Change Up Your Routine & Terrain To Run Stronger!

Safely change up your running terrain with tips from pro ultra-marathoner Sage Canaday.


Sage Canaday |

As runners, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and it might take a new experience to push us out of our comfort zones and help us discover hidden talents. For me, it wasn’t until I entered (and won!) a mountain running event in 2012 that I realised climbing uphill could be fun, and that I was actually pretty good at it.
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What’s more, I realised that switching up the surfaces on which I run and the distances I go forces my body to adapt in new ways that make me stronger, faster, and more resistant to injury. That variety can breathe fresh air into a stale routine. Here’s how I make it seamless.

Transition from Road to Trail

One of the key differences between road and trail running is that trails often have very steep hills. Uphills and downhills work the leg muscles differently, and if you’re used to pounding relatively flat, paved roads, the transition to hills will subject your quads, hammies, and calves to a new type of muscle fatigue and strain. My solution is to implement hill-training into workouts to specifically strengthen my legs and lungs for trails.
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The other major difference is that trail surfaces can be uneven and full of hazards that demand extra agility, and even trail-specific shoes. The best way to transition is to practise first on smooth dirt and grass. Run slowly at first, then add duration and speed over a period of several weeks. You’ll also want to do stability-specific drills, such as balancing on one leg with your eyes closed, and single-leg deadlifts and hops, to build the muscle strength, balance, and coordination you’ll need on trails.

Transition from Smooth Trail to Technical Trail

Not all trails are created equal. A smooth dirt jeep track can feel like a paved road, whereas a rock-laden singletrack up a mountain can feel more like an obstacle course. Some trail-​running events may feature extreme sections that put your coordination and stability to the test. To prep, I incorporate stair running into my routine, as well as short-distance trail sections full of obstacles (chunky rocks, uneven roots, slippery mud puddles).

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If you live in an urban area, look for kerbs, parks, playgrounds, or stadium stairs to practise on. Gradually introduce more of these elements into your runs. As you gain balance, agility and confidence, amp up your speed. Take small, quick steps and adjust your stride on the fly, like you’re ‘dancing’ with the terrain.

Transition from Anything to the Track

People often think that formal training on the track is all about gut-busting speed and intensity. It can be about that – but for beginners, the track can also be a great tool for monitoring effort based on actual pace and distance, because the track doesn’t lie. To avoid injury, don’t think you have to sprint out of the gate. I warm up for 10 minutes and do a few strides before I start the workout.

Begin with 4 x 200-metre repeats, then progress to 400s and 800s. Or try a 1:2 work-to-rest ratio, and extend from there. My go-to trick is to use the soft infield grass, which can strengthen feet and ankles, for recovery and cooldown. Mentally, it’s also refreshing to break up the monotony of laps in the lane.

Sage Canaday is a three-time US National Champion (mountain running, 100-K, and trail mara­thon), a two-time US Olympic Trials qualifier, and coach at sagerunning.com. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @SageCanaday.

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