Hit the Road to Speed Up on the Trail

3 Workouts to Take to the Tarmac When You're Thinking Single-Track

Trail Running
Photo: Damien Rosso

If a road runner hits a plateau, trail running and racing is often the next step.

Many road runners become full-on converts to off-road running, with its endless terrain challenges and beautiful scenery. But trail runners are every bit as competitive as road runners and, as participation increases, I often find runners asking me how they can get faster on trails. It’s at this time I often send runners back to the road.

Race-specific preparation will always be central to any training program, so if you are gearing for a technical trail race with lots of elevation gain and loss, then most weekend runs should involve that type of training. But just as a marathon training plan isn’t made up entirely of long, marathon-paced runs, a trail-race training plan should not be made up entirely of course-specific trail runs. Variety is the key to any successful training plan as it allows you to work on all aspects of your fitness to make you the best runner you can be.

One of the downfalls of transitioning all your training from roads to trails is your overall pace will slow due to the terrain. And while there is a certain element of effort, rather than pace, being the most important thing to consider in training, factors such as leg turnover, running form and a steady, even effort are best worked out on the road. However flat and non-technical a trail is, you won’t be able to get quite the same leg turnover and steady effort as you can on roads. For this reason, I suggest that even runners who race purely on trails should complete one high-quality workout per week on the roads.

All long runs and easy-paced runs can be completed on trails, but one higher-intensity workout per week on tarmac will keep high-quality running in your training. Plus, even in the most technical of trail races, there are usually short segments of flatter and faster terrain — that’s where you can use road work to your competitive advantage.

3 Road Workouts for Trail Runners

1. 8K to 15K tempo run (Distance and pace depend on length of the race you are training for.)

Start and end with 2K of easy jogging to warm up and cool down. Tempo pace should be around your half-marathon race pace. These are hard workouts that will increase your lactate threshold and work leg turnover. They will train you to hold a challenging pace for many kilometres, something that can be harder to do on trails. You need to have the confidence to hold a challenging speed over a sustained distance in your tempo runs. Learning that you can do this will give you a mental edge in the closing kilometres of a trail race.

2. Long interval workouts (2x5K and 5x1K)

As trail races are, by and large longer, it can be useful to do these longer style intervals rather than short track repeats. Running these on roads will allow you to run at a faster pace than on trails and will help you to practice an efficient running style, something that can be compromised on uneven trail surfaces. Focus on running tall, relaxing your arms and shoulders and driving your legs forward from your core. These should be very hard efforts with full recovery between each effort. To add to the challenge you can run these interval sessions on gently rolling terrain.

3. Shorter road races (5K to 15K)

Racing can be great training for trail runners who find it hard to motivate themselves to do this sort of workout. To avoid injury, you should still do one road run a week. Treat these shorter races as training, rather than goals in themselves.