How to Train for a Road Race on the Trails

Tired of pounding pavement? Head to the trails.

When my training schedule calls for 16 miles, I pull out a box of trail maps and begin plotting a route. The Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness are out my front door, which means there’s no shortage of awe-inspiring destinations to choose from. The catch? I’m training for a road race. The New York City Marathon is my goal, but rather than sprinting in place on a treadmill or hitting my local sidewalks and roads, I’d ideally like to train for it in the places I love most: the trails. Yet I often wonder how trail miles translate to road racing. If I run four minutes per mile slower than my goal marathon pace, does the run even count? Will the mountainous terrain destroy my legs for next week’s track workout?

To answer my questions, I talked to top coaches and athletes. They gave me the scoop on how to find a happy balance between training on the trails and racing on the roads.

The Benefits of Training on the Trails

I was relieved to hear that a traditional training schedule for road racing does not mean the trails have to take a backseat to pounding the pavement. In fact, trail running can actually help preparation for a road race.

You’ll Develop Stronger Stabilizers to Reduce Your Risk of Injury

The uneven terrain of a trail works stabilizer muscles in your hips, trunk, and ankles that you may not be exercising on the roads. “Turning on and utilizing those stabilizer muscles will help reduce the risk of injuries and challenge the body in a slightly different way,” says Andrew Kastor, head coach of the ASICS Mammoth Track Club. “Going on a trail run once every seven to ten days would be enough stimulus for a road racer to get the benefits.”

“You do have to find that happy medium between technical trail running and getting out and exploring some moderate terrain.”

Tim Tollefson, a U.S. trail champion and Nike Trail Team member, agrees that running on the trails strengthens the stabilizers and varies the way you use your muscles—but not all trails are created equal, he warns. “Too much technical trail running may not be beneficial to training for a road marathon,” he says. “You do have to find that happy medium between technical trail running and getting out and exploring some moderate terrain.”

Hill Running Helps You Builds Strength and Speed

The good news about running mountainous trails is that uphill runs can replace speed work early in the training cycle. Uphill running is not only good for mechanics, but it will also work your heart rate at its threshold.

“Hill runs are speed work in disguise, even if [your pace] is slower,” Tollefson, who’s also a physical therapist for Mammoth Hospital, says. “If you’re on steeper terrain, you have to be mechanically sound because you can’t be sloppy and have forward progress going up something steep. From a biomechanics standpoint, it forces you work on good form and technique.”

Hills also strengthen major leg muscles like the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. While some runners will replace strength work in the gym with hill running, Tollefson still recommends ancillary exercises, but uphill running is better than no strength work at all, he says.

How to Train on the Trails

John Muir Wilderness near Mammoth Lakes, CA Photo Courtesy of Monica Prelle

John Muir Wilderness near Mammoth Lakes, CA | Photo Courtesy of Monica Prelle

Long runs are meant to be performed 60 to 90 seconds slower than your goal marathon pace, says Kastor, but that pace is often difficult to achieve on the trail. The elevation, technical footing, and the scenery slows even the best of us down. Here’s how to use the trails to your advantage, despite the slower speed.

To Make the Most of the Trails, Ditch Your GPS Watch

It’s always a good idea to listen to your body and take a break from mile counting and pacing during a training program, especially on the trails. “The first time I ran a 15-minute mile, I thought, can I even count this as a run?” says Tollefson.

“You have to let your ego go and not be concerned about what the watch says. It can be a little demoralizing at first.”

To combat this way of thinking, the most important way to integrate trail running into your training program is to ignore your GPS watch. “You have to let your ego go and not be concerned about what the watch says,” Tollefson says. “It can be a little demoralizing at first.”

With the slower paces and added elevation, it’s best to run for time and effort rather than distance and pace, Coach Kastor says. Our bodies don’t register pace per mile, but they do comprehend time on your feet and overall effort.

“One of the primary goals of the long run is to train your body to burn fat as energy and conserve glycogen,” Kastor explains. “So running three hours at a low intensity on the trail is like running three hours at a low intensity on the treadmill.”

Calculate the amount of time your scheduled run normally takes, and set out on the trails for an allotted period of time, he recommends.

Hit the Trails for Early Training and Recovery

Most training schedules use periodization that builds different systems to prepare for your goal race. The beginning of a training cycle, or base phase, builds fitness for the more goal-specific pace work that comes later. According to Ekiden head coach Mario Fraioli, trail running is best suited to recovery runs and long distance runs when there’s no pace objective. “In that early part of the training cycle, you’re still building up mileage and time on the feet,” Fraioli explains. “You can run on the trails more frequently because the specificity isn’t important yet.”

“I only go out into the backcountry or explore trails on an easy day because I don’t want to compromise the training on the schedule.”

For recovery runs, consider whether the trails you like to run are hard pack, wood chips, or technical mountainous terrain, and be honest whether the terrain is truly gentle enough. “You don’t want it to be too hilly or technical because you want to recover from key workouts,” says Deena Kastor, a three-time Olympian and the American record holder in the marathon. “I only go out into the backcountry or explore trails on an easy day because I don’t want to compromise the training on the schedule.”

As much as you love trail running, if your goal race is on the road, you do need to prepare your body for the rigors of the course you’ll actually be racing. “As you get closer to race day, it’s important to transition long runs and key workouts to the roads where you can work on the elements of your specific fitness,” Fraioli says. “Long tempo runs that mimic your specific race course are important for marathon success.”

Use Trail Running to Help You Stay Motivated

No doubt over the course of a traditional 16- or 20-week marathon training cycle, your runs can get stale. Logging the same daily route gets monotonous quickly for most runners, and trail running can be a good way to recharge the motivation.

“To me, that’s the essence of what running is—the core of it, the more spiritual side of running to compliment the intensity and the drive it takes to pursue high-caliber goals.”

Finding a variety of racing and training environments is key for motivation. “A lot of people get to that point in a marathon cycle where they dread doing one more run on that same loop you did yesterday,” Fraioli says. “If you have the opportunity to get out of that environment to a place that is more open in a natural environment, it can be refreshing from a mental standpoint and it gives you something to look forward to.”

That rejuvenation of the spirit and the mind will not only recharge a stale training cycle, but it can also get you through rough patches in a pace workout or road race. Deena Kastor says she channels the energy and positive spirit gained from training runs in nature—even when she’s back on the roads. “For me, trail running is all about discovery and exploration,” Kastor says. “It’s a re-awakening and energizing of my running spirit to be out there seeing inspiring things like peaks and alpine meadows and wildflowers, rushing creeks and wildlife. To me, that’s the essence of what running is—the core of it, the more spiritual side of running to compliment the intensity and the drive it takes to pursue high-caliber goals.”

Want to train on a trail near you? Here’s an idea from your neck of the woods: