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After battling through 22 km of technical trail and challenging terrain, I realised I had fumbled and fallen into a new world completely unprepared. Not only did it take me at least an hour more than the same distance on road would have, but I also spent the next 2 days with a headache and very stiff legs.
Despite my rough entry into trail running, I was soon hooked. It is the ultimate endorphin-filled sport: the combination of exploring nature’s finest with the added benefit of the post-exercise runner’s high.
So how is trail running different from road running?
The first thing you need to know is that you won’t always run. When tackling steep climbs it is more energy efficient to hike, which can be a welcome change. There may also be sections of technical trail that is better to navigate slowly, reducing the risk of injury while you duck and weave over tree roots and under fallen branches. While the softer surfaces in trail running result in less impact-related injuries, the mixture of stop/start pace and uneven ground means you will most likely spend more time on your feet. This not only effects the way you will train but also increases the amount of carbohydrates, electrolytes and water you will need during the run.
Nothing about trail running is particularly straight forward therefore neither should your training be. It is important to build a combination of stamina and strength while having the ability to navigate uneven terrain under fatigue. Many road runners are undone on trails by the sheer pressure put on joints during steep climbs and uneven descents.
Top 5 training tips to get you prepared to tackle a trail challenge.
Cardiovascular fitness – build the engine.
Firstly you need to build a solid cardiovascular base. Build up your fitness through a mixture of long runs and stair training. Make sure that you start training far enough in advance so that you never increase your distance by more than 10% per week to avoid overtraining injuries.
Terrain specific – hit the trail.
For the most effective training, spend as much time on trails similar to the event. Even better: run sections of the track for your training so you know what you are up against and where you have to dig deep. Training on trails will also develop stability through your joints reducing the risk of injury.
Try: Hiking, a great alternative to running if you want to add in some more distance without the impact.
Strength training – reduce injury.
To cope with undulating and uneven terrain strength training is a vital component of training for a trail run. Exercises that focus on developing core strength and single-leg strength (Bulgarian split squat or walking lunge) help promote stability and reduce the risk of injury. Becoming stronger also improves running economy, resulting in greater speed and muscular endurance.
Stability & Balance – stay on your feet.
The most common injury for trail runners is a sprained ankle. No surprises there. Adding in exercises that promote ankle strength and balance will help you avoid injury. Start off with body weight single-leg exercises in addition to exercises that focus on ankle inversion and eversion using a resistance band. Over time, progress this to single-leg weighted exercises that focus on unstable training environment.
Try: Single-leg exercises using a Bosu ball or wobble board to develop balance and ankle strength.
Listen to your body – correct imbalances.
Pain is a warning from the body often signalling muscular imbalance, weakness or overuse. Pay attention to these niggles and be curious about where you are tight or sore after a training run. If ignored, over a long distance these muscular imbalances could develop into injury.
Despite all of these differences, it’s the culture that surrounds trail running that really sets it apart. If you’re a newbie, trail runners welcome you into their world. They encourage each other and don’t hesitate to offer support if another runner is injured. They do it for the love of running and the time spent in the great outdoors.
Trail running has me hooked, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Image by GaudiLab/Fotolia