How easy is it to convert from road to trail running?

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When I first joined a local running club I had been running for a while, but only ever raced and mostly trained on roads with the occasional canal tow-path thrown in. During my first summer with the club I was introduced to some off road running, including my first off road half marathon. At this time I was still also doing some road races and working on good 5km and 10km times, but somehow, in training, more and more my legs would take me onto the trails where I could immerse myself more in nature. It was only when I began working with a coach and he asked me why I was training on trails yet my goals were all road based that I had the epiphany that really, the thing I liked doing was trail running.

So how easy is it to convert from road running to trail running? Well initially all you have to do is go and find a trail near you or on one of your usual road routes and try it, it’s really that simple. If you like it you can do more. If you’re looking to do some trail races or most of your training on rougher terrain, there are a few other things that it will be helpful to consider however.

  1. Forget pace

If you’ve been running on the road a while, you may be in the habit of training to pace - threshold pace, race pace, 8min/mile pace whatever it is that makes sense for you. The first thing to do on the trails is to FORGET pace. Up here in the pyrenees I have done 10km in anything from one to three hours. Until you get used to some of the skills listed below, you may have to slow your pace to avoid falling. In addition the terrain on trails is very variable and there can be a signficant amount of steep climbs. If you want to measure your effort as you train it’s far more accurate to use RPE (Relative Perceived Exertion), heartrate or even power. You can easily convert your threshold pace to heartrate or power by looking up the stats for both from your last hard effort such as a race (if you wore a heartrate monitor or power meter). TrainingPeaks has a great tool that will then work it all out for you using the zones in your profile section. Alternatively you could check out John’s blog on training zones.

If you are considering spending most of your time off road, particularly on mountainous or very hilly terrain, this will undoubtedly compromise your flat road speed to some extent; this does not mean that you have got less fit, it just means that your fitness levels have changed to match your terrain. You don’t need a good 400m pace to run a fast mountain race (although if the last mile is on flat road, a bit of flat speed can help!).

2. Learn to climb

If you are off road, you are likely to be meeting more hills and the chances are they will be steeper than those you might be used to on the road, with rough sections. It’s a skill to learn to climb in an economic way, which requires more than just fitness. However, don’t let those hills psych you out, the views from the tops are amazing, and you can do them at your own pace, whatever that is. Keeping on your toes and shortening your stride whilst leaning forward with your whole body will help. As your experience grows you will learn which hills you are able to run up and which will require walking (some of them will!). For more information on how to climb, you can have a look at my article on running up hills faster.

3. Learn to descend

Climbing is hard in one way, descending hard in another. Good descenders cover a lot of ground very quickly on the downs and will leave you (and me usually) standing! As with climbing, different types of descending require different skill sets. Perhaps the most frequent advice I have had has been to disengage my brain. However, whilst not a strong descender I have learnt to descend better by:

  • Sitting back as I might if I were skiing for steeper descents and taking shorter quick strides;

  • For less steep descents it’s a case of leaning forward and breaking my fall with each step;

  • Looking well ahead and planning the best line;

  • Jumping from rock to rock where necessary and possible rather than getting stuck between rocks;

  • Doing the same descent again and again which is just slightly outside my comfort zone until I get good at it;

  • Mountain biking - the skills of descending on the bike really complemented my running descending;

  • Going up hill a bit slower so that I have the energy and legs to descend better;

  • Focussing on keeping going at a pace that is comfortable for me;

  • Finally and perhaps less officially, running with my crazy dog (Catalan Berger), who, if I’m not going fast enough nips my ankles - nothing like the avoidance of pain to motivate me to run faster!

4. Learn to scramble

With higher and harder climbs, there are going to be some sections which are very much more of a scramble than a walk or a run. If you’re not used to doing this it can be a challenge and certainly leave you feeling sore the next day as it is a full body work out. If you’ve ever done any climbing these skills will help and if you haven’t this can be a fun addition to your training.

When you are scrambling up steep rocky climbs you will be using your arms as well as your legs for both balance and to pull you up at times. Things I tend to do in this situation are:

  • Try to have three points on the rocks at all times;

  • Look up and ahead for good foot and hand holds;

  • Look for a line up, rather than just the next step - this is sometimes best done from the bottom of the scramble;

  • Ask a friend for help - e.g. if they are below you asking them if they can see where the line goes, if they are above asking how they did it.

As with all things, don’t do more than you feel comfortable with and that you know is safe. In particular, there may be scrambly routes that are fine in the summer months, but that are treacherous in the ice and snow.

