Building A Trail-Worthy Body, Part 2

One summer, as I was descending from the Maroon Bells of Colorado, I tripped hard on a rock. The physics equation induced here is one we trail runners know too well: our tripped toe forms a pivot point about which our upper body–namely, our face–rotates toward the ground at a scary-fast velocity. The trail was jagged and rocky, and so a superman here would have meant cuts and bruises all up and down the front of my body. In an instant, I explosively lifted and brought my leading foot out in front of me. It landed on the ground and stopped my fall. Phew!

This explosive leg lift was perhaps made possible by the repeated cross training I had been doing in the preceding six months. Before that moment, I had never been able to pull out of a fall that quickly or strongly, and I chalk it up to my ability to access fast-acting muscle fibers that we endurance athletes rarely exercise. That same season I also found myself running farther up in the pack than ever before. I had a few podium finishes and a couple of wins. I hadn’t done much more run training than was typical for me. However, the type of training I did was more varied, designed to practice both the long, easy running as well as fast, explosive movements.

This is the second article in a two-part series containing exercises you can to do build a strong, flexible, and responsive body for trail running. In Part 1 of this series, we discussed building a strong core and a flexible body. Make sure to check out that article, too.

As we round the corner toward spring in the Northern Hemisphere and can taste the racing season in the air, it is a great opportunity to talk about using plyometric and multi-plane exercises to help us build agility and responsiveness into the quiver of tools we can use while trail running. Building explosive strength as well as the ability to move in multiple planes while running will help many aspects of your running including maintaining momentum when moving over obstacles, utilizing new parts of the trail, and accelerating when everyone else is tired and slowing down. This is also a great time to talk about balance. You might not know this, but we spend a great amount of every run stride balancing on one of our feet, and given that our feet are landing on angled and loose surfaces in trail running, balance is a real need in our sport!

In the rest of this article, you will find descriptions and video of several different kinds of exercises. As with all articles in this column, we tailor these for beginner to intermediate trail runners. Use all this as a guide. Consider consulting a physical therapist or a professional trainer who can help you develop modifications or adaptations relevant to your body’s current needs. Have fun!

Plyometric Exercises

Plyometric exercises train your muscles to exert at their near-maximum for a very short period of time. How could this possibly be beneficial to a trail runner? You know when you slide on something and your whole body works in a split second to keep you upright, like my near-face-plant story from the Maroon Bells? That type of motion is a plyometric exercise on steroids. If you can train your body to exert that force, the hope is that you’ll be able to call upon it in critical moments of need to keep your face off the ground. When you aren’t falling (which we hope isn’t too often!), that same explosive capability will help you move over trail obstacles (think fallen trees or large rocks) and help you navigate technical sections of trail (think uneven or slippery terrain) with agility.

Plyometrics should be practiced with care. The explosive force you generate in performing them is totally different from running. As you get used to doing these exercises, avoid pushing to your maximum effort or range of motion. With time, you can build to this. Also, feel free to get creative, as plyometric exercises can be added to many different types of motions.

Here’s a three-minute plyometric workout to get you going. It has six exercises and you perform each for about 30 seconds. Aim for eight to 10 repetitions of each exercise. As you get stronger, increase the range of motion in the exercise and the amount of force you put into them, and then increase the number of reps you complete. Note that the video shows multiple and progressive versions of the same exercise, so that you can adapt the exercise to your current ability.

Alternating Lateral Lunges
Start by standing straight. Bring your hands together in prayer position. Hinge at the hips to send the butt back. Make sure to engage your core muscles to support your back. Side step your right foot wide into a lunge, bending the right knee to 90 degrees while keeping the left knee straight. In one explosive movement, drive weight down through the right heel and push off, jumping up. Your right foot should land on the ground where your left foot was as you simultaneously send the left foot wide, into the lunge with the left side of your body.

Reverse Lunge with Knee-Ups
Begin by standing with your feet hip distance apart. Step your right foot back so that you are almost kneeling on the ground with your right knee, into a low lunge where both legs are bent to nearly 90 degrees. Drive the weight into the left foot and hop up, straightening the left leg while bringing the right knee up to the chest. As your weight falls back to the ground, bring the right leg back behind you to the low lunge. At the same time swing the arms with force in like you would in the running motion. Repeat the motion on each leg eight to 10 times before switching to the other leg.

