A group of trail runners is pictured at sunset running in the soft light. 

Training for Trail Running: Tips for Beginners

Get prepared for your next run with these strength-training tips and workout plans
Spending time outside and breathing in the fresh air makes trail running hard to beat. It’s good for your mental health and even therapeutic for many people, not to mention the fantastic physical workout it provides. Trail running is also great cross training for cross country skiing, swimming, hiking, and many other activities.

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.
A trail runner adjusts her hydration vest while looking off camera in a scenic outdoor setting. 

Trail running prep

Before you dive into your training, you’ll want to get a few basic things in order.

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?

As you begin to put a trail running plan together, think about the types of movement you’ll be doing on the trail and find ways to replicate it. Diboun recommends exercises with eccentric (as in off axis) contractions such as step-ups and step-downs, lunges, or squats.

“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.
A group of tail runners comes up a mountain trail with gorgeous peaks in the background.

Training exercises for trail running

1. Crane lunges

As far as strength training goes, crane lunges are an excellent choice for trail runners. To perform this exercise, bring your knee up in front of you in a crane position, stretch your leg out behind you in a reverse lunge without touching the ground, and then go back to the crane position.

“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

Balance and strength are two key factors for trail running, and jumping rope is a great way to build both of these areas.

“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.

3. Stairs

One of the best simulations of climbing a trail is a staircase, Diboun said. You can use a real-life stairwell or find a stair stepper machine to incorporate this type of training.

“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.
A trail runner comes down a rocky hill as other athletes trail behind him. 

4. Single-leg squats

Working on single-leg strength is important for trail runners because it helps with your body alignment and core strength.

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.

5. Push-ups

It may seem surprising to see push-ups on a list for trail running workouts, but it’s also important to work your upper body.

“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

An agility ladder is a grid of ropes on the ground that you run in and out of. The rapid and nimble response of this exercise is a great way to train for trail running, and excellent for improving your reflexes, mindfulness, and overall fitness.

“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.”
 A close-up shot of a blue pair of Montrail trail running shoes. 

7. Elliptical trainer 

For people who are injured and can’t be on the trail, an elliptical trainer is a good option to stay in shape, and supports the cardiovascular system without the pounding of running.

“That's a nice way to get into it without the impact,” Diboun said.

8. Tabata workouts

The Tabata workout was developed by a Japanese exercise physiologist named Izumi Tabata and is a wonderful way for trail runners to train off-trail.

“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.”

9. Plyometrics

Dynamic exercises like jump lunges, box jumps, and squats are all highly impactful exercise options for trail runners.

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.
A trail runner comes around the corner in a scenic forest setting. 

10. Yoga

Flexibility is important for any trail running training plan, and yoga is extremely helpful for that.

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.”

11. Sauna

The sauna is good for your muscles and can strengthen your heart by increasing shock proteins, Diboun said, noting that he does sauna sessions three times a week. Not only that, he uses the time to do some stretching on the sauna floor too.

“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.

12. Rest

Lastly, don’t forget to rest!

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.
Ready to get in shape? Check out Columbia Sportswear’s best trail running gear.