5. Reduce your weekly mileage

Unless the trails you are choosing are very similar to the road, you will find you are working a lot harder to cover the same distance off road. To prove the point, check out my two training runs below: they are both around the same distance but one is on the road the other is on trail, in particular note my training stress score for each. So while the time you spend training may stay the same, your mileage is likely to reduce significantly, at least initially. My plans for off road running are based on time and TSS (training stress score) rather than distance. It’s about time on your feet rather than distance covered.

Road run

Road run

Trail run

Trail run

6. Learn to find your way

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If you are heading out onto the trails, you need to be able to find your way. Whilst you don’t have to be an expert orienteer you do need to know where you’re going and be able to find your way back if for some reason you get off the route. In an area you don’t know at the very least you are going to need a map and a compass and some knowledge of how to use them. The Fell Runners’ Association (FRA) run some good weekend courses that can help you get started with navigation. In any case if you are thinking of doing any races as part of the FRA many of them do require you to be able to read a map and use a compass. This is particularly pertinent in changing weather, particularly fog which can really transform the way even routes well-known to you can look; it’s surprising how much we rely on being able to see certain landmarks to guide our way.

If, like me, you struggle with map reading, you can always run out and back routes, but be sure you pay attention on your way out so that you remember how to get back, what can seem obvious one way can be easily missed another. I usually also take either my phone with an appropriate map application for the area or the paper map with me to avoid any major disasters.

If you are lucky enough to be running in mainland Western Europe, my own experience is the trails are usually well marked (often with a handy sign at the tope to tell you which mountain you are on).

Additionally, if you run in a group or with a friend, they may be able to show you some routes and over time you will get to know them and build up your own internal map of routes in your area.

7. Get some kit

Shoes: If you’re planning to introduce some trail running to your training, you will benefit from some trail shoes on rougher terrain; unlike road running shoes, trail shoes will move with your foot as you run on uneven terrain and cambers. There are plenty of choices out there from very minimalist shoes with aggressive soles that are great in mud to more built up shoes with less aggressive soles and anything in between. Running shoes are very individual and if you know from your road running that you require a particular type of shoe, then I would try and get your trail shoes to match. After that it’s a question of getting shoes that match the type of terrain you will be running on. If you go to a good running shop and ask their advice they will usually be able to give you some idea of what might work for you. Generally speaking, the wetter and muddier the trail the more you will benefit from an aggressive sole; the rockier the terrain, the more you will benefit from some protection over the top of your foot. Also, ask around, whilst what works for one person may not work for another, getting a few different people’s opinions will add to your knowledge base, in particular when it comes to things like durability and how the sole responds in wet versus dry conditions.

Other kit: if you’re just planning on doing some short trail runs on routes you know, you shouldn’t really need anything more than trail shoes, as you will have appropriate running clothes from your road running. However, if you are planning to go for longer or to race, you will need a map of the area, a compass, and some good (light) waterproof trousers and jacket. Again, any good running store will advise you but note for racing in Britain the FRA requirement is for full body waterproofs with taped seems, in addition to a hat and gloves, similar conditions may apply in other countries so it is worth checking. As a cheap starter the pac-a-mac brand meet this standard. You will also need something to carry all this in. There are a variety of running jackets and bags available the more you spend the better it’s going to be. In my experience with running equipment, more investment is not a waste, it usually means lighter, more comfortable and better working equipment. For longer distances you will also need something that carries your drinks and food.

My main advice with kit is to buy the best you can afford and when going out, consider not just how warm you are going to be when you are running but how you will be if you have to stop, either due to injury or to look at a map and find your way. If you are doing a significant amount of climb, you will need to think about the difference in temperature and wind chill as other factors. It’s far better to be over prepared than stuck on a hillside on the verge of hypothermia or for that matter sunstroke because you forgot your hat.

8. Go out with friends

My reccy of the Killian Classik this year was much improved by a chance meeting with my two friends from my club en route, one of whom happened to know the course!

My reccy of the Killian Classik this year was much improved by a chance meeting with my two friends from my club en route, one of whom happened to know the course!

Finding your way on the trails is far more fun with others, who may, handily know some good routes they can show you. For longer more adventurous runs, it’s also safer to run with others and, if they are more experienced than you at off road running they are likely to be more than happy to share their own knowledge with you. I often find I learn a lot about running styles and skills by watching others do it.

Running with others is great for your motivation especially over longer distances but if you really can’t find anyone to run with, always tell someone where you are going and what time they should expect you back.

9. Transfer gradually

There’s no law which says you have to be purely a trail runner or a road runner. Whilst undoubtedly there are some people who will definitely prefer off-road, to on-road, to start you can mix it up a bit. Start with some easy, well-marked paths that are not too rough so you can run them in your road shoes and stick to doing your harder sessions on the surface you know the best, the fitness will still transfer into any trail running you decide to do. You could start by doing just one or two of your easier runs off road and stick to your usual training regime on the other days.