Burpees
This is the exercise that everyone loves to hate! Begin by standing with your feet hip distance apart. Hinge at the hips and knees and send the butt back into a low squat and place the hands on the ground in front of your feet. Make sure to engage your core muscles to support your back. Hop the feet back to plank position. Hop the feet back to the hands and stand up into a squat before jumping high. As you land, hinge at the hips and knees and send the butt back into a low squat and repeat the motion. For even more challenge, when you are in plank position, add a push-up to the movement. Those with shoulder injuries should drop to their knees before performing the push-up.

Frog Squat Jumps
Begin by standing with your feet wide, wider than shoulder distance. Point the toes slightly outward. Hinge at the hips and knees and send the butt back into a low squat with the weight in the heels until the finger tips touch the ground. In one explosive movement, straighten the legs and send the arms high overhead. Land on the balls of the feet and hinge at the waist sending the butt back and the weight into the heels while squating low to repeat the motion.

Alternating Lunge Jumps
Begin by standing with your feet hip distance apart. Step your right foot back so that you are almost kneeling on the ground with your right knee, into a low lunge where both legs are bent to nearly 90 degrees. Drive the weight into the left foot and hop up, straightening both legs in the air and switching position. As you land on the ball of the right foot, send the left foot behind into the low-lunge position. Repeat the motion, counting a rep each time your right foot lunges behind.

Tuck Jumps
Begin by standing with your feet hip distance apart. Bend the hips and knees slightly, as if you are beginning the motion of a squat. In an explosive movement, jump up and bring the knees to the chest. Land on the toes and hinge at the hips, bending the knees slightly before repeating the movement.

[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]

Multi-Planar Exercises

When trail running, your body is moving in many different directions. Your hips are rotating, your legs and arms are swinging with repetitive force, your feet are landing at various angles, and your movement can occur in any of the three dimenions. Or at least it should! Runners are often so used to moving forward that I don’t think many of us consider movements beyond that plane–like to get around an obstacle or to find the best landing surface–as a way to help us move efficiently and safely. These exercises are meant to help you develop strength in moving your body through multiple dimensions. And perhaps there’s a little ‘brain training’ here, too, to help you remember that you can move in other dimensions besides forward.

Aim to do eight to 10 repetitions of each of the six exercises in the following workout. The whole workout should take about three minutes, 30 seconds for each exercise. As you improve, increase the range of motion in the exercise and then increase the number of reps you complete.

Box Drills
This is the adult, trail-runner version of hop scotch. Begin by standing with all your weight on the right foot. Hop forward, right, back, left to hit all four corners of an imaginary box. Then hop up and down in the same spot and complete the box in the other direction: up, right, forward, left, back. Then hop to any combination of corners including moving diagonally from the top-right corner to the bottom-left corner, for example. You may find it useful to place quarters on the ground to begin so you can ensure your hops are an equal distance apart from each other. As you get stronger, make the box larger by moving the quarters farther apart.

Squat Lateral Shuffles
Begin by standing with your feet wide, about shoulder distance apart. Point the toes slightly outward. Bring your hands together in prayer position. Hinge at the hips and knees and send the butt back into a low squat with the weight in the heels until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Keeping this position, shuffle three steps to the right by bringing the feet together then back apart three times. Pause and then repeat the motion moving to the left. Try to keep the butt as low as possible while doing the shuffle movement. Make sure to engage your core muscles to support your back. Count one rep every time you change direction.

Up and Overs
Find a sturdy obstacle that can be used to jump over, something six inches to knee height is ideal. This could be a short stool, a rock, or an exercise bench. Begin with your right foot on the top of the obstacle and the left foot to the side of the obstacle. Bend from the hips and send the butt back, bending the knees slightly. Drive all the weight down into the heel of the right foot and straighten the right leg with so much force that you do a little hop. While you are in the air, replace the right foot with the left and step the right foot down to the ground on the side of the obstacle. Repeat the motion, counting one rep every time your left foot touches the ground.

Tap Downs 
Using your sturdy obstacle, begin by standing on it. Hinge at the hips and send the butt back as you bend the left knee slightly and tap the right toe down onto the ground beside the obstacle. Straighten the left leg with force and perform a hop as the right foot replaces the left. Hinge at the waist and send the butt back as you bend the right knee slightly and tap down with the left foot. Repeat the motion in rapid fire. Count one rep every time your left foot touches down.

Speed Skaters
Begin with your feet close together. Lift the right leg, hinge at the hips, send the butt back, and bend the left knee slightly. In an explosive movement, straighten the left leg and hop the right leg to the right as far as possible using a speed-skater movement. Repeat the motion in the other direction. You may choose to use quarters to mark how far you jump from one side to the other and aim to maintain that distance during all the reps.

