Hard-core road racers don't tend to consider trails as anything but a distraction from their end goal: speed. Which is too bad. Because mixing dirt into a race-training regimen can help you become a stronger, more well-rounded runner, as well as get you out of a rut when your training goes stale. Incorporating trails into your regimen is likely to help no matter your ability so long as you make some physical and mental adjustments (like these 10 mental tricks to run better).
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Most important, because you won't feel fast relative to the pace you normally run on pavement, you'll want to ignore your watch and heart rate monitor and manage your runs instead according to duration and fatigue, both of which will be greater than what you're used to. (A runner who is used to covering 10 miles in 60 to 90 minutes might take 75 minutes to two hours on trails, depending on the difficulty of the course.)
The short-term payoff, though, is that mixing trails into a program builds aerobic capacity, lessens the risk of overuse injuries, and reduces the time it takes to recover by working different muscles at different times. Even running once or twice a week on mildly undulating terrain can help build strength and stability, as long as you're following these 11 tips to a smooth trail run. Climbing hills strengthens the calves, hamstrings, and glutes; descending strengthens the quads; and hopping over uneven surfaces improves mobility and lateral core strength for stabilization, movements rarely practiced on the roads. Technical terrain also naturally emphasizes a shorter stride, which is more efficient, and running a moderately technical trail, a little curvy, rocky, and rooty, forces you to slow down and take your time, putting a lighter training load on your system.
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The following guide will help you convert your own workouts to take advantage of all of these benefits, plus the ultimate long-term payoff of a slower pace on softer surfaces: longevity in the sport.
The Road-to-Trail Workout
Typical road and track workouts can be replicated on trails, but it takes some creativity to make the necessary adjustments. Even a mildly undulating trail can add considerable resistance. Add too much intensity and you can wind up running yourself into the ground. For that reason, stick to trails with slight grades that won't compromise running form or fatigue your legs and lungs to exhaustion. Here are a few workouts to consider, but it's easy to develop your own, as long as you make sure you pick the right kind of trail to produce the desired effects, and avoid running especially steep terrain too often.
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1. Long Runs
PURPOSE: Develop and maintain aerobic endurance
WHEN: At least once a week throughout race training
TYPE OF TRAILS: Flat, rolling, and/or hilly trails
Just as with long runs prescribed in a regular marathon plan, these should be slow. But even slightly rolling trails can spike your heart rate, so ease up a bit to maintain an even heart rate. Also, don't think about the mileage you might need to cover, such as an 11-miler in the weeks before a half marathon or a 22-miler three weeks before a marathon. Think instead about the equivalent time you'll be on your feet (say, 2 hours to 3V2 hours). Keep in mind that the hillier the trails, the longer it will take to recover from the run.
More: 7 Trail Run Recovery Tips