10. Off Road Speed Sessions

If you are thinking of doing some trail racing, you might want to consider doing some of your speed sessions off road and on undulating/hillier terrain that matches your race. You could start by doing timed loops of a park or woodland trail where the terrain is still relatively easy to run on and progress to loops that include some climbing and descending. I have been in group training events where after some flat speed, we finished off with a tempo run up hill for ten minutes (a great way to improve running speed and efficiency when tired as well as gaining strength).

If I am training for a particular race I like to look at the general profile of the race and then incorporate aspects of this on a smaller more intense scale in training (e.g. Fully Sorniot is an uphill only race in the Swiss Alps; near the top there is a plateau where it is virtually flat, so doing some hill reps which run into a flat section is good training for this section of the race).

Here are some examples of speed sessions I have done off road to help with my speed and endurance in trail races:

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11. Do some strength and conditioning

Repetitive use of muscle group in any type of running can risk injury if you don’t appropriately strengthen the muscles around it and carry good form. In trail running this is even more the case as you put more pressure on your joints on the steeper descents and by running on the uneven terrain. A good way to avoid this is by following a good strength and conditioning programme to strengthen your core. In my experience, this is the thing most runners find hard to follow, we want to be out running not to a gym weight lifting! However, I have slowly, and reluctantly, come to the realisation that if I want to keep going out and running, I have to strengthen my whole body. There are various ways you can do this, but in general, setting realistic goals and finding something you enjoy usually work the best so:-

If you enjoy the gym go and do a work out that strengthens all your muscles. John’s article on scheduling gym sessions may help, if you don’t already have a good routine.

If you like training with others join a circuits class or other local strength based class.

I personally have found yoga to be something that I can do consistently and actually enjoy. Many of my running friends also do pilates. Both these disciplines encourage you to use and strengthen your core. There are now a variety of classes and teachers that will do running specific yoga/pilates.

If you really can’t bear any of these, doing a plank facing down, facing up and on each side (in front of the mirror to ensure good form) is going to be better than doing nothing at all and will certainly work all your body muscles.

Balance - when running off road proprioception and balance are key to staying on your feet. Most types of yoga include some balancing exercises, but even just practising standing on one leg each day will help. Once you get good, you can incorporate other tasks into it (e.g. clean your teeth whilst standing on one leg, talking on the phone whilst standing on one leg, buttering your toast etc). Using a balance ball can also be a good way of improving your balance.

Whatever you choose, the way to ensure that you do it is, like your running, to have a routine and stick to it, even if it’s only 5 minutes every other day, that’s far better than an hour once a month.

12. Cross Train

Another way of preserving your joints and building in some strength is to cross train. Cycling in particular is really complementary to trail running and, as I stated before, learning to descend on a mountain bike has certainly helped my descending skills as a runner. Hilly road cycling is another great way to build up quad strength which will help when you are trying to get up those steeper hills/mountains. It’s also a great way to build up endurance without battering your legs every day of the week - replacing a couple of your easy runs with cycle rides will not only give you a psychological break from running but allow you to put in some good hours training which will complement your other endurance training.

Since getting our dog, I have also found I have gained fitness from walking more, regardless of my daily training schedule, Fernand needs a walk so I usually end up walking for between twenty minutes and two hours (and often more) each day. Not only has this helped me with my walking fitness for those steep unrunnable hills but it also adds another, very light session into my day.

Some of the best runners in the world often do something completely different in the winter season (notably the Norwegians and Swedes who are forced to ski rather than run in the winter due to the snow). Winter can be a great time to shift focus into base training and doing something like raquettes (snow shoes) or skiing, indoor cycling or swimming can be a good way to keep muscles active and working, give yourself a psychological rest and build up strength.

Related Questions:

Is trail running more dangerous than road running? There are certainly more things to consider regarding your safety with trail running, including weather when you are climbing high and knowing your way as described above. However, if you make sensible decisions regarding the weather and make sure you know where you are going, trail running is a safe sport.

Is trail running better for my health? Any exercise is good for you in the right quantities, but it is certainly true that trail running tends to be harder work so it could be argued it’s a better workout. More compelling however is research which shows that spending time in green spaces is very good for your mental well-being, so if you’re looking for something to improve your mental well-being, trail running is going to be a winner!

Can I still be a good road runner if I train on the trails? Some trail running as part of your weekly mileage is definitely going to help break up your training and improve your strength. However, if you train exclusively on rough undulating terrain this will undoubtedly affect your flat speed. If you are only wanting to race rough trails, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but if you are looking for your 5 or 10km PB, you will need to do some fast flat running too.

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