The Road to Trail Running Success?

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.

There are 24 comments

  1. EricG

    I have always run roads mainly because its easy. It saves time and its dark during my weekday runs at 4:30am so I stick to the roads then unless I have people to run with, which never happens that early. I began running ultras this year and I am certain that long continuous running on roads/non technical terrain are beneficial. If you are not doing it in training how can you do it on race day! On a side note I started running trails a couple of years ago as part of my marathon training and I definately feel that helped make me stronger on the road (especially on the hills).

  2. Michael Valliant

    You run what you got. Convenience is huge for me. When I go out my door (also at 4:30am on weekdays), the roads are what is there. I would probably run on trails all the time if I could, but the closet trails to us are a 25-minute drive, further for technical terrain and big hills, so trail running for me is a sort of nirvana (not the band), that I salivate over, but most of my runs are on the road. So I make the most of it, have learned to dig it for what it is, and makes me appreciate the trails all the more when I get out on them.

  3. thomas

    This has me thinking. I have noticed in several races this year that I pass people on technical sections, but can't hang with others pounding out consistent paces on the "easier" miles. I hate running roads, but I might have to consider it.

  4. ultrastevep

    Hi Bryon….This is going to be long because it is one of my pet subjects ;-)I came from 20 years of road racing in the Boston road club scene before I even set foot on my first trail. Road running and racing is my core and I still like it and generally run more road miles these days than trail miles, but I do mix it up to help the wheels handle all terrain. If I hadn't been training mostly on roads, I never would have run that 19:45 100 at Vermont. When I ran that, (1998) I was running sub 3 hour marathons.If I look back at the mid 90's when I started running trail ultras, I realized I had made a mistake in thinking that I had to do all my training on trails, so I did…and I got slower, and slower. A couple of years ago while living in NM, I entered a 5K on a whim and ran just under 22 minutes! I "used" to run just several years earlier in around 17 minutes! So what happened? I knew that all that trail running had made me a slower runner. I then started to mix roads in during my weekly mileage and ran a sub 20 minute 5K here in NH at age 57…I have a plan to run a sub 3:30 marathon at age 60 in 2 years, so will be working on that and along the way will start running Leadville to see if I can get under 25 hours at age 60 (in 2 years).Your and Garrett's Leadville reports inspired me to aim for that race to try and put my old road strengths to a test.Thanks for the blog and good article.StevePS: I notice in your photo above that you have your knee locked and are landing on your heel. Do you have nagging injuries? Time for you to read Born To Run!…but that's for another blog post ;-)

  5. c

    I always think of road running as a form of cross training. In some ways it brings into to play parts of the machine that get less work on the trails. For me long road runs require far more mental endurance. I'm not treated to distracting wilderness and without the chance to focus on the pitfalls under my feet after a while I start to become aware of all the little aches and complaints and thats when the brain gets to kick in and run the show. And sometimes it just feels great to take off at a clip without worrying about plumeting down into a ravine or catching a toe on that ONE rock.

  6. Justus

    I run a lot on the road or on smooth trails with small rolling hills. When I first started running ultras 3 years ago I thought this was a detriment, but now I do not believe it is. I am 3+ hours from the mountains, so running mountain trails is a luxury I get maybe once a month. Running from my front door is great as it saves time and gas. I believe the pounding from the roads strengthens my legs. I think that roads and a treadmill for hill running can adequately train someone for an ultra, especially if the ultra involves a lot of running like Mountain Masochist or Umstead.

  7. Ultrarunning-Edge

    For anyone who wants to be a good ultrarunner, there is no substitute for varied training. 'Road running' offers all the advantages that Bryon and Steve have mentioned. Of course whether it's road or trail, successful training frequently boils down to perspective. Forcing yourself to run on a boring road for 3 or 4 hours DOES build some mental toughness. But wilderness trail running can offer adversity training too—there is nothing like discovering a dry spring you were relying on for water in the middle of a 35 mile mountain trail run. It may be easier to run hills on roads, but many ultrarunners simply don't push themselves to run hills enough on trails during training. The best ultrarunners (e.g. Karl Meltzer) run uphill trails extensively in training, even though they might not run long uphill grades 60 miles into a 100 mile race. Some ultrarunners also don't train hard enough on technical trail downhills, and road downhills are no substitute—in fact it is very easy to fall into the trap of overstriding on road downhills.Personally I despise running on pavement. But during the winter here in northern Utah, I'm forced to do it if I want to run anything longer than eight or ten miles. So winter ends up being my opportunity to work on a highly repetitive, efficient stride.

