Indoor Trail Running Tips
I absolutely love trail running - and I’m not picky. The adrenaline rush of flying down a steep and rocky descent is second to none, but the reward of a long climb is always worth it. Expertly navigating technical single track while rock hopping and root dodging awakens my inner ninja, yet the smooth flow of manicured ski trails is peaceful and calming. Even long grinds up service roads can be a great opportunity for moving meditation and introspection. As much as I enjoy any trail, any day, it simply isn’t practical for me to run trails as often as I’d like. Unless you live in a trail runner’s paradise, I’m sure that you feel the same way. If your access to trail running is limited, it’s important to account for this in your training if you want to be ready for them on race day.
Training exclusively on roads and treadmills is certainly not ideal for the “trail runner at heart”, but don’t despair! There’s plenty of ways to turn your indoor & asphalt workouts into trail specific training and become a trail running monster. But first, we need to understand what makes trail running so dang hard. While the differences between running trails and pavement are many, the most significant fall into one of three broad categories:
Elastic Energy Return / Impact Forces
When we run on a road - or to a greater degree, a treadmill - you’ll tend to settle into a steady and consistent pace. Your breathing rhythm will be even, your heart rate will be steady, or your pace won’t oscillate much. Your legs settle into a rhythm and you just put enough energy into the effort to keep them moving. On a trail - especially a technical one, there are constant obstacles in your path that disrupt your normal gait and inject slight fluctuations into your pace. You have to bring the action of your legs and feet into greater conscious awareness, breaking away from the monotonous yet efficient rhythm of pavement pounding. This is not insignificant. Mentally and physically, it’s tougher to stay on pace. Each time you have to take a side step or adjust stride length to avoid a hazardous footfall, you have to put additional effort into accelerating (in this context, a change in speed or direction) back into your normal running gait, only to do this again a few moments later, again and again (and again). Some rhythm disruptions are minor but many - for instance, each rock and root changes your gait slightly and prevents you from finding a smooth rhythm, but you still may find a “bumpy” rhythm while maintaining an event effort / intensity. Other disruptions are larger, like a sudden hill, creek crossing, fallen tree, or aid station. Anything that causes a significant change to your pace or intensity could be consider a large rhythm disruption; you may experience a large shift in heart rate or completely change what muscles you’re using to making forward progress. If you want to be a great trail runner, you need to be an expert at handing disruptions, both large and small.
The muscular demand of trail running is also different - both technical trails and trails with significant elevation change offer strength and stability challenges not typically found on the road. Technical trail running requires lateral strength and stability in the hips and ankles, and midline stability - the ability to stay upright and resistant rotational forces. Extremely technical trails require more eccentric strength - and in some cases, mobility. Trails with climbing and descending recruit more muscle fibers, tapping into fibers that fatigue more easily, making muscular endurance and general strength more important, and steep climbing works the legs through a greater range of motion.
Last but not least, the elastic energy return from soft surfaces is different than relatively springy surfaces like a rubberized track or asphalt. Great road runners get more elastic energy return from their arches and achilles, while great trail runners tend to be a little more mobile but less elastic. For example, having a lot of ankle dorsiflexion can help improve posterior chain recruitment when running/hiking uphill, but can also reduce elastic energy return in the foot/calf and hurt your speed on the roads. If you want to get more efficient at soft surface running, doing workouts where you sabotage your muscle stiffness and force yourself to “grind” can pay off big dividends.
Putting it all together:
So, with all these forces conspiring against us on the trails, how are we supposed to be prepared for the challenge if we can only train indoors and on the treadmill? Well, let’s look at some examples of how to intentionally disrupt your rhythm, increase muscle fiber recruitment, and challenge your stability while training indoors or on the road.
Some of my favorite ways to simulate minor disruptions involve subtle pace/incline fluctuations/alternations on a treadmill, short bouts of A-skips or B-skips outdoors, and when outdoors, something I call “hopscotch” - intentionally hopping over cracks in the sidewalk, stepping on leaves/twigs, running on and off the edge of the sidewalk, or any other means of adding artificial roots and rocks to navigate.
