NOTE: Before beginning this training program, runners should be running a minimum of 5 miles a day four times per week.
The spring racing season is right around the corner and runners across the country are gearing up for off-road running events ranging from the 10K to half marathon.
From a fitness standpoint, tackling an off-road 10K or half marathon isn’t any different than preparing to race these classic distances on the roads. Long runs are just as long, challenging interval workouts on the track are equally as important, and there’s still a time and a place for tough tempo runs to get you primed for racing.
The technical skill set required to race well on the trails, however, is quite different. While road racing allows you the luxury of trusting your steps and locking into a steady rhythm, off-road races are full of rocky trails, exposed roots, uneven footing and wild fluctuations in pace. Unlike the road, you’ll have to move laterally to avoid obstacles, and your feet and ankles will need improved strength to handle the tricky terrain.
So how do you meld the two together? It’s as easy as introducing a few off-road runs and workouts into your weekly training schedule. By completing some of your easy runs on trails and substituting a measured track workout for a timed fartlek session on the grass, you can simultaneously improve your fitness, lower-leg strength and off-road running skills.
The 10-week training plan in this “Blueprint” will get you in the best off-road racing shape of your life. There’s enough off-road exposure built into the training schedule that transferring your hard-earned fitness from road to trail will be as easy as switching your racing flats for a pair of trail running shoes.
Training Terms Defined
Off-Road Run: Since you’ll be training for an off-road race, it’s important to get off the roads. Two to three times a week, make the effort to find a wooded trail, grass loop or dirt path and practice running where the ground beneath your feet isn’t so trustworthy.
Easy Run: Aim to comfortably cover the distance at a conversational pace. Adding 90-seconds to two minutes per mile to your goal race pace should do the trick.
Strides: This set of six short accelerations should be performed after an easy run and as part of your warmup for key workouts as a way to maintain turnover and improve efficiency. Accelerate for 5 seconds, run at your fastest sustainable speed for 10 seconds, and then decelerate for the final 5 seconds. Take a minute between strides to get your breath back.
Fartlek: Whether performed on the roads or off, these structured interval-style sessions cover a set amount of time at a given effort level rather than an exact distance at a prescribed pace. Great workout when training for off-road races where mile markers aren’t always accurate—or existent.
Track Intervals: Why run on the track if you’re getting ready for an off-road race? Performing interval workouts in this controlled environment is the best way to improve your speed and measure progress.
Hills: These sessions will build strength and stamina without tearing your legs apart. Find a moderate incline that forces you to get up on your toes. Walk or jog down the hill between repeats for recovery.
Warmups & Cooldowns: Precede each of your key hill workouts, tempo runs and interval sessions with a 1 to 2 miles of easy running and a set of strides to warm up. Follow the workout with 1 to 2 miles of easy running to cool down.
X-training: Alternative aerobic exercise in the form of cycling, water running, swimming or the elliptical machine. These are scheduled before or after your key workouts for the week and cross training for 30 to 60 minutes on your non-running days is a good way to get in extra volume without beating up your body.
For a full calendar of day-by-day workouts, click here.
By Mario Fraioli
Mario Fraioli is the senior producer at Competitor.com. He was a cross country All-American at Stonehill College, has run 2:28 in the marathon, and coaches the Prado Women's Racing Team in San Diego.