  8. Anonymous

    I've found that road running helps me prepare for longer distances as I can run for 2-3-4 hours at a set pace. I use the USATF "America's Running Routes" tool on their website as it has an auto elevation tool that allows me to pick the routes with the most hills. I also use a treadmill for one – two hour tempo runs or half hour hill runs. For the weekly dreaded VO2 max run, my treadmill also allows me to set target heartrate and then try and hang with the machine. It's a 10k run from my house to the nearest trails, so I run there, do a trail circuit and do the 10k back, getting the best of both worlds. My challenge is the 0430 – already getting ready for work – or 0 dark thirty run. I usually end up running at night after everything else is done, which cuts back on my use of some of the trails around here as the parks close, leading to lots of pavement miles. It's that or my trust PETZL comes out. Anybody have some tips on how to make me faster downhill without getting killed by ground gremlins, trail trolls and other nefarious woods creatures that have been stalking me as of late? Some bad falls… I seem to be at the point of running out of control but still want to go faster… Bob Holzhauer

  9. Dan Moore

    This is something I need to consider. I'm very lucky in that I have great trail running that I can do as my daily runs. I have three main singletrack trails I like to run all within a 10 minute drive from my house that have hills, sand, rocks, serious technical terrain and not much smooth graded stuff (no real mud either, I'm in southern Utah). As such I spend almost all my time on these three trails. I can also run out my front door and do a run that has some technical, but quite a bit of smoother running as well (still not paved, but smooth easy dirt road with good scenery). The trouble is that I think since moving here I've gotten slower. There are other factors (I'm not eating as well), but in Las Vegas where I used to live, almost all my running was on a good undulating dirt road with a few little technical side trails I'd always make sure to hit. I hate the idea of trading some of my singletrack runs for road (or at least less exciting trail), but it might be good for my running.

  10. TrailClown

    For me it's definitely not so much the trail/road dichotomy, but rather the quiet/noisy factor. If I'm on roads with nice scenery and quiet surroundings, then it's the same as trails for me (in terms of enjoyment, not technical requirements). But when roads are combined with noise (like the infamous DC commute), it makes me long for the trails.

  11. ~stubert.

    I completely agree that road running helps with trail running, particularly longer events. Though I had completed ultras in the past, the first marathon I did was the first time I "ran" that far in a single push. Consistent pacing, no power hiking, just running for 26.2 miles. I enjoy running trails more than the slab but getting out on pavement and hammering out some miles improves one's cadence, stride, and efficiency and all of these translate well to the trail. Certainly, one needs to spend a lot of time on dirt too to become competitive in these conditions but logging miles on the road helps immensely. ~stubert.

  12. Anonymous

    Sure, road running is great, but let's get back to the important work of critiquing your running form. First, your head should be looking forward, not off to the side. Now, I know you were just looking for the camera, but it still throws your form off. Second, your left arm is clearly too high and the fingers are slightly too clenched. A good mnemonic to help you correct this form imbalance (one which I developed during my years as a consultant, I might add) is LYAUYF. It stands for Lower Your Arms, Unclench Your Fingers. Finally, I might add that the choice of a blue shirt was incorrect on a hot day. There were many, many other form problems I noticed. Please get back with me and we can hammer it out.

  13. Caren

    How timely a topic Bryon; I've been feeling the love for the roads as I'm coming back from a minor layoff. For some reason, roads keep me honest with the hills too as I will rarely walk a hill, and they allow me to zone out and get into a really nice groove. Hill repeats and tempo runs on the roads really boost my trail running too. I'm also fortunate to live in a neighborhood with miles and miles of road, so traffic is rarely an issue (or it might be that 4am start time). I really appreciate the way roads and trails highlight different aspects of running.

  14. saschasdad

    I very much believe that road running is great for helping running efficiency and form. I like that I can just get in a groove and go, without thinking about rocks, roots, twists, turns, cougars, etc. Lately, I've been running more roads than normal (4-5x per week) and definitely notice that I'm more sore than more usual twice per week. So I think roads can definitely make me faster and more efficient, but also beat me up a lot more.What about road races? I absolutely love road 1/2 marathons! They're long enough to take the zip out of 10ker legs so us ultra guys don't look so slow. Seriously, they are a great workout, relatively short by ultra standards (although running at 90% of max h.r. for 75 min. doesn't feel short) and with a good warm-up and cool down, you can easily get in a 20 mile day.I really enjoy races like JFK that have a variety of terrain, as they force you to train on a variety of terrain.

  15. Félix

    Good post. I'm experimenting with this right now. After my first two ultras this year, I'm going to try to do a marathon for the first time. Here's why: I have good endurance but am slow. In my last ultra (CCC-Mont Blanc) I felt I needed to be faster all around to make the cutoffs. I'm hoping that focusing on marathon training for a couple of months in the off-season will help me be a little faster for when I begin hitting the trails and mountains again in January 2010 to train for UTMB. Also I'm enjoying all the extra time on the weekends from reduced training. Once I start training for ultras again, I'll have a solid base, better form on the flats and will be eager to leave the pavement. I hope it makes sense and produces the benefits I'm looking for.

