Runners usually think of trails as a nice place for an easy run—soft surfaces, tweeting birds, and so on—and reserve hard workouts for the track or the roads. After all, how are you supposed to hit your goal pace with all those rocks and roots? But what doesn’t trip you makes you stronger. –
Learning to run fast on uneven terrain has benefits that translate to any surface. You’ll build strength, improve balance, and hone your inner pace sense – not to mention your mental toughness.
Stay accountable. Moving an interval workout from the track (pace-based) to the trail (time- and effort-based) can offer a mental break, but don’t let such workouts become a holiday. Every other week, do a series of out-and-back repeats (6 x 3:00 with 1:30 rest, for example). Pick a starting point along the trail and mark it with a stick; run hard for 3:00, then mark your end point. Rest, then run back, trying to make it past where you began; mark the new spot. Try to push farther each time: You’ll be surprised at how much faster you can go with a goal to beat.
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Work the clutch. To maintain a quick pace on trails, where sharp curves and other obstacles disrupt your rhythm, you need to avoid slowing down until the last possible moment and re-accelerate immediately after every disruption. Refine acceleration and deceleration skills by running pace-change sprints after an easy run once a week. Find a field or path about 100 metres long, and divide it by marking spots at around 30 and 70 metres. Run medium-hard for the first section, hard for the second section, and medium-hard for the third section; walk back. Then run hard/medium-hard/hard. Do six in total, and focus on shifting gears precisely when you pass the marker.
Go sideways. Runners are great at going forward but terrible at moving side-to-side—and that’s a problem when you’re trying to hop around rocks and navigate switchbacks. You can work on strength, balance, and range of motion by including some drills after your run twice a week. Try sideways skipping for 20 to 30 metres in both directions, 10 reps each of sideways lunges and lateral hops (jumping side-to-side on one foot at a time), and balancing on one foot for 20 seconds at a time (increase the difficulty by closing your eyes and/or standing on a folded towel). Strengthening these muscles and ingraining these movement patterns will enable you to flow around curves and obstacles without losing momentum.
Scout the course. Racing on trails puts your skills to their toughest test. You can pace yourself appropriately only if you know what to expect. Run the course in advance, if possible, or study the course map to be familiar with the terrain and the key ups, downs, and switchbacks. It can be difficult to pass on single-track trail, so figure out where choke points will occur and how long they’ll last. If you’re feeling good, surge about a half a kay before possible bottlenecks. If you’re not feeling good, surge anyway – in a trail race, sometimes a change of rhythm is exactly what you need.