger on my road runs.  The secret is to treat it like a new running habit and evolve slowly along the way.

Happy Trails.

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