There has been a surge in the popularity of fitness running. It seems that nearly every major city in the world hosts not only its own marathon but also related events, spanning 1K kids’ fun runs to 10Ks and half marathons. In addition, attendance at road races (especially for first timers) and at running clinics is increasing. While many of these clinics do a very good job of training and motivating participants to “go the distance,” very few of them truly address running-specific strength training.

Until a couple of years ago, most races and running clinics were geared toward road running, but lately there has been
a shift toward trail running. Perhaps this
is because veterans are looking for new challenges and rookies are seeking more enjoyable experiences. Or perhaps all groups—especially the aging Baby Boo-mers—are looking for more-forgiving terrain. Whatever the distance or setting, preparing for a footrace can be challenging. How can you help get your trail-running clients not only to the start line, but across the finish line, in peak form?

Although the concepts presented in this article are geared toward trail runners, they are equally applicable to your road-running clients.

Trail Versus Road Runnning

Trail running is unique in that your clients have to train for distance and terrain. Rocks, stumps, roots, fallen trees, creek beds, snowpacks, mountain climbs and descents replace the security and stability offered by pavement.

What about the “seasonality” of trail running? Your clients have worked hard over the spring and summer months to get “fit” for trail running. But how do they stay “trail fit” through the winter when the days are shorter and their favorite trails are snow covered? Unlike road running, trail running is virtually impossible (not to mention incredibly dangerous) in the early morning or evening because of darkness and/or inclement weather. In cooler climates, trails can be covered in snow for most of the “off-season,” making running on them inconceivable. Typically, trail runners compensate by adding greater road mileage to their off-season programs. Although this most definitely maintains the endurance aspect of their conditioning, it does little for their trail fitness.

What Is Trail Fitness?

Trail fitness refers specifically to power, stability, balance, agility and “core-dinated” (integrating upper body, lower body and torso in a single exercise) strength. Power is used to propel clients forward and upward in preparation for undulating terrain and steep ascents. Stability and balance keep runners on their feet and prepare them to react to unexpected changes in terrain. Agility not only helps them maneuver around natural obstacles but also prepares them to quickly “unweight” an unstable foothold without decreasing speed. And core-dinated strength improves efficiency in all of the above. These components of fitness are not addressed in most road-running programs, but they are crucially important to the success of a trail runner. They are also the first components to be “lost” in the off-season when trails are not as accessible.

Program Design

A properly designed trail-conditioning program should comprise a systematic progression of “core-dinated” closed-kinetic-chain exercises, incorporating components of strength, agility, speed and power. Although not addressed specifically, agility is an integral part of the other three parameters. Warm-ups should include a combination of range of motion (ROM) movements and dynamic stretching exercises specific to running. Some examples are easy walking lunges with knee lifts; lunges with torso rotation; traveling lateral squats; walking knee lifts with knee, shin or toe taps; and “inchworm” or crawling-type movements. In the latter phases, when plyometric or power movements are added to the program, try including some low-level plyo in the warm-ups as well. In fact, as you progress clients through the phases, you can select some “workout” exercises and introduce them into your warm-ups, emphasizing—as always—proper form and technique.

The progression of each workout exercise is best understood when viewed on a continuum (see “Trail Conditioning Con-tinuum,” on this page). These variables allow you to periodize and systematically progress each client’s program, from post-race recovery and off-season maintenance through in-season performance.

The Program

The early phase, or off-season, is the time to establish baseline strength and stability. For trail runners, this is usually mid to late fall through early winter. Early phase is when your coaching skills come in, as you must discipline clients to maintain perfect form throughout required repetitions. Take time now to ensure that each client’s foundation of base strength is laid correctly. Do this by using perfect technique as your guide—not only for where to start a client along the continuum, but also for progressing him or her to more “advanced” forms of the exercises.

