On-Road To Off-Road: Road Running For Trail Runners

Trail runners can run roads, too! I know, you’re here because you’re a trail runner who is getting to know the trails, and being a trail runner on the road can feel like infidelity. However, this cheat gives your body an opportunity to run faster and with more consistency than what you may be able achieve on the trail.

Take a look at many top trail runners, and you’ll notice that they often run really well on the roads, too. Think about Michael Wardian, who peppers his annual race schedule with both on- and off-road events, and does well in many of them. He has run with the marathon greats at the greatest marathons in the world while performing at a top level in trail running in the same season. The ability to control the variables of your effort on the road allows you to focus on planning and executing the exact workout you need in order to gain the speed you want for the trail. Further, time spent practicing efficient run technique and consistent leg turnover on the road will translate to the trail, allowing you to focus your energies on other things besides the act of running when off-road, like navigation, fueling and hydrating, maintaining your momentum, and more.

Of course, if you want to run and race well on trails, especially technical ones or those with a lot of vertical offset, you need to train on them, too! Road running isn’t an entire replacement for trail running if you are looking to run your best on the trail. With this article, we aim to help new and intermediate trail runners use road running as a tool for improvement.

Due to the number of variables on the trail, it can be challenging to keep a consistent, sustained effort. On the trail, for example, during an intended aerobic run (something in the range of 50 to 70% of your maximum heart rate–we’ll explain what this is in just a minute), you might encounter a prolonged climb. The climb gives you two options: decide to slow way down to keep your effort even and your heart rate in the aerobic zone or increase your effort and heart rate as you ascend the hill in order to maintain your running pace. Unfortunately, maintaining your pace would change the nature of your aerobic workout and alter the purpose of the run. Translate the same run to a long, flat road or paved pedestrian trail and it becomes easy to ensure you don’t exceed your aerobic run’s effort, allowing you to put in a sustained, consistent effort.

Let’s return for a moment to the term ‘maximum heart rate.’ Generally speaking in running, it’s the number of times your heart beats per minute while you are running as fast as you possibly can. Max heart rate varies in people based upon age and other factors, like one’s ability to tolerate very difficult exercise. You can roughly calculate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. And from there, you can extrapolate the heart rate of your aerobic runs. You can also monitor the effort of your runs by feel rather than by heart rate. If doing this in an aerobic run, run so that you could carry on a full conversation with a running partner. And we’re not just talking about three- or five-word phrases ripped out between breaths. We’re talking about a wordy, full-on conversation! Aerobic runs feel easy.

Okay, back to why road running can help you in trail running. Consider this, 0n the trail, your running cadence–the number of steps each of your feet take per minute of running–varies drastically depending on the terrain. On a normal section of trail that doesn’t have distinguishing characteristics, each of your legs may turn over at about 90 rotations per minute (RPMs), about the same cadence you would have on the road. But throw in a rock garden and you may need to take light, quick steps in order to navigate with agility through it, and you may run at over 100 RPMs. Turn the corner and suddenly you are powerwalking up a steep section of the trail at 60 RPMs. Although your effort may not change, you are not practicing steady leg turnover. Though running on trail is ideal in most situations, there is an argument to be made for practicing your running technique on the road for the purpose of practicing even leg turnover.

How do you know if you qualify? Does everyone benefit from road running, or is it only for people who care about speed? If you are new to trail running or not considering trail racing, you may wonder if this is for you. My argument is that, yes, there are plenty of reasons for all of us trail runners to periodically move our runs to the road. You may need to escape inclement weather, finish your run in a tight time frame, or stay off the trails when conditions are not conducive to foot traffic. These are times when it is more important to go for a run than it is to trail run. Use these opportunities to your advantage by giving them a purpose.

Additionally, runners who are looking to increase their speed or endurance may consider incorporating roads into your schedule on a more regular basis. In my fastest years, my trail-to-road breakdown was close to 50/50. This even split between road and trail provided me with adequate time to maximize the skills needed to perform in turnover and leg speed from the road while allowing me to practice climbing, agility, and application of leg speed on the trail.

