Faster and Stronger: The Basics of Trail Workouts

We trail runners love the freedom, spontaneity, and beauty of the trail. Pushing our physical limits and developing mental fortitude are also part of most trail runners’ answers when people ask “Ummmm, running 50 kilometers, why?!” My high-school coach said that races were like Christmas or birthday presents. There is some nervous excitement, a lot of energy, and you get to unwrap a present you have built for yourself and see what’s inside. When I look at my training plan for the coming months, I view it through the lens of, “How do I create the best gift for race day? How do I stretch my limits in a sustainable way and add enjoyment and variety to my running schedule?”

This answer can often be found in diversifying your training. Adding regular hard workouts to your training plan will, if done properly, improve your running fitness and make your next race day unforgettable. And, as we will see in this article, they will add creativity and fun to your daily running practice.

In the world of long-distance running, there is a difference between a ‘run’ and a ‘workout.’ A run is an everyday easy-effort outing, and a workout is a more challenging effort with a clear warm-up, hard effort, and a cool-down.

When I first started racing trails, I did all my workouts on the road or track and all my easy runs on the trails. This method worked okay, but as I developed as a trail racer I found that doing hard sessions off-road allowed me to train more specifically for the actual racing I did. Using smoother off-road surfaces, like rail trails, dirt roads, and buffed-out trails, is a good way to get started doing workouts on dirt. As I got comfortable on dirt roads and then smooth singletrack, I transitioned to workouts on any trail surface. Trail workouts strengthen your overall trail running mechanics and help you feel more comfortable and confident running fast on technical terrain.

Trail runners can run on tracks, too! All photos courtesy of David Laney unless otherwise noted.

How to Plan Your Workout’s Effort

On a track, we can plan our workout based on pace and how long it takes to complete each lap or partial lap of the track. The rocks, roots, steep hills, and tight turns of trails make measuring our workouts by pace difficult, though. On trails, perceived effort is a great way to measure your work regardless of the difficulty of terrain. Use the table below to gauge your running effort for everything from easy runs to workouts.

Effort Feel
1-2 Very, very easy; almost too easy; a morning shuffle where I would like to speed up
3-4 Easily hold conversation; relaxed and daydreaming or thinking about the day; most of my easy miles are in this effort range
5-6 Can speak in broken sentences; hard workouts are often done in this range
7-8 Talk in short bursts; focused on the effort but still controlled; stretching limits in a  smart way; some harder workouts are done in this range
9-10 Vision getting blurry; all energy and focus is on the effort; very little time ever spent in this range

While this table will help you get started, once you do some harder runs, you can personalize it for you. Get creative with describing efforts so they are aligned with your workout experience. For example, I move from effort 2 to effort 3 when I stop forcing myself to run slowly and allow my stride to naturally open up. Also, I move from effort 4 to effort 5 when I notice my mental focus shift from daydreaming or thinking over the day to focusing on my breathing and the workout itself.

Workouts should be done at an effort where they are kind of fun! Sure, they are tough and might require a bit of courage, but these sessions do not need to be all-out sufferfests that leave you dizzy and wanting to vomit. You will get a majority of the fitness benefits from doing work that is challenging but maintainable, at an effort where you are working hard but your breathing is controlled and you could still go a little faster.

The correct effort level also yields the greatest benefits with the least risk of acute injury. More than once I’ve hammered the last interval of a hard session faster than prescribed and paid for it with a tweaked hamstring or stiff calf. As my college coach said, “JUST DON’T DO IT.”

The words ‘repeat’ and ‘interval’ are often used interchangeably. A repeat or an interval is simply a hard period of running followed by a recovery period of jogging or walking. The duration of the recovery usually correlates with the difficulty and duration of the repeat, but should be enough time that you are ready to begin the next repeat at a similar intensity as your last one.

The Warm-Up

The warm-up is a critical part of any higher-intensity workout. Warm-ups vary from person to person but should incorporate a few key elements: easy jogging, dynamic stretching, and some strides.

Start off with about 15 minutes of easy jogging. Follow the jog with some light dynamic stretching for five to 10 minutes and some brief (about 20 seconds long) workout-effort strides. These photos and descriptions show some great dynamic stretches, and this video shows one professional runner’s dynamic-stretching routine ahead of a workout. Use these two resources to create your own routine.

A stride is a fast but short bout of running, such that your body moves quickly during the stride but you stop running again before you start to feel the effects of the harder running in your heart and muscles. Run your strides fast, but in a controlled way, and perhaps like the effort you imagine you might be able to run hard for three miles.

