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How To Train For Trail Running Without Trails

Training for your next 50k trail race is a breeze (as much as running more than 30 miles is ever a breeze) when you live in a natural setting. But what about those of us who live in cities? Is it even possible to train for trail running without trails?

As I recently completed the modified The Naturalist 50k (4,000’ of vert in the North Carolina mountains!) after having trained in the completely flat Paris, France, finding ways to trail run without trails has become a personal mission of mine.

After my shredded calves and quads complained for days after, I began to take my quest even more seriously. And given how many of my fellow runners live and train in cities while dreaming and planning their ultra runs in beautiful countries all over the world, I have the feeling I’m not alone.

To that end, I put together this guide for you (and me) to train for trail running without trails.

Let’s lace up and get to it!

Why Does Training On Trails Help Your Trail Running?

Before we can break down trail running without trails, we should start to understand just how trails help. In understanding that, we’ll have a better idea of ways to modify our training.

So, just why does running on trails get you ready for your trail race? There are a few reasons. 

  1. Improves Your Running Economy

What is running economy? It’s the amount of energy you expend at a given pace. In other words, it’s a measure of how efficiently you run. 

And why is running economy important? Because the more efficient you are, the less energy you’ll expend at a given pace. This means you’ll be able to run faster and longer with less effort.

When you first start running on trails, you may be entirely focused on avoiding every little pebble and root. As you gain experience, your coordination will improve and you’ll run more efficiently.

  1. Builds Mental Toughness And Resilience 

Training on trails can also help you build mental toughness and resilience. Why is this important? Because trail running is notoriously tough on the mind and body. It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re constantly getting tripped up by roots and rocks. 

But if you can train your mind to push through the tough times (and the occasional bump and bruise), you’ll be better equipped to handle the challenges of whatever your next trail race or trail ultra has to throw at you.

  1. Sharpens Technical Aspects of Trail Running

Training on trails can also help you better handle the technical aspects of trail running. Trail running is often more technical than road running, and it can be easy to get tripped up if you’re not used to it. 

When you train on trails, you’ll become more comfortable with the technical aspects of trail running. Not only will you learn how to better navigate roots and rocks, you’ll learn how to more gracefully and efficiently run down hills and more strategically navigate up them, including when to walk.

But you and I don’t have trails, do we? Now it’s time to see how we can replace these three benefits of training on trails with some advice for city clickers.

Step 1: Find Hills To Train For Trail Races Without Trails

Unlike most road races that are defined just by their distance – 10k, half-marathon, or marathon – trail races often have two numbers: distance and elevation gain.

For us city slickers, finding ways to get the distance in is not the challenge. Getting the ups and downs, the climbs and descents, the peaks and valleys? That’s where it gets tricky, and that’s why it’s now time to get creative with your training terrain. 

Let’s talk about how to find hills to train on… or how to make them yourself. Here are 4 great ways to add a little incline to your training. 

  1. Look for local parks or golf courses – Many parks and golf courses have hilly terrain that can be great for training.
  2. Hills hiding in plain sight – Sometimes we get trail tunnel vision and think that only trails up hills can work. Maybe you’ve got a paved incline just out of town?
  3. Scope out some stairs – From stadiums to apartment buildings, I’m sure you can find some stairs wherever you live. Make the most of them and get to climbing.
  4. Use a treadmill – If all else fails, crank up the incline on a treadmill to create your own hilly terrain.

Step 2: To Use Strength Training To Improve Your Trail Running

The joys of trail running come from running for an hour or two (or four) at a time without having to worry about cars, cross-traffic, or often… even other runners. Plus, these longer cardio workouts help get our bodies ready for the demands of a longer trail run.

One way to get your body ready for those demands? By starting to strength train.

Incorporating strength training into your running routine can help improve your speed, endurance, and form. Here are three ways to get started: 

  1. Incorporate resistance training – Working against resistance can help improve your running economy, or the amount of energy you use to run at a given pace. Incorporating resistance training into your running routine can help you become a more efficient runner.
  2. Do plyometric exercises – Plyometric exercises are explosive movements that help improve your power. These exercises can help you run faster and jump higher.
  3. Strengthen your core – A strong core can help you maintain good form while running. It can also help prevent injuries. 

By incorporating strength training into your running routine, this will help you build the muscles and firm up the tendons that will have you powering through even the toughest sections on the trail. 

Step 3: Rest And Recover Your Way To Get A Trail Run Performance

Sometimes having trails nearby can be too tempting. With great weather and beautiful natural settings, are you really going to stay inside for a “rest day”?

The problem is that trail running can be tough on your body, and it’s important to make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to recover between workouts.

If you’re training for a trail race, you might be wondering how much rest you need to include in your training schedule. After all, the more miles you can run, the better prepared you’ll be, right? 

How much rest should you include in your training schedule? It depends on how many miles you’re running per week and how long your longest run is. 

A good rule of thumb is to take one or two days off per week, and to include a long rest day after your long run.  

Mind Over Matter: Why You Don’t 100% Need Trails To Train For A Trail Race

If you’re like most people, you probably think that you need to head out to the trails in order to do some trail running training. 

However, that’s not the case. By finding (or making) hills of your own, re-upping your commitment to strength training, and incorporating rest into your training, you can get yourself ready for your big trail race – even if you don’t live right next to a beautiful system of trails. Heck, you don’t even need trails to break in your trail trail running shoes!

So if you’ve been thinking of a great trail running adventure or getting in shape for an adult run camp, I hope these tips have helped you realize that even us city-bound runners can still get ourselves in shape!

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