How to Maximize Your Trail Running Performance, According to Running Coaches

trail running training
Erin McGrady for Men's Journal

Spending time outside is one thing. If your goals, however, go beyond simply logging more trail time this year, you likely need advice to boost your running performance and to improve your overall fitness. We asked Mosi Smith— Marine Corps veteran, multiple Badwater Ultramarathon finisher, six-time Boston Marathon finisher and winner of the 2019 Black Mountain Monster 24-hour race—as well as two ChiRunning coaches exactly how they get the most from their unpaved miles. Is there a secret to training for trail-running? Well, yes and no.

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Erin McGrady for Men’s Journal

Set Goals

You knew this was coming, right? The goal-setting and new year’s resolutions are still fresh in most people’s minds. Luckily, if you haven’t already, there’s still time to find a trail race that will help you meet those goals. Maybe this is the year for a PR or even an FKT. Whatever your goals are, get ‘em down on paper, and then start making strides (literally) toward achieving them.

Be Consistent

Half of setting goals is following through. We all have off days. But putting in the time, regardless of how much you actually want to run, will, in the end, pay off. Sure, if you have a fever or a legitimate injury, it’s best to take a break from training. We’re talking here about the days when you’d rather go to happy hour than show up at the trailhead. It’s a matter of having the discipline to get the miles in when it would be easier to skip the workout.

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Train on Trails

You can’t expect to run your best on the trails if you spend most of your time on the treadmill or training on roads. Specificity is the name of the game. Most people intuitively know that if you want to excel at something, you’ve got to put time on your feet at that something. Trail running is no different. There’s a certain skill set, believe it or not, to being fleet-footed on the trail, and those skills include negotiating roots and rocks, drinking fluids while on the go, and even navigating your course. The president and founder of ChiRunning, Danny Dreyer, recommends new trail runners take it very gradually. “Your leg muscles aren’t used to all the quick up and down and lateral movements, so you need to allow them to build over time.”

Focus on Your Stride

Mark Lawrence, former president of the Frederick Steeplechasers and current ChiRunning coach, recommends a shorter, quicker stride. He says that, “a shorter, quicker stride will serve you better than a long, loping stride. The more technical the trail is,” Lawrence adds, “the shorter your stride should become. For beginners, I like to call it ‘scampering.’ Speed is not your objective. Being light on your feet should be.” Dreyer concurs: “Work on your running technique and learn how to adjust it to match the requirements of the trail section you’re running on,” he says. “The more responsive you can be, through every nuanced change in the type of terrain, the better trail runner you’ll be. Every trail has an infinite number of changes you need to adapt to. Don’t make the mistake of always using the same stride all the time.”

Erin McGrady for Men’s Journal

Work on Your Leg Strength

Smith says, “You need to be able to drive/push efficiently and with a bit of vigor. Practice once a week at a park or trail where you can measure out 800–1600m (half-mile to a mile). Work on your intervals/speed repeats there. Do not neglect hills in your training.” Doing so will make you not only more efficient but faster. You can’t expect to just show up on race day and expect determination and adrenaline to carry you over the hills. Put the work in.

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Train With Other Trail Runners

Running is, by nature, a solitary endeavor. No one can do the miles for you, but the right training partner can lighten the load. Smith encourages you to find a “battle buddy.” This is someone that he says, “may or may not have the same aims as you, but they have more knowledge of the local trails and trails in general.” You can learn a lot from those within the trail-running community, Smith adds, “by simply being open to the experience.”

Recover Smart

It’s been said that part of a good training plan is actually built-in recovery. Until you fully take this concept to heart, you’ll never know your full potential. The human body just flat-out needs rest. If the thought of sitting on the sofa watching Netflix for 10 hours stresses you out, take heart. Post-race or after a long run, Smith tries to keep his activity levels lower and focuses on other things like swimming, rafting, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing. In addition, he says, “Every few years, I try to pick up a new skill to broaden the activities available.”

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