Here is what a complete warm-up looks like:

  • 15 minutes of easy jogging
  • 5 to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching
  • 3 to 4 x 20-second strides with 1-minute walking recoveries in between

Don’t skimp on the warm-up! It is vital for staying injury free and performing the workout at the proper intensity.

The Cool-Down

The workout should be closed with a brief cool-down, about 15 minutes of easy jogging at a similar effort to the warm-up. The cool-down allows for the muscles and heart rate to gradually return to rest rather than abruptly ending after high-intensity work. Skipping the cool-down usually leaves runners unnecessarily tight the next day. 

Consider smoother trails or dirt roads for your workouts. Photo: David Laney

Examples of Trail-Running-Specific Workouts

Now, let’s talk about some examples of workouts that are great to do on dirt roads and trails.

Fartleks

A fartlek workout disguises intervals with some creative efforts, making them so much fun while you develop your speed and/or strength! Choose an interval duration and a recovery period. Start out with something easy like 1 minute at a harder effort (effort 5 to 6) followed by 1-minute jogging recovery at an easier effort (effort 3 to 4). You can mix and match, doing a short repeat followed by a long one and back again, and you can even match your repeats to the terrain. As in, “I’ll run hard to the next tree and then recover by jogging after that,” or, “I’ll run hard to the top of this hill.”

Short Hill Repeats

Short hill repeats help you build speed and improve your running mechanics. Because these intervals are faster, be sure you are very well warmed up! The intensity is high so start out with a small number of intervals. Try 6 x 45 seconds uphill at effort 7 with a 1-minute downhill recovery jog. Try to focus on feeling smooth as you work the uphills hard.

Long Hill Repeats

Long hill work allows you to build strength. You can break this up into interval chunks or run one long uphill push. An example of this is 3 x 5 minutes uphill at effort 5 to 6 with 3-minute downhill recovery jogs. As you do more of these, shorten the rest time or take it out all together until you can maintain a 5 to 6 effort for 20 minutes or more. Try to maintain the same effort at the end of these longer repeats as you do at the beginning.

Hard Long Run ­

Typically, long runs are done at an easy effort. Sometimes it’s good to add some higher-effort running to the middle or end of a long run. This fits in well when doing a long run on a trail. If you have 15 miles on the schedule, start out with 5 miles very easy, then increase from 3 to 4 effort to a 5 to 6 effort. Maintain this for 3 to 4 miles in the middle of the run, and then finish with the remaining miles at an easy effort.

More Workout Examples

Here are some additional examples of what complete workouts, from the warm-up to the cool-down, might look like. Remember, workouts should be done at an effort where they are enjoyably tough! If you are sore or tired for more than a day or two after a workout, you went too hard. Ideally finish each workout feeling like you worked hard and accomplished something but could still do more work.

Long Hill Repeats Workout

  • 15 minutes of easy jogging (effort 2 to 3)
  • 5 to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching
  • 4 x 20-second strides with 1-minute walking recoveries in between
  • 3 x 4 minutes uphill at effort 5 to 6 with 2 minutes downhill recovery jog
  • 15 minutes easy cool-down jog (effort 2)

Hard Long Run Workout

Ideally, do this on rolling terrain with good climbs and descents.

  • 5 miles at effort 3 to 4
  • 1 mile at effort 5
  • 1 mile at effort 3
  • 1 mile at effort 6
  • 1 mile at effort 3
  • 1 mile at effort 7
  • 5 miles at effort 3 to 4

Progression Run

This is a tough one because the effort gets harder as the workout progresses.

  • 15 minutes of easy jogging (effort 2 to 3)
  • 30 continuous minutes increasing the effort every 6 minutes, starting at effort 4 and increasing to effort 8
  • 15 minutes easy cool-down jog (effort 2)

Progressive Hill Repeats

This is my personal favorite, and it works best if you have a favorite hill you run regularly.

  • 15 minutes of easy jogging
  • 5 to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching
  • 3 x 20-second strides with 1-minute walking recoveries in between
  • Do 3 to 4 repeats of your favorite hill (ideally between 3 and 10 minutes in length), getting progressively faster on each repeat. Recover by jogging back down the hill again. Depending on the length of the hill, cut a predetermined number of seconds off each repeat. Remember to keep the first repeat controlled enough so you can keep getting gradually faster. Begin with an effort of 5 in the first interval and finish the workout at an effort of 7.
  • 15 minutes easy cool-down jog

How Often to do a Workout and Final Reminders

Schedule your workout after a few easy, shorter days of running so that you start the workout well rested. Then, follow up your workout with a recovery day to allow your body to rebuild. Do some light cross training, run easy, or put your feet up and drink hot chocolate. You earned it. The rest you give your body after a hard workout is as important as the hard work itself, so that your body can absorb the effort.

