Tired of running on unforgiving pavement that pounds away at your knees? Want to add some variety to your treadmill routine? Say hello to running on trails with dirt, rocks, roots, hills — and adventure.
When you hit the trails, you won’t be alone or without inspiration. According to the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), 2,667 trail-running races took place in the United States in 2012, with 327,098 reported participants — more than twice as many as in 2006. And more Americans partook in outdoor recreation in 2012 than any year since the Outdoor Foundation began measuring the trend, with running, jogging, and trail running topping the list.
The popularity makes sense for all sorts of reasons: Being on the trail means “not having to deal with cars, stoplights, potholes, curbs, or gutters, but rather enjoying nature in its most raw form,” explains Nancy Hobbs, founder and executive director of ATRA and coauthor of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running. Not only do natural obstacles, including terrain variations and elevation changes, make trail running a fun challenge, but getting the chance to stop along the way to enjoy a bit of nature or a panoramic view can be equal parts invigorating and meditative.
“Trail running also builds strength and flexibility because you’re using different muscles than you would on a road,” Hobbs says. “The climbing, especially, strengthens your core. The uneven surface improves balance and proprioception — and you even become mentally stronger because you are forced to pay close attention to the trail.”
Blue Benadum, a professional running coach and elite marathoner, prescribes trail running to his athletes as a means to prevent injuries. “Because of the constant change in terrain, you end up doing a lot more lateral work, so recruitment of stabilizing muscles, such as your gluteus medius, is through the roof compared with road running,” he says.
The following workout, designed by Benadum, features a mix of exercises that will make you a stronger, more efficient trail runner.
The ideal place to do this routine is on a hill (approximately 200 yards long) in the great outdoors, but you can adapt it for the gym or the urban jungle (a long staircase will do the trick). And no matter where you decide to hit the trail, prepare to sweat. “This workout is tough,” Benadum admits. “But the results are instantly noticeable on your next run.”
A Trail-Running Workout
For this workout, you’ll need a runnable hill around 200 yards long. (A set of stairs, ideally about 200 steps, will work, too.) If you’re at the gym, you can set the treadmill on an incline for the uphill portions and keep it flat on the downhill segments.
1. Jog downhill
The workout begins at the top of the hill. Start lightly jogging, or walking, down the hill.
Professional running coach Blue Benadum says:
- Try to land your feet below your torso, not far out in front of you. This is easier if you place your feet quickly, starting the next stride as soon as your foot hits the ground.
ATRA founder Nancy Hobbs says:
- If a trail is very steep but wide, you can go down it almost like you’re slalom skiing. Move in a zigzag pattern, leaning into your stride.
2. Run uphill
At the bottom of the hill, turn and run up the hill at maximal effort. If using a staircase, take two stairs at a time. Skipping a stair is optimal for most people’s running stride.
- Focus on keeping your chest open — you’ll breathe easier and won’t have back pain when you reach the top of the hill.
- To prevent your calves from tightening, focus on landing midfoot.
- Lean forward as you run, keeping your arms at a 90-degree angle, and drive your elbows directly backward. As your arms swing forward, make sure your hands are to your sides and not crossing your chest.
3. Perform strength exercise
- When you reach the top of the hill, complete one set of one strength exercise.
4. Repeat for six rounds
- Each time you reach the top of the hill, perform a different strength exercise. Be sure to recover on the downhill and work hard on the uphill.
- Stand with your arms extended in front of you. Shift your weight to your right foot as you lift your left foot off the ground.
- Push your right hip backward as you bend your right knee. Your right knee should not extend beyond your toes. Keep your foot, knee, and hip aligned as you lower as far as possible.
- Drive through your right heel to extend your right leg and come to standing.
- Complete 12 repetitions on each side.
- Start in a plank position with hands directly under your shoulders.
- Bend at your elbows to lower your chest toward the floor, keeping your elbows pointing straight back and upper arms parallel to your torso. Keep your shoulders down and abs tight.
- Push back up to the plank position.
- Repeat 15 times, or as many as you are able to complete in good form.
- Stand with feet at hip width, both feet facing forward.
- Take a wide step to your left placing your left foot in line with your right foot, toes facing forward. Push your left hip back. Your left foot, knee, and hip should line up and hips should be squared.
- Push off with your left heel to return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the right. Do 13 reps per side, alternating.
- Start in an upright stance with feet at hip width. Simultaneously push your hips back and bend your knees as if sitting on a chair. Keep your weight in your heels. Your knees should stay behind your toes and align with your middle toe on each foot. Keep your torso as upright as possible and aim to bring your hips as low as your knees.
- Pop your hips forward to straighten your legs and rise to standing.
- Repeat 25 times.
- Start in a plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders.
- Lift your right foot off the ground and draw your right knee in toward your chest, keeping your foot dorsiflexed (toes point upward toward your shin).
- Keep your right knee bent, contract your glutes, and extend your right hip back as you lift your foot skyward.
- Complete 10 repetitions on each side.
- Lie on your back with your hands behind your ears.
- Lift your legs and bend your knees so that they form a 90-degree angle.
- Move your legs as if you were pedaling a bicycle. Then curl up on a diagonal, bringing your left elbow toward your right knee.
- Repeat with the opposite knee and elbow.
- Complete 13 reps per side.
This article originally appeared as “Trail Mix” in the April 2014 issue of Experience Life.
Nicole Radziszewski is a writer and personal trainer in River Forest, Ill.