Getting Ready to Get Dirty: Genesis General Trail Training Guidelines

By: Matt Young

It goes without saying that training on trails is beneficial for getting ready for a trail run. But even if you are a road runner, which is a very linear exercise, trail running can help to build your lateral muscles which stabilize your entire body and make you a more powerful and sustained runner.

However, for most people it’s not practical to run exclusively on trails during the week and the good news is that trail racing doesn’t require that all of your training be done on trails.  If you’re fortunate enough to have easy access to some kind of trail then use it as much as you can but if not, here are some general guidelines.

Try for two runs a week on trails- If possible get two runs per week on the trails including your long run for the week.  There are lots of physiological benefits of running trails but the best benefit is experience that only time on the trail can bring.

Use a trail substitute.  Parks, open fields, and any other grass terrain make great substitutes for actual trails. Run on the grass or dirt track to simulate the uneven terrain you’ll encounter on the trails.  Most people have some kind of park easily accessible and are a great way to train for trails when trails are available.

Try a Fartlek: funny name, great workout.  A fartlek run helps to keep things interesting in training and helps you prepare for the rigors of the varying terrain of the trail.  Fartlek is an unstructured form of speed work often done on varied or cross country terrain. During a moderate effort run, the runner varies their speed by periodically accelerating to harder efforts and then slowing back down to an easy effort.  The object is to maintain an average level effort of about 80-85% of race effort.   The surges push the effort to 90% or more and the slower paces are 75-80% for recovery.  Fartlek is very effective simulation of passing and surging in races and is useful in building aerobic power and speed especially when run on hilly terrain.  It’s a nice alternative to structured short intervals and provides the extra benefits of running hills and utilizing different muscle groups.

Long runs are the cornerstone to any plan. “Long” is relative to each runner and for trails it’s generally measured by time rather than miles.  Your long run should be around 2 hours or  more if you can get there safely.  Your long runs should be completed at once because of important endurance and metabolic aspects of the long run that can only be obtained by continuous running.  For example, one of the purposes of long runs is to deplete (or severely lower) muscle glycogen, your stored form of carbohydrates. When you deplete muscle glycogen, lots of interesting adaptations occur including the storage of more fuel in your muscles, a greater reliance on fat by your muscles and an increased capacity of your liver to make more glucose for energy. Long runs also prepare your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments to handle the stress of running long races and callous you for the psychological fatigue that accompanies running for a long period of time.

Hit the Hills!!!!!- Hill repeats are ideal for preparing for a trail race or any other hilly race but they also develop leg strength and efficiency on the run.  Even though some races have long sustained hills the training is best done with shorter repeats. Hill repeats accomplish several things: 1) Build leg strength needed for hilly races 2) allows you to practice good form that promotes efficiency  3) helps to prepare for downhill running to minimize impact, condition your legs and work on free speed.  Hill repeats should be done at an easy pace and not as a hard charging sprint.  The point is to build strength and train your body to run the hills as if you are in a race which means a steady and sustained climb. You will almost never sprint a hill in a race.  So as you prepare for hills here are a few key elements: 

  1. To begin, each repeat should be 60 to 120 seconds long.
  2. The focus is on good form- running tall and lifting your way up the hills.
  3. Start the hill running easy and try to keep your effort relatively easy to the top.
  4. Down hills are for recovery and should be run and not walked. Relax your lower body, land your feet underneath, and pick up your feet so that they roll underneath you. You can get a lot of speed with very little effort. 
  5. Start with 8-10 repeats and build to 16+ depending on the length of the hill.
  6. Always begin with 15-20 minutes of warm up and 15-20 minutes of cool down to reach your target mileage for the workout.
  7. Try different hills- one is longer on a sustained hill that isn’t as steep where you run to the top and immediately come back down to let the heart rate recover and work on downhill running. The second hill is shorter and steeper at first and then flattens out at the top. Run to the top of the hill under control and then work on getting back in to race pace at the top. You want to hit the top of the hill and go back in to your normal pace instead of sucking wind.

 Bringing it all together.  Do what you can but unless you plan to train to win these trail races then keep it fun, run trails when you can (because it’s fun) and don’t sweat it.  Your training week could look something like this:

                Monday:  Rest

                Tuesday:  Warm up, hill repeats, cool down

                Wednesday: Easy recovery

                Thursday:  Trails or grassy park run or fartlek (fartlek can be run on trails)

                Friday:  Easy or cross training (any exercise other than running)

                Saturday: Long run on the trails (going for time not miles)

                Sunday: Be flexible- easy run, cross train or rest


Matt Young is the head coach of Genesis Running and loves to help people run their first 5k. Learn more about the next class at

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