Many runners fret about the transition from road running to trails; we explore the main differences and what to do when considering the transition. Including road and trail in your training schedule has significant benefits which help improve the performance of both.
We recently held a seminar where 5 of the most experienced runners in Hong Kong shared their thoughts and reflections on making the switch.
The two running environments offer a wealth of benefits, which in many ways complement each other.
If you have focused on road running, the ability to “zone-out” can be mentally refreshing. The discipline of maintaining good form and developing an energy efficient foot strike and running pose helps shave seconds off your PB. You probably have specific goals to achieve a target time for a 10k, a half marathon or a full marathon which can take years to achieve. Often the result of fine-tuning and optimization of training, race management and finding the perfect race temperature and conditions to fully optimize months, if not years of training.
Trail running, and racing provides an experience that brings you into places that refresh the soul in different ways. The scenery, the varied terrain, the need to be racing for many hours, even days becomes the primary aim. The objective being simply to prove you can complete 50k, 100k or 100 miles and it requires an altogether different approach to training.
Perhaps your first trail race won’t be an ultra-distance but shorter trail races are a great way to experience the thrill of conquering anything that the race throws at you.
We hear similar concerns when discussing transition and we asked the panel what they felt about a range of topics.
- Getting Hurt: “I really worry about tripping and slipping”
Peter: “When running on the road, the focus is on developing an efficient and repetitive stride that you can be executed time and time again with as little variation as possible. I often remind people that you trip with your lagging foot, and you slip with your leading foot. It’s critical on the trail to train to lift your lagging foot much more so than when road running. If you trip, 99.9% of the time it’s because you have let your lagging foot drop and you catch a tree root or small rock. The more technical the trail, the more lift you need.” To prevent slipping, shoe choice, foot placement, and balance are key. Experienced trail racers like Jeremy have developed their capability to such an extent that foot placement becomes intuitive and less relevant. “I rarely worry where my feet are going, I simply go with the flow and maintain my pace”. For recent converts, though it is worth thinking a little about all three and as your balance, strength and coordination improve you will feel more and more confident on the trail.
- Oh the Hills!! – “How do I handle the uphill and downhill parts of a race?”
When trail racing you will inevitably face the hills and for road runners, this can be a shock. Used to metronome pace running, suddenly your pace is messed up by these pesky hills.
Charlotte: “Accept your pace will slow as you climb but instead focus on maintaining your cadence. As a road runner, this is something that has probably become second nature. Count your steps, if less than 160 steps per minute you are almost certainly over-striding. The steeper the climb, the shorter the step but maintain a nice rhythm as you climb. Accept that at some point power hiking might be more efficient…. obviously, an anathema to a road runner ?”
On Descending, Peter: “This is technique, something that can be learned, it won’t be natural if you have run mostly on the road. The tripping and slipping tips above apply even more on technical descents and you will need to develop leg strength and balance not required on the road. It is essential to understand the type of trail you are tackling. However, remember downhill racing should never be reckless, you should always feel in control. Take advice from seasoned racers and then practice, if you are a downhill skier, think of all the things about body position and center of gravity you apply for that. Many of the same rules apply”.
- How different are the gear, shoe, and apparel choice?
Road runners pride themselves on minimalism. Shoes, a pair of shorts and a singlet, done! Shoes are clearly the most important purchase linked to an understanding of gait and the need for support or not. Traditionally, mainstream shoe brands provide a choice of racing flats through to models for training or stability. The variety of trail shoes available is much broader.
Firstly, the gear, hitting the trail requires a different approach. Many races have mandatory equipment requirements designed for safety. Gaps between aid stations will almost certainly be longer. This means gear and hydration need to be carried so some form of backpack becomes essential. JoeJoe: “many people when first making a transition to trails choose a backpack which is too big and consequently carry far too much stuff, think carefully of the circumstances and conditions you will face on the majority of your trail runs and get the most minimalist option available”
Secondly, footwear; trails in Hong Kong are unique and footwear should be chosen carefully. In many cases, when dry, road shoes work well. What’s missing is rock protection on the midsole and specific grip in wet conditions. Peter: “We don’t have soft ground trails in Hong Kong and many trail shoes are designed for that. Large lugs can be dangerous on the slippery steps and concrete catchwaters so often a part of a Hong Kong trails. Get proper advice on your shoe choice.”
- Training adaptions compared to the road?
A solid marathon training program is a great platform for coping with trail running, however, some adaption is necessary. Val: “Obviously in longer trail races you are spending many hours, sometimes days on your feet. Experiencing how your body reacts during these long periods is critical. Knowing when tiredness and pain can be ignored and when to take it seriously is hard. Your mind will want you to stop but with practice and experience, you can understand when you can push through. The mental game is a big part of long trail events in addition of course to the specific physical strength needed.”
JoeJoe: “Technical skills can be learned and practiced. We offer downhill training, pole training, headlight testing sessions and many other sessions to help trail runners develop the skills they need.”
- Hydration and nutrition, “is it very different?”
In a word, totally. In road running, nutrition is simply to slow the natural consumption of glycogen to the point of depletion at the finish line. There is little opportunity to eat anything substantial to achieve any sort of replenishment. JoeJoe: “In a marathon, at best you might consume 5 or 6 gels which will add 500 or 600 calories to your supplies, there simply isn’t time to consume much else, nor would your body stand much chance of absorbing it” For trail running, the approach is completely different. The aim is to actively avoid depletion completely. Ultra-Runners learn how to maintain the ability to metabolize food throughout the race and extend the ability to compete almost indefinitely.
JoeJoe “Learning which foods work for you at what point in a long race takes trial and error, gels quickly become tedious, and the need for more complex carbohydrates in the form of energy bars or what some people call “real food” can be a big relief. The only way is to try and see what works for you”
Finally, it makes sense to choose your first trail race carefully. You pretty much know what you will get with a half or full marathon, but trail races vary enormously.
Jeremy: “We realized that the trend in trail race design was towards the harder, the tougher, the more technically challenging the better so we decided to take another approach. The Fast100 is a series of races that help experienced trail runners hone their speed but also provide road runners a race with less vertical elevation and nice, fast runnable trails. These are ideal races for somebody making the transition.”
Whatever you decide, be sure that adding trail running to your running week will open a new world of immense fun to you. Be safe and enjoy!
By Peter Hopper
Peter is a partner in Gone Running (www.gone.run) and a lifelong Fell, Trail and Road Runner at every distance up to 100k.
Realted article: Transition from road to trail