During my last marathon training cycle, I ran on trails at least twice a week and 90% of my long runs include a portion on trails. When I first joined my running club, I was a little surprised, and a lot annoyed (at first), that so many of our long runs included trails. The annoyance came from a few places – trails have hills, I run slower on trails, and often running to the trail itself meant running through some residential and commercial zones rather than the pleasant, softly rolling, coastal path I was used to. To me, it just seemed like trails were a whole lot of work!
Well, sometimes change hurts at first right? But it doesn’t mean it’s not making us stronger. In fact, I’ve found that, in all areas of life, when I’m resistant to change it’s probably making me better in some way. And that was the case for trail running during marathon training.
3 Reasons to Run Trails During Half Marathon or Marathon Training
Hills Create Free Strength Training
Most (but not all) trails include hills. It’s the nature of the beast. And what does running hills do? It makes you stronger. Since many runners do not incorporate weight lifting into their routine (though you all know that I believe everyone should!), especially during peak training, hills are very important for building leg strength. Running uphill can also reduce your risk of shin splints. Running downhill engages your abs and works your quads. If your race has hills in it (which most do), you’ll be wanting to run hills anyway!
Hills Reduce Recovery Time
This is probably the most important reason why trail running should be a part of your half or full marathon training – running on a soft surface will reduce your recovery time. Trail running is easier on your legs, thus reducing recovery time. Kevin Tilton, a two-time member of the Teva U.S. Mountain Running Team says, “The softer surface of trails and gravel roads that I run on keeps the impact stresses down and allows me to recover from workouts faster.”
Additionally, running on trails makes you slow down, another factor in reducing recovery time. Including a significant portion of your long run on a trail will reduce the recovery time you need after. Outside of long runs, aim to do the run the day after your long run on a trail as well and run for time, NOT distance. My coach would often give me a 45 minute recovery run and I wouldn’t even get in 4 miles in that time on the trails. Because he prescribed it to me in minutes, not miles, I wasn’t worried about my pace or how hilly the run was – in fact, I even walked the steeper hills on the trail near my house during recovery runs.
Hills Reduce Injury By Working Stabilizer Muscles
Pretty much all trails have an uneven surface and often have debris, both of which cause you to change direction in your running, even if it’s just slightly, with nearly every step. When you run on trails, you engage muscles in your ankles, feet calves and legs that you wouldn’t have to on the road or treadmill. Making these muscles stronger can reduce your chance of injury on the road. The primary cause of overuse injuries in runners is doing the same motion, over and over. The trail forces you to switch up your gait, greatly reducing your risk of overuse injury.
So, despite long runs that often were closer to a 10 minute mile range and recovery runs that sometimes came in at the 12 minute/mile range, I was still able to run a marathon in the low 8 minute mile range and a half marathon in the high 7 minute mile range. Speed workouts, tempo runs and long runs with race pace miles are the training runs are an important part of your half or full marathon training cycle, but those trail miles are part of the glue that puts it all together. Trails provide a great way to get in some lower intensity running, build strength in your legs and reduce your chance of injury while enjoying some pretty awesome scenery. Plus, you’ll probably find that the miles fly by a lot quicker when you’re constantly looking out for obstacles and taking in the views!
Do you incorporate trail running into your road race training?