How often should trail runners like us road run? Does it make sense to do more road running than trail running? How do I plan road runs into my weekly schedule? The answers to these questions will vary based upon your running goals. If, for instance, you’re trying to maintain a running routine despite the challenges of life and climate, road running can be appropriate anytime it helps you get your training in.

If you are looking to add in regular road running for the purpose of improving your speed and efficiency on the trails, I would suggest starting with a speed workout of some kind. If trying this, considering doing so once a week, on a consistent day of the week. If you are the typical runner who does your long runs on the weekends, you will want to put your speed workout as far away from your long run as possible, in the middle of the week, to allow your body to recover from each of these hard efforts before doing the next one.

Speed workouts are typically done with intervals of time spent running at a high effort followed by a duration of time spent running at an extremely low effort for recovery. While different kinds of speed workouts will have different effects on your body, they are overall specifically designed to increase your ability to do work while decreasing the effort it takes for you to do that work. A flat road surface is perfect for these runs as it allows you to control exactly how much work you perform for the duration of the interval.

Short but quick ‘striders’ are excellent for runners trying speed workouts on the road for the first time. A ‘strider’ is a short bout of fast running, something that lasts less than 30 seconds and is performed a speed that’s one or two ticks below your fastest sprinting. In each strider, you will notice a spike in both your heart rate and respiration rate (the number of times you breathe per minute), but you stop running before you feel burning or fatigue sensations in your legs. In between each strider, you want to fully recover all of your body systems. To do this, jog easily for double the amount of time that you performed the strider.

After a couple weeks of strider workouts, you should begin to feel more fluid during the fast running, and you should notice that your heart and respiration rates don’t spike as much during them. Your body is learning how to perform efficiently while moving fast. That doesn’t mean it’s time to stop doing these workouts, though! Keep after them to maintain the speed and efficiency you have gained.

Here’s an example of a ‘strider’ workout:

  • Complete your regular daily run, except stop one mile early
  • Perform 8 x 25-second striders, separated by 1 minute of easy jogging in between
  • Jog for a half mile to cool down

There are many other kinds of speed workouts out there to try, including steady-state runs, tempo runs, VO2Max intervals, and anaerobic intervals. As previously mentioned, each one serves a different purpose for developing your ability to run fast and run fast efficiently. Have a look at Chapter 8, ‘Training for the Trail,’ in Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running by iRunFar’s Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell to learn more about each of these kinds of speed workouts and how to incorporate them into your running. If you’ve not done speed workouts before, I recommend starting with ‘strider’ workouts for a few weeks before jumping into other kinds as it will allow your body to gently adapt to the rigor of fast running and decrease your chance of injury.

If you choose to incorporate a second road run into your weekly routine, it is great to add an aerobic workout to your week. This can be a 45- to 120-minute effort (depending on your current fitness and how long you regularly run, or the length of the race you are training for) at or below 70% of your maximum heart rate. This is a great way to recover from your long run over the weekend without risking tripping and falling due to the fatigue from the weekend. Conducting this type of workout on the road will help you practice a sustained effort that can easily be translated to a long trail run.

As you incorporate road running into your weekly trail regimen, you may find yourself with a little extra time on your hands as it generally takes a little less time to complete the same mileage on the road. If you find yourself with a few extra minutes, incorporate some of the core and strength-training workouts we’ve addressed in the last two months (see Building A Trail-Worthy Body, Part 1 and Building a Trail-Worthy Body, Part 2) of this column. This well-rounded combination of trail running, road running, and strength and agility training will maximize your strength, power, efficiency, and speed when you hit the trail and set you up for a strong racing season.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you a trail runner who has traditionally avoided running the roads or other flat surfaces? What are your reasons?
  • Are you a trail runner who has incorporated road running into your running regimen and experienced positive results? Can you explain how it went for you?
  • What recommendations do you have for beginner to intermediate trail runners trying road running for the purpose of becoming more efficient, consistent runners?
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 23 comments

  1. cmyk

    As a car-less city dweller, most of my runs end up being on roads, despite almost all of my races being on trails. As suggested in the article, speed is much easier to build when you take terrain out of the equation and can focus on interval times and HR. The things I have to proactively look out for are repetitive strain injuries from all the pounding and stride differences between my road and trail strides. I’ve found that adding in some yoga and hill workouts to help combat the relative sameness of my road strides. (without varying my step height, my hips get extremely tight) That being said, I really wish I could get out on trails more, especially for long runs.