How often you should do higher-intensity work depends on your current fitness, goals, and running history. Consistency in your workouts will yield the greatest benefit, but too much will leave you injured or fatigued. If you are new to incorporating workouts into your running, shoot for one workout about every week. If you are not recovering in that amount of time, you may be pushing too hard during the workout itself, so back off the effort a bit! Also, these efforts are supposed to create a fun challenge, so if you’re not having fun as you are working hard, try a different workout or take a longer recovery time in between them.

Be cautious when doing hard workouts on trail. Mountain bikers, roots and other tripping hazards, or taking the wrong fork in the trail are all things to consider when running at a high intensity on trail. Remember that trail workouts take a little more brain power and run a little higher risk. If you are just starting hard sessions on the trail, ease into it!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have a favorite workout that you like for off-road surfaces? Can you share it?
  • What length of warm-up and cool-down have you found to be ideal for your workouts?
  • How do you keep workouts feeling fun despite their challenge?

Get inspired to do a trail workout. Photo: Hayden Teachout

There are 23 comments

  1. koop

    I appreciate the effort to bring some structure, but all of these examples are seriously flawed from a time at intensity standpoint. Specifically with these two-

    Long hill repeats- there is 12 min of workload. An RPE of 6 with 12 min of workload is not going to product any adaptation whatsoever, even if you did it all continuously. If you were working with someone who has never, ever run before, this might be a way to introduce them to running, but it’s not close for anyone in the irunfar audience. You would need an RPE of AT LEAST 8, preferably 9 or 10.

    Progressive hill repeats- 3-10 min is a HUGE range for 3-4 repeats. You are either doing 9 or 40 min of workload from the low end to the high end, which is an entirely different time at intensity depending on what side of range you are on. Even if you did 4X 3 min at RPE 5,6,7,7 as suggested, it’s not nearly enough. Now, 4X10 at 5,6,7,7 you could argue would be somewhat reasonable.

    koop

  2. David Laney

    Thanks for reading the article Koop!
    To address the first comment, working out at a perceived effort of 8-10 is productive and sustainable for very few athletes for a very short period of time. It is not sustainable (or even feasible) for beginners which this Trail Running 101 column is written for.
    In regard to the second comment, I agree with your first two sentences but considering I detail what a warm up is, its pretty clear this article is designed for newer trail runners beginning their experience with hard workouts. I would never give an athlete of any ability 4X10 minutes uphill at any elevated intensity, without having them begin with shorter reps first. I wouldn’t even consider doing that myself at the beginning of a training block without a few shorter hill sessions first. IRunFar is the place brand new runners are going for trail running information, so I think the audience may be broader than you initially considered. The general hope of this article and the Trail Running 101 column, is to give new runners the building blocks and confidence to improve and construct harder workouts as they progress in their running careers.

    David Laney

    1. Jamie

      Thank you for this article, David. Even as an experienced (if not especially accomplished) runner, I find your thoughts on effort-guided workouts very valuable. (And it sounds like you had some great coaches!)

      I may be mistaken, but I suspect that part of the disconnect between koop and yourself stems from a difference in terminology as well as a difference in intended audiences. From what I understand about his approach, your 3/4 might correspond to his 5 (both meaning “everyday easy”), while your 5/6 might correspond to his 8 (both meaning “moderately hard”). (Someone please correct me if I am wrong.)

      For myself, I like to think in terms of a nine-point scale:

      1 = shuffle (running at minimum intensity – target for some kinds of recovery)
      2 = very easy
      3 = easy (emphasis on running with ease/efficiency – target for most bread-and-butter running)
      4 = easy/steady
      5 = steady (involves sustained effort that would be sustainable for a relatively long time – target for some endurance work)
      6 = steady/strong
      7 = strong/quick (emphasis on speed/power – target for most speed/strength workouts)
      8 = very strong/very quick
      9 = sprint (running at maximum intensity – target for sprinting!)

      While the steps on our scales seem to line up fairly closely for the most part, there’s a nuanced difference between them. Your scale describes effort more in terms of the strain being imposed on the body – which is obviously a very important consideration! In contrast, my scale describes effort more in terms of the work being performed by the body. The thing that I like about this approach is that it helps me target different levels of effort in a way that feels intuitive, positive, and directed toward the desired training goals (“I want to start these hill repeats running steady and finish them running strong,” “I want to run this fartlek alternating quick and easy,” etc.). In this respect, I think that it might be useful for the kind of audience that you’re targeting here, as a complement to the approach that you’ve laid out above.

