I’ve been trail running for a little while now and to be honest my approach has always been a bit sporadic, partly because I find it hard to stick to generic plans and partly because of my very changeable lifestyle over the past few years. If life is predictable it can be easier to fit in a planned roster of training stretching out over months, I think, but life is rarely predictable!
Be that as it may, it shouldn’t stop anyone from giving trail running a go. Being able to adapt to unpredictable things is something of an advantage. I had a chat with a friend who is a recent convert to trail running and thought things I’ve done over the years and overall I think there are two parts to it: running/walking and cross-training.
Quick disclaimer: I’m not a trainer or coach and don’t have any fitness qualifications. This is purely from my own experience.
So you’ve decided to do a trail race. Hopefully you’ve decided about this at least a few months out if it’s something that will be a distinct challenge. Or maybe you just want to get started and you’ll pick a race later. Either way, you’ll have to do some training for it. It’s a walking/running event so you’ll want to focus your training on that, be it on a treadmill, footpath, or trail. You can do a fair bit of research online and get a variety of generic training plans (couch to 5k, or marathon plans, for example), or some races have training plans they provide or suggest. You can also join a running club or start straight away with a coach.
Personally, I looked at a lot of different generic running plans and even started using a few. I work best with a bit of external accountability though, so what really helped was joining a running club. I joined my first one overseas, and they met once a week to do drills and run around concrete trails in a forest area near where I lived (not quite trail running, but better than running alongside a road!). After moving countries I went back to doing things on my own, which has kind of worked. It’s helped that I have a friend I regularly go hiking with, so we’re exploring trails and getting variable terrain quite regularly. I’m quite tempted to work with a coach, but that will be something I focus on at a later date.
The biggest thing I’ve found is you need to figure out what works for you. Some people are good at holding themselves accountable and can hold to a plan. Some people work better when they’ve got a friend waiting to meet them for a run. Some need a coach to push them that little bit further. You also have to take into account your lifestyle, family and work commitments, and everything else going on in your life so you can slip walking / running training in without it feeling like a burden or chore. Take a little bit of time to do some research and find out what works best for you, then lace up your shoes and get outside.
Most of my running training during the week is on the road. I’ve got a good 6km run-commute (road) that takes me from work to a train station to meet my normal commute home. When I’m feeling particularly energetic I have the option to extend that up to 10km easily, or more with a little planning. If I’ve got more time, another weekday favourite is walking the dog around home (road) or taking her to Takapuna beach and walking around the beaches and lava rocks to Milford (semi-trail). The weekends are when I’ll get the longer walks/runs in. I try to get out to different regional parks and get on some proper trails, however it always depends on what else is going on and what races I’ve got planned.
Start slow, be consistent, and listen to what your body is telling you. Try to run 2-3 times a week starting at a short distance and increasing slowly so your body can adjust to the impact. I was once told (possibly in that first running club) that heart and lungs adjust quicker than joints and tendons, so don’t rush into anything. Becoming familiar with the difference between good pain (tired muscles) and bad pain (tweaked tendon) can be useful, but hopefully bad pain doesn’t come into it. If you’re at all worried about anything, talk to a professional about it sooner rather than later (trust me on that one…). Don’t be afraid to push yourself though. We all like to be in our comfort zone, but that’s not where progress is made! Allow yourself time to rest and recover, and also allow yourself time off if things pop up out of the blue, for example illness, injury, or a change in other commitments.
Above all, have fun! Training may seem a bit of a chore sometimes, but the end result is worth it. I have yet to participate in a trail race that I did not enjoy. Find a way to make the training enjoyable and easy for you to stick to, then you will have an awesome race.
Race Motivator for the Bivouac Outdoor Wild Auckland Trail Series