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.