      Thanks again for sharing your insight!

      1. David Laney

        Thanks Jamie! Your comments provide clarity and I really love your 9 point scale and the effort based focus. I think that is a great way for all runners to conceptualize effort. The more descriptions for the effort scales the better!

    2. Joe Uhan

      Interesting give-and-take.

      Two interesting points here:
      1. RPE
      2. “Basics”

      For the latter, that this article outlines *basics* of trail workouts should imply it is for new (/uninitiated runners). Moreover, I contend most iRunFar readers are relatively uninitiated in training theory.

      Case study: I coach about a dozen ultrarunning clients at any given time, and have coached adult clients full-time since 2013*.

      (Of note: I am also not a “hobbyist”: I am USATF Level I and II certified, have a MA in Kinesiology, and have coached HS and college teams since 2002).

      Of the perhaps 50 clients, I have coached only about five that have any structured training experience (HS or collegiate running).Maybe five; it could be three.

      For the rest, besides an inherent enjoyment in running, the vast majority have deficient skill in knowing how to run more than one speed. As such, the initial adaptations are simple: can you complete a structured workout with *consistency*? Then using metrics of consistency (time, distance, RPE or other effort metrics) is very helpful to assess this goal.

      This brings up the former: RPE. The vast majority of these new-to-“training” runners have almost no idea of “perceived exertion”. Their 0-10 might – with a month of training – suddenly expand to 27, once they finally learn to challenge his/her comfort zone.

      Thus, a huge factor in prescribing RPE to introductory/basic workouts is to create a correlation between his/her RPE number and the actual output (distance, time, HR, etc).

      This is why I generally hate RPE (and, similarly, why I nearly *never* ask for a “Pain Scale” number in the clinic): what a 0-10 means for one person has nearly zero inter-runner reliability (e.g.: Runner A’s 2 might by Runner B’s 6, even if they have the same marathon PR).

      Ultimately, the overwhelming most important goal for beginner runners is not fitness extraction (via rapid adaptation), but ***skill development***: which ultimately lays the foundation for sustained, long-term development in the sport. This article is a great resource for that. Thanks, Dave.

  3. Scott S.

    Good stuff. Since many of us sit all day long, in order to ease the heart into (and later out of a workout), I would either convert some of that before and after jogging into walking at an easy pace just above a stroll or just prepend and append a pair of 5-minute walks.

    1. David Laney

      Thanks Scott! Yes, I agree, the warm-up should be easy easy easy and walking is a great way to ease the body into the warm up after a long day of sitting or even after laying in bed all night.

  4. AT

    The power of fartleks and strides..keeps that zing in your legs year round without getting too complex with interval workouts! Great article, congrats on the RR100!

  5. ER

    Love this! I do feel like it’s hard to build workouts into a week without sacrificing mileage. Fairly high, consistent weekday mileage feels important to get used to running on tired legs, but it’s hard to incorporate workouts into these runs without any recovery days! And midweek recovery days feels counterproductive. Maybe it is worth sacrificing some easy miles for the sake of a better harder workout?

    1. David Laney

      Yeah great point! Adding intensity will increase your overall training stress significantly, so unless you are intentionally building, plan to reduce volume a bit when adding speed, and as always don’t neglect those recovery days. The trade off between higher volume or higher intensity is really dependent on your goals and running history/preferences, as you know, some people thrive off high volume and low intensity, others love high intensity and less volume. In the ultra world most people obviously gravitate toward the higher volume lower intensity side for usually good reason, but it really depends on the person!

  6. Brian Haviland

    A favorite workout of mine is to run hard up a steep but runable hill and then continue running hard across a flat section at the top.
    The climb takes around 2 min at which point the trail completely flatens out. At the top of the climb the quads are overworked and the stride is shortened, but as you begin running on the flat the stride opens up and the lactic acid localized to the quads starts to clear even as you continue to run hard. I call it untying the legs. Each repeat lasts ~3:00 (2 min on the climb and 60 sec across the flat). I get competitive with old times I’ve run on this workout, so I often get into the 9-10 effort range by the 3 rep and I usually complete 5 reps.
    A second workout I do using the same steep hill and flat landing is to double back on the flat and finish with a steep, fast descent down the same hill.

    1. David Laney

      Thanks Brian! Those are great workouts! Downhill work is really important especially training for races where the quads get beat up. Incorporating fast running after a steep climb is a smart way to prep the body and especially the mind for transitioning from a tough climb to flat terrain.