  2. bob

    I am not aware of any studies to prove this assertion, and if anyone out there has knowledge of any – please share, but I would state anecdotally that one should run on a variety of surfaces to decrease chance of repetitive stress injuries, combat monotony, and for different types of workouts.

    1. Sean

      Bob, I’m a huge proponent of variety in one’s running. I practice that in my personal running, and I teach it to my coaching clients. Run uphill, downhill, rolling, flat, fast, slow, moderate, smooth, technical, roads, dirt, grass, trails, mountains, xc, track, treadmills, easy, hard, with a specific purpose, with no purpose at all, etc, etc. As you say, the more variety one has in their running, the less chance they’ll have of developing overuse injuries.

      I’m also a big proponent of rotating shoes (style, brand, amount of drop, etc) for the same reason, as each shoe holds a runner’s feet a little different, so the runner will use muscles in their feet and lower legs a bit different in each pair. As with running variety, I believe that shoe variety will help to decrease the chance of overuse injuries.

  3. SageCanaday

    “You can roughly calculate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.”

    In my opinion and experience that is a very flawed method. From what I’ve seen and heard there is a ton of individual variation
    in Max HR (as well as HR monitor error for that matter). But [220-age] can be a horrible predictor of 100% HR. I coach men and women in their 40s and 50s (10-25 years older than myself) and they have heart rates that exceed 170 and 180 all the time during sub-maximal Tempo Runs or even during a road marathon race – whereas only during a Vo2max test have I hit barely over 180 (and I’m 31 years old). Big individual variation – and while max HR goes down with age (at maybe roughly 1bpm/yr), this kind of simple “formula” can cause some very big extrapolations.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Sage,

      Thanks for the comment. I wanted to share my thoughts on the basis of this column and then ask you a follow-up question.

      This is our beginner-/intro-to-trail-running column, and its focus is creating baseline understanding of the sport. Of course, I don’t want us to create misunderstandings of the sport, but I do realize that, at some point, we need to generalize some so we don’t lose our newer trail runners by going too far into the details. There are a great many other articles on iRunFar that delve waaaaay into details. ;) Also, we have received previous critical feedback that the articles in this intro to trail running column were too long and too in depth for some readers.

      A parallel situation, a few months ago, this same column talked very generally about running cadence and that, generally speaking, average running cadence is somewhere around 90 RPMs. The idea with that was to help a person who hasn’t heard the term before learn about it and learn what it means for them. Though the article also wrote that there is much variability in running cadence among different kinds of runners and in many kinds of circumstances, the article received critical feedback about generalizing too much.

      Here we are again in a similar position of trying to create a baseline understanding of what maximum heart rate (which still includes an explanation that there is a lot of variability in humans from this) is but being criticized for perhaps being too general.

      So, a very real question for you, then, knowing what we’re trying to do with this column (create materials and a place for new trail runners) and the very basic editorial parameters (not assume readers have baseline knowledge, not use a gah-zillion words/get lost in details), what you would do differently with this article? We are all ears on how to do these intro to trail running columns better.

      1. Peter Hubbard

        Megan,
        That heart rate formula caught my eye as well and I’ve always had issues with it. (My max HR has increased from 208 to 210 over the last 15 years, and I’m not 10 years old. Also, I remember Lance Armstrong saying his threshold pace was around 160, while teammate George Hincapie’s was closer to 185 all while riding thousands of miles alongside each other.) Since HR is extremely variable, I would do away with the general formula since it can be so misleading and encourage readers to set their own base rates for heart rate, cadence, weight, recovery time, etc. and try to improve from there. Additionally, in these introductory articles, I think links to more in-depth articles would help me and other readers dive deeper where we need to.

