How To Get in Shape For Trail Running (The Right Way)

Trail running is a fun way to explore nature and getting a good workout at the same time. However, trail running is also a little bit harder than road running. So how do you get in shape for trail running?

Here’s how you get in shape for trail running:

  • Build your cardio first
  • Run uphill and downhill 
  • Strengthen your lower extremity
  • Train your balance
  • Do plyometrics
  • Start slow on trails
  • Train at various speed

In this article, we will dive deeper into the methods on how you can get in shape for trail running, 

Build your cardio first

You may like the idea of running through trees and mountains, however, trail running is more challenging than running on the road. So, when you’re first starting out, build your cardiovascular endurance on the road first. 

Run uphill and downhill 

Since most trails are located in mountains and hills, it makes a lot of sense to train uphill and downhill on the road at least once a week. This will allow you to get the same feeling of elevation without having to jump through obstacles and worrying about your every step. 

When I’m training uphill I focus on maintaining speed for long periods rather than a single burst of the uphill run. To do that, I have to stick to around 70-80% of my maximum heart rate. Every time my heart rate shoots up, I switch to walking fast or I run slower. The idea is to be able to continue running for at least an hour. 

Occasionally, I do sprint intervals to train my muscular endurance. The way I do that is by sprinting for 10 seconds and walking for 30 seconds for 40 mins. 

Strengthen your lower extremity

If you want to be able to handle the trails with ease, you need to have stronger legs. Ideally, you should build strength and stability in your hips, knees, and ankle.

Strength is important for trail running because it helps you with the obstacles and it helps prevent injury. 

Here’s a list of great strengthening exercises for trail runners. 

  • Glute bridges
  • Banded hip abduction
  • Step up
  • Single leg deadlifts
  • Lunges
  • Bulgarian split squats.
  • Pistol squats

Train your balance and coordination

One of the reasons why trail running is a lot harder than road running is that there are lots of obstacles and uneven surfaces in trail running, especially on technical and single-track trails. 

That is why I highly recommend that you train your balance and coordination at least 3 times a week. The video below shows great balance and coordination exercises for beginners.  

You can also combine strength exercises with balance exercises by doing unilateral strengthening exercises.

Start plyometric training

Plyometric training is not only a great way to improve power, speed, and agility but also good for muscular endurance, balance, and stability. 

Here’s a great plyometric routine to add to your exercise program. 

Start trail running slowly

So, you have cardio, strength, and balance, now it’s time to put it to the test. When you’re first starting out, run slowly. This will allow you to get used to the obstacles and uneven surfaces that you may face on the trail. 

Train at various speeds

Train at various speeds by mixing up easy runs, tempo runs, and high-intensity runs. This will help you train different energy systems that you may have to use in trail running. 

Unlike road running, it’s harder to maintain a pace when you are on the trails. You’ll have to run at various levels of elevation, obstacles, and terrain which makes training at various speeds even more important. 

Why is trail running so hard?

This is a photo of me trail running.

Trail running is hard because it requires you to be focused and constantly aware of your track and surroundings. 

Unlike roads, trails have an uneven and technical surface that forces you to move based on the surface and obstacles rather than moving at your own pace. In addition, trails have various levels of elevation that will require different energy systems and muscle groups. 

How to increase your trail running distance

There are no secrets to success when it comes to endurance sports, it’s just good old fashion hard work,  but there are ways to help you achieve longer distances faster. 

  • Focus on consistency rather than intensity
  • Increase your mileage gradually
  • Sleep enough
  • Dial in on your nutrition
  • Train with a buddy
  • Discover new routes
  • Correct your running gait

Focus on consistency rather than intensity

Don’t aim to exhaust yourself every session. There’s no point in trying to run faster or lift heavier each session only to get burned out for the next few weeks. 

Instead, focus on being consistent. Follow a program that you can sustain and listen to your body. There’s no shame in dialing back on your pace or the weight if it will allow you to train more and be healthier. 

Increase your mileage gradually

If you’re one of those guys who loves a good challenge, then you must be itching to increase your mileage almost every session. That’s not a healthy way to run longer. 

Instead, increase your mileage by only 10-20% every 2 weeks or until you’re comfortable with that mileage. It will allow your body to adapt to the new stress. Many experts don’t recommend forced adaptation, which is exactly what you’re doing when you increase your mileage too soon. 

Sleep enough

After reading the book Why we sleep, I was entirely convinced that sleep is an untapped performance-enhancing drug. Most of us are fine with 6 hours of sleep, but Mathew Walker, Ph.D. suggests you get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every day. Sleep is proven to improve endurance, coordination, and recovery for athletes. 

If you want to listen to that book for free, you can sign up for Audible’s 30-day free trial

Dial in on your nutrition

Nutrition is one of the most important aspects of performance. If you’re having a hard time on longer distances, then have a closer look at your nutrition. Cut out the junk and replace them with high-quality foods. 

Train with a buddy

Training with a buddy helps you have an accountability partner which will help you with your goals. In addition, running with a body is more fun, especially when you’re trying to go long distances. 

Discover new routes

Don’t run in the same route over and over again. Discover new routes to give you more excitement and decrease the stress in your training.

Correct your running gait

Oftentimes muscle imbalances and weakness cause a change in posture which inhibits some muscles’ full potential. A great example of this is the glutes, the biggest muscle of the body. Some people run without using the full potential of their glutes. To find out if you’re one of them, watch this video.

To combat this, you have to do exercises to help activate your glutes and learn a proper running technique that allows you to use them properly. I’m not an expert on rehabilitation, but running coach and sports rehab specialist James Dunner have a 12-week program that will help you fix this common problem. 

Final Thoughts

Trail running is a fun and fulfilling activity, but you have to be prepared for it. Trail running is a lot harder than road running in the sense that it requires more skill and focus than the latter. 

By following the tips I outlined above, you can prepare yourself for the challenges that you’ll face while trail running. Lastly, always remember to have fun and appreciate nature when you’re on the trails. 

Nicho Mauricio

Running wasn't always my favorite sport. I was a CrossFit athlete and I loved every bit of it. But since the pandemic began, I was forced to stay away from the gym and train at home instead. Things got boring. That's when I decided to trail run with my friends. I instantly got hooked. So I started training and researching all things running. As a beginner, I want to buy only the best running gear and do only the best practices. This blog is where I share what I've learned in my journey and my experiences as a runner.

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