With high altitudes, technical terrain, and steep ascents that turn into quad-shredding descents, trail running is the type of workout that can make even 2012 Kona Ironman champion Pete Jacobs say, “This is a different kind of pain.”
After coming on board with Asics to compete in the 2015 Beat the Sun Challenge, a 150-kilometer team relay around Mont Blanc, Jacobs put away his bike, ditched his swim cap, and traded them in for a whole new type of workout. “I had never done anything on a trail before, and doing uphill and mountaineering work makes you realize that nothing can prepare your body for this, but this workout can prepare your body for almost anything.”
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This year, when off-season came around, Jacobs knew he needed to take a break from the twice-daily, multi-sport focus that triathlon training demands, but he didn’t want to stay inactive. So instead of trading in peak shape for a season of slack, he hit the single-track trails of the Western European Alps. “It’s not about being at peak fitness – it’s about giving your body a purpose,” Jacobs says. “If you take a break without setting a goal, it’s hard to get out there. But having a goal that differs from tri and keeps my mind off of it allows me to stay focused but still enjoy it. Every run on a trail feels like a goal I’m working towards.”
Once Jacobs began his trail training regimen, he quickly found the benefits that the terrain provides. “Even when I was training for Kona, I had never done trail running – never. The first few runs were a reality check. After 2K I was like, ‘Whoa.'” Off-road, every step and every move you make is varied. This creates power in underutilized muscles, better pivot points, sharper reflexes, and strength in the deeper tissues of your hips and core – which will prevent injury by creating all-around stability and more effective muscle fiber recruitment, and also prevents fatigue when you are on the homestretch and quicker recovery after your workouts.
And those advantages that the trails provide can’t be duplicated with any amount of miles on the bike or laps in the pool. “With regular running or triathlon or anything, your body adapts to the sport,” he says. “But your body never adapts completely to trail running. Because of that, it affects my road running and swimming and biking. Trail running makes everything easier, but nothing makes trail running easier.”
The necessary muscles for the trail are developed on the trail, so Jacobs would take activation exercises, such as simple squats, off-road to work on his range of motion. Other than that, it’s all about getting out there and running. Focus on time spent out on the trails, not pace or distance. Aim to work in three or four 45-minute to one hour trail runs per week, and then throw in a few specific workouts so you can boost speed and technique. Hill repeats and intervals that incorporate time, instead of distance, are great workouts to improve your ability. Time yourself running up a hill, and attempt to hit the same time to run down that same hill. Repeat the opposite way, going downhill first and then uphill.