Trail running has given a huge boost to running and provided a new outlet for athletes looking to test themselves over diverse terrain while escaping the urban challenges of traffic, exhaust and construction zones. With marathon training requiring so many miles of training per week, hitting the trails can be an attractive diversion. When athletes are focused on marathon preparation, trail running can be incorporated to enhance mental preparation and build strength, but factors of timing within the training plan and the risks associated with running on trails must be considered. To make trail running a productive part of your marathon training, follow these strategies and work with a coach to maintain the proper balance of trail running versus focused marathon training
Trail Running Can Build Strength and Improve Form
As marathon training miles accumulate it’s tempting to start logging miles off-road and there are many benefits to be gained simply from changing surfaces. Trail running will strengthen muscles in the foot, ankle and pelvis, otherwise not developed while running on urban terrain. This strengthening increases overall muscle recruitment, creating more power and resulting in greater running efficiency. Running efficiency is obviously important over the 26.2-mile distance and can be developed effectively off-road.
There are two major sources of trails: hiking trails and rails-to-trails that provide different topographical aspects to training session. Hiking trails will provide greater and steeper elevation changes to improve hill running technique and provide higher-effort training. Rails-to-trails, by the nature of their design, are relatively flat and straight with a consistent trail surface, allowing for what I term steady state runs or tempo efforts. A steady state effort incorporates 50 to 70 mins of running at 70 percent to 75 percent effort in the middle of a long run. The idea is to run with purpose versus just logging long run miles and it is a building block in the training plan leading to tempo training.
Tempo training differs in intensity with 80 percent to 85 percent efforts in intervals of five to 10 minutes with 60 to 90 seconds recovery or longer efforts up to 40 minutes without recovery. Marathon training is comprised mostly of these workouts and when completed on rails-to-trails, the focus is on pacing or form, not navigating traffic or beating red lights. Studies have shown that running on lower stiffness surfaces, like soft trails, increases the corresponding metabolic demands of running without otherwise changing running support mechanics (Kerdok, et al., 2002). This is helpful during the marathon base building phase when intensity is low and volume is increasing, as it allows increased workload without requiring speed training or overly increasing mileage.
Trail Running Can Increase Your Focus
Mentally speaking, trail running provides an escape from traffic, crosswalks and running on crowded roads. Nothing makes a run go by faster than quiet, natural surroundings where you are not bombarded with horns and stoplights. Getting out on a trail allows you to truly focus on the training session objectives, running form and even competition goals. When talking about a great marathon performance runners will always talk about getting into a good rhythm or being in “the zone.” This seems easy to do on a racecourse blocked off from vehicle traffic and with the whole road to use, but in training it can be challenging and best accomplished on a trail. Getting in the zone is something that can and should be practiced in training and the ideal place to find the distraction free environment is on the trails.
One method is to mentally concentrate on the sound of each footstep hitting the trail and recognizing change in pace thru sound (similar to learning rhythm on a musical instrument). This exercise is most successful by leaving the headphones at home and on a quiet trail without distractions. There is also research that verifies the positive mental effect of hitting the trails, which found participants tend to walk faster with a lower RPE, at a greater physiological effort (verified by heart rate and blood lactate), suggesting they perceive exercise to be less demanding when performed in a natural environment (Ceci et al., 1991). This perceived lower effort has advantages during high volume marathon training when mental fatigue makes it harder complete (or sometimes just start) a training session.
Mental preparation for marathons is just as important as the physical preparation in regards to focus, race strategy and motivation. Trail running provides an opportunity to practice these skills and escape the stress related to urban running.
Too Much Trail Running Can Derail Your Road Marathon Goals
Getting back to nature is not all positive, there are some drawbacks and risks. First of all, marathon training requires very specific pacing work that may be simulated on trails, but the physiological demands will differ versus racing on roads. The differences will vary depending on the trail’s topography or the quality of the surface. To develop the proper marathon pacing, a majority of your training should be executed on the same surfaces and similar terrain to that of the target competition. Because pacing is vital to a successful marathon, the final third of the marathon training plan (typically three-to-five weeks out from the race), should be on roads with similar topography to the goal event. This makes trail running more suited to the base training or strength phase and during an occasional aerobic training session.
A second drawback is the risk involved with trail running. Hiking trails other than rails-to-trails incorporate inclines and elevation changes that no civil engineer would plan for a city street. Extreme ascents and descents pose injury risks and require proper focus and timing within the training plan. Soft tissue injuries are also more common on softer surfaces versus road running where bone injuries are more common. This is partly due to the body’s natural process of adjusting leg tension during each leg strike to the surface stiffness. The ligaments and tendons adjust their tension, acting like springs based on feedback from the previous steps. This enables the body to adapt equally well to hard roads or soft and unstable trails.
With no clear answer as to which surface is ideal for training every day, moderation is recommended to minimize either the risk of soft tissue or bone related injuries. Fortunately, the possible risks associated with trail running can be easily mitigated with a purposefully designed training plan, and marathoners can successfully prepare for their goal performance.
When properly applied, trail running can be a productive component of any marathon training plan, contributing to competitive success and goal attainment. Running on trails can provide the ideal training environment necessary to build strength and accommodate tempo training. Trails are ideal environments to fine tune mental skills and relieve the stress of chaotic urban environments. Always consult an experienced coach to set up your marathon training plan and effectively implement trail running sessions to have a successful marathon.