  16. KMAX

    I'm in the same boat as Michael and c further down. Trails are almost a luxury item, especially serious technical trails for me. On the other hand in my only "ultra" to date, the Potomac Heritage 50k a few weeks ago I definitely struggled more on the C&O canal sections and other flat straight sections. My hip flexors started screaming at me on the mile or two back on the tow path on the way back. In training all my long runs were on trails so while my short mid-week runs were mostly road miles I could definitely see the benefits of putting in some longer miles on the road as well. Especially as I start training for next years Bull Run Run 50 miler… :)

  17. Garry

    OK, Bryon, I agree to an extent … too many miles on the road are first off, too boring, and second off, too punishing on your body, especially your back. But I would agree it is a necessary evil to get better as a runner period, not just to become a better trail runner. You can only become a better trail runner by running trails, just like you can only become a better mountain biker by riding your mountain bike in the woods … riding your mountain bike on the road isn't going to do much for you …

  18. Joel Toews

    Thanks for a great post. I'm an aspiring ultrarunner, but I live in the Canaidan prairies, in the city, and as a result, do a lot of flat road miles (unless I find some trails here and there). So this post is of great encouragement as I continue to train for my first ultra. I know I will need some trail miles, and will definitely need to hit some hills, but knowing that many road miles will be beneficial is encouraging. Thanks.

  19. paulrondeau

    Thank's for that timely article!I'am a virgin to the trail scence training for my first 50 miler,andyes the desert in 4am can benasty.So i'am hitting pavement morethan i really want but i've gotta get in the training

  20. Meghan

    There are a few people with freakish biomechanical perfection who can get away with running a lifetime on pavement with little injury or other disfunction. However, I'd guess that these people represent the vast minority of us runner folk.Luckily, superb alternatives exist for the rest of us, those that you named like dirt roads, rails-to-trails trails, towpaths, etc., etc.So then, I agree wholeheartedly that "road running" ON FORGIVING SURFACES is a great training means for peeps like us. My anecdoatal addition reflects my opinion: I have decent biomechanics, but still managed to acquire injury in 2004 when I switched from running mostly on dirt roads to running mostly on paved roads with little change in training load.Happy running!

  21. Ben Nephew

    I don't think that you can group any sort of flat trails with roads. The amount of damage that you accumulate running on actual roads is much greater than if you had been on canal paths or carriage roads. The only valid reason for deliberaely getting on roads to train is prepare for a race on roads. Although it takes some focus, it is possible to do high quality speedwork on trails; you just have to develop trail intervals that you run timed efforts on regularly, just as if it were a track or road. As for hills, most should be able to run trail hills as hard as road hills. If access to trails is limited, that is one thing, but I don't think that going out of your way to run on roads in preparation for a trail race is all that helpful. I am not sure that long road runs are going to help with continuous and consistent racing. I know a lot of fast road runners with very fast marathon PR's who fall apart at the end of long trail races. I like to refer to it as a lack of trail endurance. Running fast late in a long trail race is a learned skill that cannot be simulated on the roads. You need to strengthen all the accessory muscles that you use when trail running. Adding variety to your training is a good thing, but adding hard roads just for variety may not be worth the injury risk.I would actually argue that you can get away with training mostly on trails in preparation for a road ultra, to a certain extent.Road racing is actually evil, at least at the ultra level. I ran a ridiculously hard 43 mile race with 10k of climb and steep descents on hard trails over the summer. The next day, I was sore, but still able to go hiking with my 35lb son on my back. Two days ago, I ran a perfectly flat 50 miler, and I am having a hard time walking today. Maybe if I had been wearing five fingers, I'd feel fine today…..

  22. saschasdad

    Ben, I definitely agree with your statement about how "you can get away with training mostly on trails in preparation for a road ultra, to a certain extent" and take it a step further by saying the same about road marathons. Recovery time from training on a trail is just so much faster than it is on the roads. Obviously you need to run at least a few long road runs when prepping for a road marathon/ultra, but the trails reduce recovery time needed and they make you stronger than the roads.I still believe roads are great for efficiency and leg turn over, regardless of the racing surface you're targeting.

  23. Toby Porter

    Thanks to all for the informative insight on running. Does any one frequent the Postal Trail. It's one of the longest trails in the US. It's closer than you think. While out on your next daily road run glance over and check out the ribbon of dirt the mailman (person) leaves behind. If you truly desire more dirt give it a try. It may just put a smile on your face.

  24. s

    Was looking for an article just like this, and I then found it!! I totally dig the trails. I've got 40+ miles of trails right across the street from where I live. My problem… I am hella slow and I am not logging enough miles each week (roughly 20-25/week with ~6k+ ele gain, really wanting to get it up to about 35-40 w/~10k+ ele).

    Anyhow, as much as I abhor the road (even on bikes- I am also an avid mtb'er), I think it will be crucial step in breaking out of the current plateau that is holding me back. Adding a day or two of roads should help out (at least in the distance requirement.) We shall see how it goes! Thanks Bryon and thanks google for finding an article posted many moons ago!!

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