Learn the right terminology and way to train for your first trail race.
For the avid road runner, trail running is often considered the next frontier. Trails provide an escape and a beauty that not only allows you to get your run in, but also cleanses the soul. Along with the trail’s treasures are new challenges for the road warrior: Terrain can be tricky to navigate, elevation changes are likely more drastic, and climbs and descents don’t compare to the roads. Trail newbies often need to ignore pace— forget hitting certain minutes per mile—and focus on effort instead.
If you are a pavement-pounding runner hearing the call of the trails, this is the plan for you. Although this training requires no prior off-road experience, there are a few prerequisites before you dive in and get dirty. You should have a base of at least 12 weeks of running under your belt and be able to comfortably complete a 3- to 4-mile run. Experience with some faster-paced running (like speed work) is helpful, but not crucial.
This plan introduces on-roaders to trail running and racing, hitting three trail races within the 10 weeks and peaking with a 15K—when you will feel trail-tested and tough. Two to three times a week, find a wooded trail, dirt path or other less sure-footed surface to run on. Easy and long runs are your best options (keep speedy runs on a more stable surface).
Adapt the plan to your individual preferences and experience level. Although designed for the beginner, a more seasoned runner can add miles or repeats to make it suitable for a higher fitness level. Runners new to fartleks and tempo runs can alternate the workouts week to week, rather than doing both each week. Just switch one workout to an easy run.
EASY (E): Aim to comfortably cover the distance at a conversational pace. Run at an effort that allows you to enjoy the scenery and any company. These are great runs to get familiar with trails. Use short and soft strides.
FARTLEK (F): Start these workouts with at least a 10-minute warm-up. Once warm, launch into your fi rst interval at a medium to hard effort, where breathing is heavy. Between intervals, jog easy for recovery. Repeat as listed. Use the remaining distance as a cool-down. The key is consistency from one effort to the next—hold back a little in the earlier efforts so you have something to give in the last few intervals.
HILLY FARTLEK (HF): These sessions will build strength and stamina without extra stress on joints. They can be run over a series of varying hills or as hill repeats. Hills should be of moderate incline, 4 to 8 percent grade. After at least a 10-minute easy warm-up, start your first hill, aiming for a medium to hard effort. Walk or jog down the hill between repeats for recovery or use the time indicated to guide your recovery period to the next hill. Finish the run with a cool-down to get in the distance listed. If you have no good hill options nearby, consider a treadmill or bridge.
LONG RUN (LR): These miles should be run at a relaxed pace, where conversation can easily fl ow and breathing is in control and not labored. If getting out on the actual course isn’t an option, find terrain similar to what you expect to encounter on race day.
STRIDES (S): These are a set of short accelerations, performed after your run, as a way to maintain turnover and touch on some basic speed. This is a good time to focus on your form. Ideally they should be run on fl at terrain. Accelerate for the first few seconds, hold speed for the middle 10 seconds or so, then allow yourself to slow for the final few seconds. Take your time between strides. These are not all-out sprints.
DOWNHILL STRIDES (DS): These are run on a very slight decline, roughly 2 percent grade. As with regular strides, you pick up the pace, hold and slow. These should feel pretty effortless and smooth as you allow gravity to assist you.
TEMPO (T): Tempo runs are that sweet spot where you are working, but feel you could hold pace for quite a while. Often described as comfortably hard, your breathing will be more labored and your focus more acute. Not a lot of talking happens beyond a word or two. After a 10-minute warm-up, start the tempo portion at a more conservative pace, with the goal of feeling the effort a few minutes into it. Cool down post-tempo to get in the miles listed.
CROSS-TRAINING (XT): Two days a week, you have the option to incorporate some non-impact exercise into the mix. Shoot for 30 to 60 minutes. You can opt for an active recovery workout, like easy spinning or swimming, or use this time to work on trail-specific areas, like core strength and balance drills.
REST: You can’t train hard if you aren’t rested. And road runners may find they are sore in new and unique ways after hitting the trails! Listen to your body and remember that rest is when strength is built.
TRAIL 5K, 10K AND 15K: You will tackle three races during the 10-week training. The progression is designed for both the runner wanting to lay it all out on race day as well as the one whose goal is simply finishing. You can also perform these as workouts if there are not races that match up in your area.