In this phase, exercises follow patterns of more fitness-based, closed-chain strength. Examples are squats, lunges, step-ups, push-ups, rows and torso exercises. The squats train for jumping, landing and “cutting” patterns necessary for maneuvering on trail terrain. The lunging actions train for deceleration patterns, necessary for descents as well as for quickness and agility when
negotiating tricky terrain. The contralateral actions of knee drive and thigh extension in the step-ups train acceleration and climbing patterns.

Pushing patterns aid in recovery from out-of-control moments such as running into trees (yes, this happens regularly!). Rowing or pulling patterns train for steep ascents on which runners have to virtually climb over the terrain (or pull themselves up after a spill). And because the torso is the foundation in which the roots of upper- and lower-body strength are planted, simultaneously strengthening this area in conjunction with the rest of the body (core-dinated athletic strength) augments strength and power. The torso also acts as a force transfer station, increasing the efficiency and transferability of upper- and lower-body power into movement.
In Phase I, torso activation patterns are fairly basic, including exercises such as crunches, stability ball roll-outs, side bends, back extensions, dead bugs, etc., and provide baseline torso strength on which to build “core-dination.”

The next phase of training, preseason, is the longest and most progressive. Integrate core-dinated strength by combining upper- and lower-body strength exercises such as squats and cable rows, lunges and push-presses, walking lunges and wood chops. Now is also a good time to incorporate more stability training, so haul out the balance boards, BOSU trainers and stability balls. Have clients do squats and lunges on BOSUs or balance boards, and use a combination of stability balls, BOSUs and balance boards for push-ups and lunges. Initially, your clients may feel awkward and get frustrated by their lack of “ability with stability,” so you might want to incorporate these “new” exercises gradually. Modify movement patterns so the exercises begin to look more like running.

The most exciting and rewarding phase of training—in-season—is when your role as trainer and strength coach becomes more hands-on. This is when you and your clients will truly begin to see these results from their training:

  • Run times (for the same routes) begin to get faster.
  • Perceived effort on the steeps and descents reduces.
  • Agility on the most “gnarly” technical terrains improves.
  • Walk segments become run segments.

Now is the time to integrate body weight plyometrics such as bounding, hopping, triple jumps and plyo split squats into workouts, and to include low-level plyo movements in warm-ups. Because power training is metabolically stressful, add these exercises to the beginning of workouts when clients are fresh. (Add some low-level plyo to the warm-ups to ensure clients’ neuromuscular systems are uploaded and ready to jump.) Devote only the first 10–15 minutes of a workout to plyometrics; the rest of the time should be spent on the more advanced progressions of Phase 2 exercises.

In Phase 3, also begin to incorporate more reactive training. Add elastic resistance to lunges, bounds and squats (reactive neuromuscular training, or RNT). Toss clients a medicine ball while they are on the balance boards or BOSUs. Both these methods train runners to prepare for unpredictable terrain, in addition to enhancing core-dinated strength. You are your clients’ environment, so make them react; be unpredictable with your execution; don’t always throw the medicine ball at the same rate, speed or direction.

Train in each phase of the conditioning program for at least 1–2 months, depending on the specific client’s goals. If a client is training for a particular event, start at the event date and work backward (don’t forget to add a week on the end of the program for the taper). As for tapering, the peak of training for endurance should be 2–3 weeks before race day, while the peak of training for strength and power should be 1–2 weeks before race day.

The Power of Recovery

Final words of advice: Do not let clients fall into the “more is better” trap. Power training is high-intensity work and stressful on the body. Allow ample recovery time (72 hours) between plyometrics sessions. Again, technique is your guide. Stop as soon as a client’s form starts to deteriorate, regardless of the number of repetitions completed. Encourage runners to continually listen to their bodies. If a client shows up for a session exhausted and disinterested in training, or is unable to maintain perfect form, make that day’s workout an easy one. Back off the explosive moves, concentrate on torso training or use the time to stretch. Never underestimate the power of recovery!