The Road to Trail Running Success?

A discussion of how running on the roads may benefit your trail running.

By on November 16, 2009 | Comments

I like road running and think it has a place in training for trail races, especially trail ultramarthons. There, I’ve said it, let the hate mail commence…

OK, so it may seem hypocritical for a trail running website to suggest that road running may help someone become a better trail runner, but that’s what came to mind during my 18 miles on pavement and graded dirt that snaked through the Sierra foothills yesterday afternoon. That notion was reinforced with an exclamation point when the toll of 2,000+ feet of climbing brought me to a walk somewhere around mile 13 or 14. (The full run had around 3,000 feet of climb.) It later occurred to me that I’ll be in the best shape of my life if I continue running such routes for the next six months. I could be wrong. Below are a few thoughts on why a trail runner might want to hit the roads – at least occasionally. Be sure to let everyone know how you use road running (paved or not) in training for your trail races… or exactly how much you detest road running.

Let me make it clear, I don’t think road running is necessary; however, I do think that running roads, canal tow paths, flatter non-technical trails, etc. can be beneficial to racing on the trails. (I’ll stick to using the terms trail running and road running from here out, but know that I include the previously described terrain under “road running.”) I also think that road running is of more benefit to ultrarunners than to those who race shorter distances on the trails. (That said, those short distance trail racers may benefit more from track or tempo workouts.) It goes without saying that getting in the trail miles pays big dividends come race day, I’m just suggesting that a variety of terrain might help you in the end!

Why Isn’t Road Running Evil?
Below are a couple good reasons why I think road running and its ilk aren’t the work of the devil.

Continuous and Consistent Running
When you hit some honest to goodness trails they can put a hurting on you in a hurry. Maybe steep climbs abound that get your heart pumping like a hummingbird’s and reduce you to walking. Perhaps there are particularly technical sections or gobs of mud. Those things are a blast, but they can take you out of your running rhythm. On the flip side, a long, steep downhill may give you long sections where you can let gravity do the work while your cardiovascular system goes on vacation.

For sure you need to be prepared to do the above in many a trail race, but you’ll likely want to run a bit as well, right? I find that when I run moderate distances on mountainous trails, I don’t end up fatiguing some of my running muscles as much as I can by continuously running on the roads. Those very same muscles often DO come into focus in ultra distances and I, for one, like having them ready.

I also like putting my cardiovascular and endocrine systems through consistent two, three or four hours tests. I find I don’t often keep a very even effort when training on trails where there are steep hills, obstacles to navigate, and views to take in. However, I do keep a very even effort (heart rate wise) when racing ultramarathons on the trails. I want my body prepared for that.

Run The Hills!
I love walking. I really do. When I’m out running in the mountains, I’m quick to switch into walking mode even while my companions keep running. I consider my walking ability a strength in ultras and specifically hone it before competing in a mountain 100 miler. That said, there are plenty of inclines to run in many trail races.

When out on the roads, I don’t switch to walking even on grades that I walk on the trails. I guess roads keep me honest. If I put in my uphill road miles, I hope that I become a better uphill runner on the trails and end up moving the grade at which I switch from running to walking to a steeper grade.

Me enjoying (for the time being) a 3,000′ run up from Mono Lake to Tioga Pass in June

Specificity: Specifically Flat Terrain
I don’t know about you, but many of the trail races I run have a great deal of flat, runnable terrain in them. Western States 100? Check. Leadville 100? Check. Bull Run Run 50? Check. Stone Cat 50? Check. Well, perhaps in addition to training for the hills, we should put in some boring, flat, monotonous miles in training! I can attest that in my two biggest races of 2009 I at least perceived my lack of training on the flats to be a detriment to my performance.

After running many a rolling trail mile with a heavy pack in preparation for the Marathon des Sables, I ended up wishing I’d spent much more time cruising flat pavement. My biggest problem by far at MdS was fatigue from many miles of continuous flat running across the desert. Hello, hip flexors!

Then there was Leadville. Actually, there almost wasn’t a Leadville 100 for me. Why? Well, one reason is that I thought I hadn’t logged enough long continuous runs for this course. Maybe my performance there suggests otherwise, but when I run Leadville again I will be sure to include many more flat miles before I head to the start at 6th and Harrison.

For some, road running isn’t a result of training requirements; instead, it’s for logistical reasons. Many folks don’t have trail out their front door. When I’ve lived around Washington, DC, I logged nearly all of my weekday miles on the roads, because I didn’t have trails that I could easily incorporate from work or home. Even now when I could drive to trails any day I like, I prefer the easy logistics of rolling out my front door and running… even if that means hitting the roads. Some who have trail access aren’t able to log their weekday miles during daylight hours and are understandably leery of running on the trails alone at night. There are plenty of other logistical reasons why many a trail runner may log road miles and those road miles are better than no miles at all!

Conclusion and Call for Comments
Have no fear iRunFar readers! We’ll be back with more trail running goodness. While road miles have a purpose that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t rather be out on the trails!

As noted in the intro, it would be great if you could share how you use road running in training for trail running or why you don’t.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.