For larger disruptions, more pronounced pace/incline fluctuations on the treadmill work great, as do insertions of bodyweight strength movements throughout a run. Stopping a run every 400m to 800m for a quick set of lunges or burpees not only disrupts your rhythm in a big way, but also increases that muscle fiber recruitment we talked about earlier. It’s important to note that these sets aren’t full fledged workouts. Even something as simple as 5 burpees per half-mile will be sufficiently disruptive to your rhythm, though I suggest more frequent and longer sets if you’re aiming to improve muscular endurance too. By selecting your exercises carefully and/or mixing this method with minor disruptions, you can also challenge your ankle and core stability, or even your mobility.
Not sure what method is best or what exactly to do? See below for some trail elements and ways to simulate them indoors or on the road.
Roots and Rocks
On the treadmill, alternate every 0:30-1:00 between 1% and 5% incline (for a short portion of the workout), or oscillate between 0.2mph above and below target pace.
Stop every few minutes for 0:015-0:30 of A-skips or B-skips
Add high volume sets of single leg lateral hops (side to side over a crack) at the beginning or end of the workout, or during active recovery intervals
play “trail runner hopscotch” (run edge of curb, in ditch, try to step on particular cracks or twigs)
Add high volume sets of single leg lateral hops (side to side over a crack) at the beginning or end of the workout, or during active recovery intervals.
On the treadmill, alternate every 3:00-5:00 between 1% and 3% incline, or oscillate between 0.1mph above and below target pace.
Outdoors, add 0:30 surges at a faster pace every few minutes. 0:30 @ 5k pace every 5:00 of an easy run works well.
Intentionally negative or positive split intervals in a controlled manner - for example, instead of running an 800m in 3:30, try to do 400m in 1:50, then 400m in 1:40. Or, alternate between 50 and 55 second 200’s for 800m.
Add sets of air squats, walking lunges, lunge hops, or burpees every few minutes. Shorter and more intense sets (e.g. 5 burpees + 5 lunge hops per side) are good for simulating sudden steep climbs or stairs, while longer sets (e.g. 10 air squats + 20 steps of walking lunges) are good for simulating things like long fire road climbs. Longer sets still (e.g. 100 steps of walking lunges) are great at preparing you for the steep extended climbs you’ll find on a mountain course.
Fallen Trees, Boulders:
Adding a mobility component and an explosive component can be helpful here. Ever cramped while ducking under a tree branch or hopping over a large rock? Try simulating these obstacles with 5 cossack squats per side followed 5 squat jumps for height.
General Ankle Stability:
Runner’s hopscotch is great here, as is direct ankle and calf work like the power raise (described at the end of this article) .
General Core Stability:
Add a core component to your mid-run exercise sets. Rolling planks are my favorite. Try 8 to 10 rolls per side for 1-2 sets throughout the workout.
Muscle stiffness / elasticity:
When running on the roads, try to run off to the side of the curb in whatever small sections of grass and dirt you can find, even if it’s just for a few moments at a time. It will hurt your pace, but that matters not!
Example Workout - Road
Let’s look at how to transform a boring 30-35 minute run into an exciting trail-specific workout.
3 x 20 power raises
1 x 50 each foot, side to side single leg hops
Minutes 1-10 (approximate)
3 rounds of: 3:00 run @ steady pace, then 5 burpees and 5 lunge hops per leg
10 minutes of runner hopscotch, constantly stepping on and off the curb, running zig zag patterns in the ditch, hopping over cracks in the sidewalk, and unnecessarily adjusting stride length from time to time to step on random rocks or leaves. If you route is incredibly boring, adding some 20-30 second intervals of skipping or a 10-12 single leg hops is also a good option.
3 rounds of: 2:00 run @ steady pace, 0:30 surge @ 5k pace, then 5 cossack squats per side and 5 squat jumps for max height
10 rolling planks
50 steps walking lunges
Example Workout - Treadmill
3 x 20 power raises
1 x 50 each foot, side to side single leg hops
2 x 0:30 side plank per side
Minutes 1-10 (approximate)
10 rounds of 0:30 on @ 6% incline / 0:30 @ 1% incline @ steady pace
3:00 run, 15 air squats, 30 steps of walking lunges, x 5-6 rounds
5:00 walk on 15% incline (2.5-3.5mph)
1:00 walk on 15% incline, backwards (1.0 - 2.0 mph)