  7. Andy M

    Great article, even for those of us not at the “101” level. The RPE scales are great, as I’ve often wrestled with dialing in the old “5k-” or “1/2 marathon” effort/pace for a given workout. As for length of total workload, it seems from all the workouts I’ve seen that a range of 20-30 min — or maybe 40 min — cumulative workload is the target range. Any science-based thoughts on the value of total efforts below or, especially, above this range?

    1. David Laney

      Thanks Andy,
      Yes great question, depending on your experience level 20-40 minutes at the desired effort is pretty typical for most people, and usually yields the greatest reward for with least risk of injury or serious fatigue. Doing less than 20 minutes of work can be valuable for some runners (usually training for shorter fast races) if done at a higher intensity OR at the same intensity if the goal is to develop to a point where one can do 20-30 minute sessions, which is where most beginners are coming from. Doing more than 40 minutes also has a place, many marathoners do 2X6 miles or 3X4 miles which may take 60 minutes or more, but its usually done at or near threshold pace, so a lower intensity. I hope this sort of answers your question! This video from Jack Daniels may clarify a bit more about these efforts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxJVtPT6rHo

  8. Ryan Hogan

    David would you suggest doing that warmup before a race? Say a marathon. Or would that be a different routine? Great article!! Thank you!!

    1. David Laney

      Thanks Ryan!
      Warming up before a race is a great question. I warm up for any race where I will be starting out faster than my easy warm up pace. For example, I usually run the first mile of a warm up around 8 minutes per mile. If I plan to run the first mile of the race much faster than 8 minutes then I do a warm up to get things loosened up. If its a long race and a warm up will just be detrimental to the overall goal I skip the warm up as the first few miles of the race act to loosen the legs and get circulation moving. Occasionally I do an abbreviated warm up with 5 minutes of light jogging and no drills or strides. Depending on one’s race pace in most ultras or even in a marathon the first few miles can be used as the “warm up”. Hope that helps provide some clarity!

  9. Franklioni

    As someone relatively new to running, especially trail running, and structured training I actually found this article useful. Thanks.

  10. Josh

    Thanks for the articles. In refrence to the above discussions, I read irunfar 3 or 4 times a week. I’m 36 years old with 2 kids and try to run 6 days a week. I’ve completed races up to 100 miles and I’ve only incorporated a few ‘workouts’ into my running schedule.

    While this article is super accessible, I still feel intimidated by a workout for some reason. Because I have a career and want to give the best hours of my day to my family I have trouble dialing in an intention schedule. My approach is to run as soon as I can every day for as long as I can. Some days that’s 30 minutes and some days it’s 2 hours.

    All this to say, any insight on incorporating even the slightest intention into my daily run is helpful. I’m the exact target market you’re writing for in this article. Thanks man!

    1. Jamie

      Hi Josh,

      I’m not David, but here are a couple of thoughts that may be helpful.

      I hear you on the time constraints. One thing to consider is that doing a workout (or let’s say, incorporating some faster/harder running) doesn’t necessarily need to take more time than just going for a run. In fact, it can be one way of getting more bang for your buck on a day when you don’t have a lot of time.

      For example, let’s say you have thirty minutes to run. You would want to start by getting in a good warmup. It’s winter, and it sounds like you’re starting early, so let’s say it takes fifteen to twenty minutes before you’re feeling ready to roll. In about five minutes, you could do a mini-workout consisting of

      4 x 15 second strides with 1:00 jog recovery, or
      4 x 15 second uphill strides with 1:00 jog down recovery, or
      5 x 30 second a little quicker with 30 second recovery (jogging or easy running), or
      3 x 1:00 a little quicker with 1:00 recovery (jogging or easy running), or
      5:00 running progressively faster

      And then jog/run easy home.

      Especially when you’re starting out, I would suggest that you do this faster running on a day when you’re feeling reasonably good, and at a level that feels enjoyably challenging for you. In general, you want to do this kind of work progressively, so that the first stride, hill rep, pickup or whatever starts at the easy end of the effort you’re looking for and you build from there. And again, especially when you’re starting out, you may want to focus on running well (quick, smooth, strong…) more than running hard. Don’t force it, let it come to you.

      If you haven’t been doing faster running on a regular basis, mini-workouts like these can be an appropriate place to start. Even a little can be helpful, and if you can get in the habit of doing them on a semi-regular basis, then you’ll start laying the groundwork for bigger things down the road (such as the more demanding workouts that David describes in his article). And again, that doesn’t necessarily mean spending more time running, it just means spending a little more time running faster.

      Hope this is helpful!

  11. Josh

    And my question, which I forgot to include:

    If I only get a workout in, say, once every two weeks is it still worth it? Does it move the needle if my workout efforts aren’t consistent?

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