        Great article and great follow up question, I hope Sage answers, too, since I know he is a big advocate of HR training.

        1. Andrew L

          My maximum heart rate has remained at about 181 from my teen years through now at age 47.

          Jack Daniels (jtupper on Letsrun.com) tested 26 elite runners when they were on average 24 years old, and then tested them 25 years later. Here’s his post from 2009 ( http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=3072921&page=1 )

          “You are quite normal. My 26 elite-runner subjects averaged a max HR of 178 when 24 years old (15 of this group actually competed in the Olympics). When tested again 25 years later the average was 176. One guy was 186 at 25 yrs and 192 at 50 yrs. Another had a max HR of 148 and 25 yrs later it had dropped to 146. There are individuals who fall well outside the norm.”

      2. Mark

        It really is a great article and much appreciated, Rhielle and Meghan. I hope Sage’s comment, which I agree with, doesn’t detract from the good advice in the article.

        MaxHR just doesn’t seem to be a useful or applicable metric as it can vary wildly even by athletes of the same age/speed/fitness. Perhaps HR zones are too advanced for this kind of article, but MaxHR shouldn’t be calculated with the formula in the article and perhaps shouldn’t be discussed at all.

        I must have missed the cadence discussion and that’s one that’s very interesting to me. If Walmsley’s Strava data is accurate, he has a relatively slow cadence in comparison to other elite trail runners. I’d love to hear people more knowledgeable about it weigh in on Jim’s high vertical oscillation, long stride length, and low cadence. For example, Walmsley’s cadence in his race this weekend was 158 spm while Max King’s was 178. That’s a big difference for two of the fastest guys out there.

        1. bob

          On the cadence issue, I think a more accurate RPM value for running is well over 100 RPM’s for most people even when running rather slowly. The value given earlier of 90 RPM is a figure used quite often in cycling, not running.

      3. Cam

        Perhaps this series can keep things simple while acknowledging that there is a bit more to it by linking to more advanced articles on how to field test your maxHR and LTHR, and an explanation of RPE, talk testing, and the limitations of HR based training.

      4. Jim Van Orman

        For those of us on the lower end of the max HR spectrum (mine is ~20 bpm below the age-based average curve), it is particularly dangerous to rely on the standard formula. I’d be doing all of my easy runs at tempo effort, and trying to do tempo runs at mile race pace. Maybe I’d figure out that something was off before burning out, or maybe not. It’s not hard to get a solid estimate of your actual max HR – in my opinion, anyone should do this before using HR to regulate training effort. Otherwise, it’s much safer to rely on perceived effort.

  4. Nelson

    I enjoy road running even more than trails, but can’t run most of my mileage on the road because it often leads to injury. A combination of both keeps it fun and sustainable.

    One of the benefits I’ve noticed after I started running on tarmac and not just trails is my quads got much stronger and steep uphills got easier.

  5. Buzz

    To Sage’s point, if it’s so difficult to get a correct max heart-rate, and (imho) even more difficult to get an accurate HRM, then why do heart rate based training ? I’ve chucked mine a year ago because I felt that it only added noise to my training data.

    1. bob

      I agree. Training and/or racing by heart rate is not very useful in my opinion due to multiple factors – only some of which are mentioned here. Don’t be a slave to ‘tech.’ Like so many others have said “Don’t make something simple – in this case running – more complicated than it is.”

  6. Luke

    For a beginner-oriented series something like perceived exertion may be appropriate. As others point out, new runners don’t frequently have access to heart rate information, and may not have access to pace information. Perceived exertion is always there and there are benefits to paying attention to it that transcend just getting in good speed work and interval training.

