Jeremey DuVall, M.S., CPT— With the increase in temperature during the summer, many runners trade in the pavement for dirt trails as they opt to swap out the hard surface for shade and softer ground. Trail running offers many benefits, including less impact on the body, increased variety, and gorgeous scenery. When the transition is made properly, switching to the trails can rejuvenate your running plan and get you fired up for a hard season of training. When done poorly, it can leave you sidelined for much of the warm season with injuries.
Switching up your training from primarily concrete-based to dirt and grass presents your body with a slew of new challenges. No longer is each footstep on even terrain. Twists, turns, switch-backs, and rocks dot your path through the trees. To prepare yourself for these new demands and make it through the trail season injury-free, follow these steps to build balance and strength.
Add Depth Jumps To Your Routine
Unlike road running which tends to be rather flat, trails often feature an undulating terrain that has you repeatedly going up and down. While this breaks up the monotony, it also presents a huge challenge to your body. Downhill running can be especially tough as it forces your body to absorb a tremendous amount of pounding. Adding plyometrics into your routine is a great way to prepare for the demands of trail running.
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To get your body ready, add box jumps to the beginning of your strength routine a few times a week on non-consecutive days. Focus on jumping onto the box in one quick, explosive movement. Once you’ve mastered the basic box jump, move on to depth jumps. This plyometric variation prepares your body to absorb force while you’re barreling downhill on your favorite trail.
Start by standing on a box with your knees slightly bent. Step off the box and land with both feet on the ground. Try to land as softly as possible by bending your knees slightly upon hitting the floor. That’s one rep. Step back up on the box and repeat. Aim for three to five perfect reps before resting and repeating the set. For those without a box, jumping rope and single leg hops on the ground can present a similar challenge. For both, focus on staying light on your feet and landing softly.
Work On Ankle Stability
Tree roots, sticks, and mounds of uneven dirt create the perfect scenario for a twisted ankle. Rather than transitioning straight from flat pavement onto the varied surface and hoping for the best, prepare your body in the gym with ankle strengthening exercises to lessen your risk of being laid up with an ice pack.
For improving balance and ankle stability, tools like uneven surfaces and BOSU balls can be a great addition to your program. However, the majority of problems can likely be solved by working out barefoot. Switching to barefoot exercises in the gym offers a chance to work the stabilizers in your feet and ankles bolstering your protection system. Start by going shoeless on bodyweight moves like squats, lunges, and push-ups. Then, you can move to harder variations like single-leg squats, rear-foot elevated lunges, and even plyometrics sans shoes.
For those addicted to balance devices, runners can reap some benefits from BOSU balls and balance boards in their strength training routines. However, they’re best left to bodyweight movements at the end of a workout to strictly focus on balance. Avoid performing weighted exercises on top of these devices, as they limit your foundation and reduce strength — hampering the real reason you’re in the gym in the first place.
Although your spring build-up after a winter layoff may have gone according to plan, a slew of miles under your belt doesn’t necessarily mean you can transition seamlessly to trail running. As mentioned above, the new terrain presents added challenges that are difficult to prepare for on pavement. Rather than moving your routine straight onto the dirt at the first hint of summer weather, force yourself to make the transition slowly.
Start by incorporating a few strides on grass or dirt at the end of regular runs. These strides should help to acclimate your body to the new terrain while also building speed and focusing on form. Then, swap out your easy runs during the week for trail excursions. Don’t worry about maintaining the same pace or distance. Instead, focus on running for a similar amount of time. Pace and distance can be built up as your body gets comfortable with the new environment.
After you can complete a few three to four mile runs during the week on the dirt without feeling beat up, chances are you’re ready to start building up your mileage.