Training Tips for a Pain-Free Return to the Trails

Return from the off-season stronger and faster.

Though most of us have a hard time stepping away from the trails when they’re covered in snow and ice, a break from high-mileage running is actually an important step in your training. It gives your body time to recover from months of hard work, and you can use the off-season to become a stronger runner. Yes, you can actually get faster by not running at all.

With a simple training program, you’ll return to the trails stronger and more efficient, which will up your odds for a successful, injury-free season. Here’s how to use the off-season to strengthen stabilizer muscles, improve balance, and ease back into the miles.

Implement a Weight Routine

While endurance sport athletes have well-developed aerobic fitness, many runners have great gains to be made in strength. “Lifting heavy weights is really good for endurance athletes because it increases neuromuscular recruitment,” says Wasatch Strength and Conditioning coach Ian Nielson. “If you can recruit more muscle fiber and your body weight is the same, you become more economical because every movement, every stride becomes more efficient.”

High-level endurance work can create a hormonal environment where levels of cortisol (the primary stress hormone) are high, but testosterone is low, Nielson explains. Large structural lifts like the squat and deadlift increase the body’s natural secretion of testosterone, which helps the body recover from work. “When your running volume is low, it’s the best time to work on developing strength because you have the capacity to recover from a strength program,” Nielson says.

If you’re brand new to lifting weights, it’s imperative that you hire a coach to learn how to do so safely and effectively. “If you are going to lift weights that are heavy enough to make you stronger, you have to move correctly,” Nielson says.

While many trail runners rely on core work and single leg exercises, it’s the full body strength lifts that are the keystone to any productive strength training. “Programs should be really basic and focus on the most potent bang-for-your-buck lifts,” Nielson says. “Emphasize large-scale full body basic lifts like squatting and deadlifting—and close variations.”

Nielson recommends rotating a front and back squat, and a deadlift with the Romanian deadlift for the main focus of your program. Add in a circuit of assistance work that includes heavy carries like the suitcase carry, farmer carry, or waiter’s carry, which are beneficial for trunk stability.

If you are going to get stronger, it is imperative that you keep increasing intensity by adding load. “Without increasing the stress of our training stimulus, adaptation slows and eventually stops altogether,” he says. Nielson recommends that runners progress by adding sets until they’ve have worked from the low end to the high end of sets; then add load and drop back down to the low end of sets and increase volume again.

Once you’ve made strength gains, it takes little work to maintain during your peak running season. When it’s time to increase running mileage, reduce workload in the gym by decreasing volume while maintaining intensity.

Strengthen Stabilizer Muscles

The undulating terrain of the trails will exhaust stabilizer muscles, tendons, and ligaments, especially if you’ve been running on pavement or a treadmill for most of the winter. “Running on the trails, your ankles, knees, and everything will feel it,” says David Laney, a Nike Trail Team runner and coach for Trails and Tarmac. “Everything gets more work than normal and little tiny things flare up.”

Balance work can help train those stabilizer muscles to be ready for trail running. Laney prescribes body weight exercises that mimic the form of running on a Bosu ball for quick daily exercises. In addition to full body lifts for strength, Nielson recommends adding in weighted single-leg assistance work like the goblet lunge, single leg deadlift, and Romanian split squats.

Slowly Re-Build Your Base Mileage

When you are ready to get back on the trails again, it is important to remember to increase distance slowly to avoid injury. “You’re excited because the weather is nice and you can be outside and the days are longer, but the slower you (build mileage) the better,” says Laney.

Laney suggests a “two-steps forward, one-step back” program so that you are fit and healthy in summer when the trails are prime. Gradually increase mileage for a few weeks, and then decrease mileage for a week. For example: Run 20 miles in the first week, 25 miles in the second week, 30 miles in the third week, and go back down to 20 miles in the fourth. Continue to add mileage using this slow building method.

“If you have more energy, go hike uphill,” Laney says. The low impact of hiking will keep you safe from injury risk, but the climbs will help build aerobic capacity. “It will make you really strong and hiking is half of races these days anyways.”

Keep Up Your Speedwork

If you have trail racing goals in late summer, you might want to get your legs turning at a faster pace, but running fast is another high risk for injury. So if you’ve stopped running for a few months, ease back into speedwork. However, in an ideal world, you’d continue running strides a few times each week throughout the winter or off-season. “Having that turnover, even if it’s only a few minutes’ worth once or twice a week, keeps those muscles accustomed to doing faster stuff, so when spring rolls around [speedwork] is not a shock to the system.”

Strides should not be all-out sprints, but rather smooth and quick running at 80 percent effort for 15 to 20 seconds, Laney says. Perform three to four of these at the end of an easy run with 30 seconds recovery twice per week. Then, slowly increase the number of repetitions. Once you’ve built a baseline of strength and have gradually resumed to summer fitness, it’s time to get back to a full workout schedule with speedwork.