In this instalment on my fitness series for Wild, I’d like to look at strength, conditioning and endurance training for the fastest growing wilderness sport: trail running. With a large amount of trail running-related material in this issue I think it’s important we couple that with some useful information regarding activity-specific training.
Whether you are a seasoned trail runner or a novice, this sport is what wilderness adventure sports are all about. It has everything we love; a physical challenge, stunning natural environments, the simplicity of the human body in nature and technical skills required to negotiate difficult tracks. It is no wonder that trail running is one of the fastest growing sports in Australia.
The advantages of trail running over its road running cousin are that, by nature, it requires a higher degree of coordination and agility, so helping to increase proprioception and spacial awareness. However, these benefits reveal the associated risk. Twisting turns, tree roots and uneven ground engender a higher risk of acute traumatic injury, such as a sprained or broken ankle.
As our Joe’s Basecamp member and adventure-focused sports doctor, Jane Taylor of the Narrabeen Sports and Exercise Medicine Centre, says: “I feel the greatest benefit of trail running is in the variety of terrain. This reduces the risk of certain overuse injuries encountered with road running, improves proprioception and balance, building strength and stability into your running, apart from that it’s just great mental health space getting into the great outdoors.”
So what is a trail run? It’s basically anything off road, whether you are running deserts, mountains, open heathland, sclerophyll forest or sandstone gorges. It’s running where, on another day, you might trek or hike.
Many reasonably fit beginners would start with a five-kilometre run, before building up to 20 or 30 kilometres. From there, the serious runner might begin looking at ‘Ultra Trail’ lengths of 50 to 100 kilometres. There are also multi-stage events such as the 250-kilometre Big Red Run. Internationally you might look at the daring Marathon des Sables – 250-kilometres through the Sahara Desert.
To get you started, I’ve included a 14-week training plan that caters for an intermediate-level runner (someone who runs two or three times per week) who wishes to prepare for a trail running event.
Every fifth week is what we call a deload week. This is a week where we take the foot off the gas and allow the body to catch up with our progressive strengthening, as well as accommodating the neural and physical adaptations that have been going on.
Deloading is really, very important and stops us from becoming fatigued and protects as from the risks associated with overtraining.
When training for trail running, there are several areas we need to focus on more so than with road running:
Leg strength – The steep hills and steps on a single trail or mountain run loads the untrained legs with lactate, making them heavy and harder to move. We use MSP training (maximum sustained power) combined with what we call clearance runs to teach the body how to have the strength to carry the weight of the body uphill repeatedly and then clear the lactate quickly, so your running speed doesn’t deteriorate too much.
Stabilisation – You will be running on uneven surfaces often for long periods of time and in states of fatigue. We want to strengthen all the supporting muscles that help stabilise the joints through movement, so we can perform better for longer and also reduce the risk of injury
Reactive speed – Gnarly tree roots, steps, bumps and stones bring a much greater risk of acute trauma. We need to speed up our reaction times. Being able to catch yourself in a stumble can mean the difference between a rolled ankle and a face plant or finishing the race.
Core stability – The core is the centre of everything. Without a strong core everything else comes unstuck, especially in endurance. The core is controlled by ‘tonic’ muscles; these muscles must stay switched on and active for long periods of time to support our skeletal system. Nine times out of ten if a trail runner complains of a tight back after going uphill for sustained periods of time, its because of a weak core and poor stabilisation.
Sample Strength and Conditioning (S&C) sessions:
Maximum Sustained Power Sessions
How to do MSP training, this is done with big lower body movements such as the squat
BARBELL BACK SQUAT or BACKPACK SQUAT
Find a weight you can lift roughly five times… just. From now on DO NOT change the weight.
Do as many repetitions of it as you can WITHOUT failing.
Put the bar down, rest 20 seconds and repeat.
Keep on doing this until you can only do one repetition without failing.