Rotating Squat Jumps
Begin by standing with your feet wide, about shoulder distance apart. Point the toes slightly outward. Bring your hands together in prayer position. Hinge at the hips and knees and send the butt back into a low squat with the weight in the heels until your thighs are parallel to the ground. In an explosive movement, jump up and rotate in the air clockwise, 90 degrees. Complete four reps to face all four directions before reversing direction to rotate counterclockwise.

[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]

Exercises to Help Develop Balance

The goal of staying upright while trail running seems so simple. Add in a few rocks and some downhill and we all know that this isn’t always so easy. Practice makes perfect, and this workout offers four exercises to help you develop balance. The other two workouts in this article have emphasized speed, but here we want to slow our roll. The longer we stay in a position of balance, the more challenging the exercise will be. This workout should take about four minutes, one minute for each exercise.

Clock Squats
Hold a weight or heavy rock in both hands. Shift your weight to your right leg and lift the left foot off the ground a few inches. Brace the core and hinge at the hips to send the butt back. Bring the weight to the outside of the right foot while bending the right knee to perform a single-leg squat. Stand slowly while maintaining your balance. As you get stronger, you can lift onto the toes at the top of the repetition or even perform a small, plyometric hop. Complete eight to 10 reps on one leg before switching to the other leg.

Single-Leg Dead Lifts
Hold a weight or heavy rock in both hands. Shift your weight to your right leg and lift the left foot off the ground a few inches. Brace the core and, with a micro-bend in the right leg, slowly lower the weight down toward the toes while sending the left leg straight behind you as a counter-balance. Lower until you feel a slight stretch in the hamstrings. Use the muscles of your core to lift yourself back to standing. Complete eight to 10 reps on one leg before switching to the other leg.

Tree Pose
Begin by standing with the feet together and the hands in prayer position. Brace the core. Slowly bring the sole of the left foot to the inside of the right calf. Hold this position for at least 30 seconds before switching sides. To increase the challenge level of this pose, first close the eyes. After that has been mastered, keep the eyes open and move the head side-to-side slowly, tracking the terrain with your eyes as you rotate the head. Once you have mastered both variations, stand on the tip-toe of your right foot to decrease the size of your foundation. You can also lengthen the amount of time you spend in the pose to further increase the level of challenge.

Front Lunge to Reverse Lunges 
Begin by standing with the feet together. Brace the core. Put the weight in the left foot and move the right foot forward into a forward lunge position until both legs are at 90 degrees and the left knee is nearly touching the ground. Drive the weight into the right heel and with one sweeping motion, push off the right heel, come through center and continue back with the right foot to a reverse lunge with the weight in the left heel and the right toe. Push off with the right toe and with one motion, come through center and back to the forward lunge. Complete eight to 10 repetitions on one side before moving to the other leg.

[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]

Final Thoughts

If you are interested in workouts like these but want more diversity than what this article offers, the Nike+ Training Club app is a great resource. This free app has all types of workouts using varying equipment (including bodyweight only), varying lengths of time (in case you only have 10 minutes to do strength today), and varying abilities (beginners and pros are both welcome). Every exercise is demonstrated with a video so you don’t have to wonder what anything means.

Just as in running, when you start to feel confident in your strength, feel empowered to vary the workouts to create new demands on your body. Most importantly, have fun with it! These strength workouts are designed to be a fun enhancement to your normal routine and to vary the challenges you put on your body. If it isn’t fun, change it up so that it is! Next season, I’ll see you on the front line, competing for that podium finish.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How is your balance? In what ways do you normally practice balance?
  • When was the last time you saved yourself from a big fall on the trail with a last-minute blast of strength?
  • Do you ever practice plyometric exercises? Or, if you are trying them for the first time because of this article, what did you think about their unique demands on the body?
Rhielle Widders

is passionate about introducing her favorite sport to newcomers. She created and directed the Park City Trail Series, a four-race series designed to get people running on dirt, from 2010 to 2014. When she isn’t in Park City, Utah, where she lives, you will find her traveling to try out new dirt. Follow her on Instagram.

There are 4 comments

  1. cmyk

    I’ve found yoga is great for both the strength and balance written about in this article. I do an hour to an hour and a half once a week on a rest day. As an added bonus I feel that it gives you a greater sense of your body in general (breathing, muscular systems, posture, etc.)

  2. Sarah

    Great article! I found overcoming obstacles on the trails to be much easier since I started doing plyometrics on a regular basis and I seem to recover between runs faster too!

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