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.

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