Essentially you will have completed many mini-sets. There are no set number of repetitions you should have completed, just stick to the ‘don’t fail’ rule and rest for 20 seconds each time until you can’t do any more.
Rest for 3-5 minutes before moving to Set 2.
Lower the weight by 10-15 percent and repeat Set 1.
Rest for 3-5 minutes.
Lower the weight by 10-15 and repeat as before.
Once you have completed this, go for a 2-3km run at a zone 1 pace (heart rate: 180 – your age). This will help your body learn to clear lactate efficiently.
Stabilisation, Reactive and Core Sessions
When running, we spend up to 80 percent of our time on one leg. This is reflected through these sessions:
FRONT FOOT RAISED SPLIT SQUAT
Focus: Glutes and quads (stabilise and strengthen the hip and lifting the leg and VMO (vastus medialis obliquus, which stabilises the knee).
Standing in a lunge position, the front foot is elevated on a block or rock. Keep body tight and upright. Slowly drift forward as far as you can, so that the knee ends up over or in front of the toe, while keeping the heel down. Then push backwards. You may carry weights or a weighted backpack to add load and resistance.
3 sets of 5-7 reps.
SINGLE LEG DEADLIFT
Focus: Integrated glute and hamstring strength, as well as hip stability.
Standing on the left leg, weight in right hand with a straight leg, focus on lifting the heel of the right leg behind you, forcing your upper body forward and down.
It’s really important to focus on this rather than bending forwards.
Go as far as the hamstring will allow, i.e. until you feel a good stretch down the back of the leg and then stand up again.
3 sets of 8-10 reps each side.
Focus: Gluteus maximus and gluteus medius, which between them drive you up hills and helps stabilise the hips.
Have a resistance band around your ankles, stepping forward and out to the left side with your left leg. Bring your right leg up to level with your left before stepping out diagonally to the right.
Do 10 steps forward, then reverse it so that you do exactly the same thing but backwards.
3 sets 10 forwards and 10 backwards.
Focus: Glutes max and med, proprioception and sensory receptors stabilising the hips.
Again, use a resistance band around the ankles. Imagine you are walking on a tight rope (it helps to walk along a visible line). Lift your right leg out to your side in a curve then put it down in front of your left foot. Alternating the legs, 30 steps forward and 30 steps backwards.
3 sets: 40 forward and 30 back
Focus: Balance, reactive speed, deceleration, elastic strength and plyometric power.
Use rope, walking poles, skipping ropes or a line on the ground.
Jump from side to side along the length of the line and back again, trying to jump as far as you can and with as much force, but stopping and stabilising without putting your other foot down on each hop. Try and vary the angles with which you jump and the distance.
Advanced – try different heights as well.
3 sets of 10-15 jumps for each leg.
Focus: Integrated core stability through movement.
Hold a plank position then draw left knee under the body and towards your right shoulder. Then take leg back out and over the body so it looks like a scorpion’s tail. All movements are slow and controlled.
Repeat 5-10 times on each side. 3 sets, 5-10 reps each side.
Focus: Core stability.
Lying on your back, push your lower back into the ground with hands at your side, lifting shoulders and feet off the ground and getting the bottom of the ribs and the top of the hips closer together.
Hold intensely for 8-12 seconds.
To make it harder raise your hands above your head.
5 sets of 8-12 seconds each.
Once you have got this, try 5 sets of 12 -20 and so on until you can hold for 1 set of a minute and then 3 sets of a minute each.
Do make sure that you check with a health practitioner or highly trained coach/trainer to make sure you have no underlying health or biomechanical issues before starting a program like this.
Remember, we choose to run in the wilderness because we love the environment we run in. Look after it and treat it with respect. Before going on a trail run, let someone know your plans and if you are going remote make sure you are properly equipped (take a space blanket, just in case).
Beyond that – happy running! I look forward to seeing you out there on the trail.
A version of this article originally appeared in Wild issue 155. Subscribe today to stay up to date with the latest workout tips and much, much more.