Training for Trail Running: Tips for Beginners
To maximize the benefits and enjoyment of trail running, it helps to do some training off the trails. Whether you’re training for a 50K trail run or just jogging near your house, knowing what types of exercise are best for running can make a big difference in your performance.
We’ve enlisted the help of Columbia Sportswear athlete Yassine Diboun for insights about his favorite trail running workouts. Here’s what the professional trail runner had to say.
Trail running prep
First, make sure you have a good pair of trail shoes. Not just any old sneakers will do. Trail running is different from road running—the ground is more technical and there are more obstacles to overcome, so you need extra-sturdy footwear.
“A lot of people don't realize how much trail shoes actually help” Diboun said. “The grip, having that sure-footedness—it really goes a long way. If I don't have trail shoes on and I'm out in the forest, I'm slipping all over the place.”
When it comes to deciding how to choose a trail running shoe, Diboun recommended finding something that fits well while offering solid grip and protection.
“When you're skidding down side to side, hitting switchbacks, having to make these turns, that’s when advanced footwear technology becomes really important,” he explained. “You want a shoe with biting edges that can help brake when you’re coming down the trail.”
Look for footwear with superior traction technologies such as Adapt Trax™, said Diboun.
Also make sure you have the right clothing for trail running. If you’ll be in the sun a lot, opt for UPF-rated apparel with technologies like Omni-Shade and Omni-Shade Broad Spectrum. And if you’ll be trail running in the rain, look for waterproof technologies like OutDry™ Extreme and wear form-fitting clothes to prevent the moisture from causing rubbing and chafing.
Diboun recommends dressing in layers because you never know what’s going to happen with the weather. It’s great to have a good windbreaker on hand, and your rain protection should be lightweight and breathable.
To round out the proper trail gear, be sure to bring a GPS device or other navigation tool to avoid getting lost.
“Going out into the trails can be a little overwhelming in terms of navigation. It’s helpful to learn a little bit about it when you prepare to start trail running.”
Don’t forget to fuel up for your trail run as well. Check out Diboun’s advice on trail running nutrition.
What types of exercises are best for trail running?
“Those are going to prepare your body for the uphills and downhills,” he said, noting it will also help with the uneven ground.
“Having uneven terrain in itself is going to work your ankles and work your joints and muscles in a different way,” he said. “You're going up hills, you're going down hills, you're off camber—you're working all these different muscles in different ways. It’s confusing your muscles, and that's what the body really responds to—it’s the variability.”
Your exercise plan should go beyond training just your muscles and focus on your mind and reflexes too, Diboun added. When you’re running on trails, you’re constantly making decisions about where to put your feet, so you have to be fast and responsive, he explained.
A good trail running training plan will incorporate strength training, cardio, and mobility. Anything that works in those areas will help you get better at trail running. Below are some specific exercises Diboun recommends.
Training exercises for trail running
1. Crane lunges
“These are really great for that single-leg strength that’s so important. You're trying to keep your leg straight and not let your knees bow in or bow out,” Diboun said. “And you're also strengthening your glutes and your quads to hold your leg in a straight position. That helps with stabilization.”
In fact, he said, any type of lunges work well with trail running exercise plans, and including side lunges can also help with balance.
2. Jump roping
“When you're jump roping, you're not jumping on your heels. You're jumping on your midfoot, your metatarsal pad,” Diboun said. “And it's mimicking that running motion and the timing of it too, the agility—all of it.”
Single-leg jump roping is an especially great way to get the most out of this exercise.
“Stairs are a great way to help get ready because no matter where you live, you can find a stairwell. You can find a building that's got a bunch of stairs or go to the bleachers at the stadium of a high school.”
He noted that it’s not just going up that’s a good workout, but going down is too.
“Going down stairs is really helpful because you're lowering yourself. You're doing those eccentric contractions and you're forcing yourself to make a decision where to put your feet on each step.”
As you improve your stair climbing and descending, try skipping stairs to increase the challenge. Just be careful and pace yourself so you don’t trip.
4. Single-leg squats
To perform this exercise, stand on a bench and then slowly drop one leg down off the bench. Repeat as needed to strengthen your legs.
“Single-leg squats are really good,” Diboun said. “I do those with weights sometimes, slowly. That slow eccentric contraction is what really builds that strength.”
Adding some balance ball or balance board exercises is another great way to prepare for uneven terrain while moving.
“Upper body and core are very important too in trail running because it’s a full-body workout,” Diboun said. “You’ve got to have the upper body strength, the core strength, and the back strength to keep good form and posture.
“Push-ups are always a great compound exercise because you’re working so many different areas at once.”
6. Agility ladders
“It helps work on opening up those neural pathways, improving your agility and coordination,” Diboun said. “Also your foot placement and your speed and accuracy.”
He recommended a fast beat and footwork drills, which you can find on YouTube videos.
“Those are great because they really teach you to have that mind-body connection.”
7. Elliptical trainer
“That's a nice way to get into it without the impact,” Diboun said.
8. Tabata workouts
“He developed this style of workouts in order to increase your VO2 max, which is a measurement of your body's ability to uptake oxygen and transfer it to your muscles while you're working,” Diboun explained.
“Tabata exercises are great because you can do them at home. You can follow a video or a workout, and they're short. They’re usually 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest, 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest.”
These exercises are typically done in short bursts to build endurance and muscle strength. After doing plyometric exercises for several weeks, runners should notice a difference in performance on the trail.
“These are the kinds of things that can help with that power you need for going up hills and down hills and having those bursts,” Diboun said.
Any yoga is good for trail runners, but Diboun pointed to poses like pigeon pose, downward dog, butterfly stretches, and crow pose as especially effective.
“Doing yoga in general is a fantastic way to improve your mobility for trail running, especially those stretches that are going to open up your hips and stretch out your abductors, which are the muscles inside your hips that connect them to your leg.”
“There's more and more research coming out behind heat training,” he said. “When you're sitting in a sauna, you're training your body to be more efficient at cooling itself down. So when you get out there in the sun and you're working hard, your body recognizes it and knows what to do.”
Diboun said he also likes to contrast the hot sauna with cold plunges afterwards.
Diboun emphasized how important it is to take a day off for recovery. Make sure to follow all hard workouts with a good meal, hydration, and some solid rest.
A good rest day helps the body recover for the next big trail run so you can perform at your best.