    That’s aside from the inaccuracies Sage brought up which are not trivial – one size fits all zones are really really really inaccurate and there’s no benefit to introducing them. I prefer perceived exertion right up to the point where you’re using a really good HRM informed by an up-to-date respiratory exchange rate test.

  7. Sniff

    How basic does this article need to be?

    Is there too much info or not enough for a beginner?

    Is Sage going to reply with an answer?

    It seems like every “coach” has the “right way” to do something, be it diet, training, sleep, hydration. I get that to get to peak fitness you want accuracy and legit info. For a beginner do you think they are going to read this article that skims the surface of training and not look further into it? Everything gets picked apart in comments today. Take Aliza’s last piece for example. People will argue over what to argue about…

  8. Mats

    I have been running almost exclusively on very technical (semi-runnable) trails for the last few years, trying to get as much elevation change in as I can. During gate analysis after a fall related injury, I found that my stride width has narrowed so much I could basically run on a balance beam, this putting an unneccesary stress on my knees when running on surfaces that was not gnarly singletracks.
    Putting in a few road sessions each week, with added strides and running drills, has efficently fixed this.
    Also, thanks to the fitness gained from the trailrunning, I found I was able to run pretty fast (for me) at an aerobic heartrate when on road/flat surfaces.

  9. SageCanaday

    @Meghan, sorry I didn’t realize this was a “beginner/intro” article series.

    I think the content is great – and it is presented very well. Obviously you guys have the challenge of presenting to a wide-range of runners and the mix is awesome. Thank you.

    In regards to HR monitor/training…I’d just drop the idea of a “formula” (as mentioned in this article) because the variations lead to problems for a lot of people who get too caught up in the numbers when they first get a monitor. Perceived effort is great to learn for beginners (i.e. conversational pace being an “Easy Pace” as one can talk/carry on a conversation….breathing rate would be probably better as well (steps per inhale/exhale). Many beginners run too fast on their Easy/Recovery days and this leads to injury before they can establish a consistent aerobic base.

    Again, sorry for the confusion and keep up the great work!
    Cheers,
    Sage

  10. Philip Maynard

    This is a great article! I run roads quite a bit, for logistical reasons and because it has made me a faster trail runner. My road runs are typically hilly, and often dirt roads, but it’s still different than trail running, in an important way.

    I began road-heavy running after a really bad debut at the Escarpment trail run. Durint that race I realized that my technical skills were just fine, but I was unable to pick up my cadence and run quickly on the smooth, runnable sections, and lost a lot of time to people that I was climbing with, and blasting by on the descents. Becoming a better road runner has allowed me to fly through that terrain, without negatively impacting my climbing or descending.

    My take on HR – it’s an advanced metric, and often kinda useless. I feel that it often adds more confusion than clarity, especially for newer runners. I use it far more for analyzing my recovery, and detecting overtraining or impending illness, than I do for setting a pace or effort level. The exception is when I’m doing a new kind of exercise – when I started skimo racing, it was a really useful way to judge my effort, in the absence of a good feel for the sport.

    -Phil

  11. Rhielle Widders

    As a final follow-up from the author, my thoughts on the Max HR issue and why I chose to introduce the concept in this article. As I have coached a variety of runners and led a variety of types of fitness classes, it is my anecdotal experience that people who are just starting a new sport or just starting a fitness routine do not know what 80% of max perceived exertion rate looks like or means. Even that simple and basic scale requires the participant to be fairly familiar with themselves and their levels of discomfort. Before that familiarity comes along, they are familiar with only two levels: working hard and not working hard. Knowing this, I chose to use a quantifiable data point, as inaccurate as it may be, to introduce the concept of quantifiable exertion to someone who may never have stepped foot into a cardio workout or who is just becoming familiar with their own ability to produce work. Admittedly, breath-rate (steps per inhale/exhale) may be an easier and more basic way to quantify how hard one is working and I have actually used that in previous articles.

    Thanks for all the feedback and suggestions! I will take all feedback into account when writing future articles.

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