All over the country, and indeed the world, there are people who love to run on trails. There are runners who live near great trails, and can head out into the great outdoors as often as they like, and there are those who don’t. For those of us who live in towns and cities, trail running and races often involve a car or train journey, or sometimes a weekend away. Training becomes more of a challenge; just how do we train for trails if there is limited access nearby?
The answer, in my experience, can often be found in a local park. Most of us who live in an urban area, no matter how large or small, have some kind of park within running distance. At first glance, it may look a little unexciting; perhaps it is pretty flat, with mown grass, tarmac paths and a few strategically placed trees and flowerbeds if we are lucky. Running laps around the main paths might seem the rather obvious, if boring, option – fine if a flat road run is our goal, but of limited benefit if we prefer a hilly mud-fest. If we devote some time to closer exploration, though, along with a creative mind, our local parks can reveal a whole number of more trail-specific training opportunities that can make us stronger, fitter and more skillful runners when we hit the muddy, hilly stuff for real.
Some of these ideas may help you get started, but your park will no doubt inspire many more of your own. Pop your trail shoes on, head to the park and see what you can find!
Grass – I’ve yet to see a town or city park without flat, mown grass of some kind. More often than not it’s the main feature, and more often thannot, we runners tend to bypass it by running around it on paths. By stepping onto it, and running across it, we can do a lot that will improve our trail running technique and fitness. Warm up and do technique drills on the grass – the slightly uneven surface will force your core to work harder to maintain good form. Try some speed-work to boost your aerobic, and even anaerobic, systems – practise running at different paces, changing pace, and, if you are a cross-country fan, hone the acceleration skills you’ll need at the start of the race. Do it on wet grass as well as dry and you’ll be sorted!
Obstacles – somewhere in your park there will be obstacles of some kind, obstacles that you can use to your advantage. Look for logs lying on the ground or flower beds to leap over, boosting your balance and co-ordination as well as leg-strength. Random objects to run around and between, such as wooden mushroom seats or lines of trees, will improve your agility and reaction times, preparing your body to cope more efficiently with twisting, turning trails. If your park has a wooden ‘trim trail’, build some of it into your runs – balancing on beams, leaping hurdles or whatever else will make you more agile and stronger, do it. Your imagination is your only limit!
Rough ground – whether long, scraggy grass, a muddy/stony corner or a bark-chipped path, it is highly likely that if you hunt around, you will find a very uneven surface to run on. Make use of it to improve your technique. Hone your stride length and cadence; experiment to find what works for you, so that when you are out on the trail for real, you won’t need to.
Slopes – more prolific in some parks than others, all manner of slopes can be used to enhance your training for trails. The key is to find at least one, and embrace it. No matter how short or long, shallow or steep, smooth or rough, every slope can be used to benefit hill-running. If you find a short, gentle slope, repeat your drills on it, having done them on the flat first; you’ll be practising them in the context you want to run in. Build your strength by hopping and jumping up and down the slope. A longer, steeper slope works well for both uphill speed development and downhill confidence; if you only have the one slope, go up and down over and over again, varying what you do – technique-focused or fast and furious!
Steps – the bane of many a runner, including at my local parkrun, because they can make you work very, very hard. If you can find steps in your park, befriend them! Running up and down a nice, uniform set of steps will develop correct style; it’s hard to run up steps with poor technique. Rougher, more random steps are great for strengthening the legs and the aerobic system. Try sets of reps at varying speeds or effort levels, and if you can, practise running beyond the top of the steps without losing pace, something so many runners struggle with on the trails. There’ll be no more slowing down over the top of climbs for you!
The possibilities are endless! Think agility, balance and co-ordination; think technique, speed and strength, and open your eyes to a whole world of training potential.