Tips for building trail-running speed at every distance
Megan Roche does beach strides in Hawaii the day before finishing 3rd at the XTERRA World Championships. Photo by David Roche
“I’m not fast.”
That is the first thing I hear from way too many people when they describe their trail-running goals. They think they have an inherent lack of talent that will prevent them from ever running fast. Every time I hear someone disparage their speed, I say the same thing:
“Bull-sprinkles!” (Well, something similar.)
Simply put, 99 percent of trail runners have the talent to get way faster. But like anything else in life, you need to work at it. By becoming more comfortable with fast paces over short distances, every distance will get easier almost instantly. There are three reasons why doing the workouts described in this article will make you better:
Fast running lights the nervous system up like a shopping-mall Christmas tree on Black Friday. If you don’t run fast often, that initial shock of turning all of the lights to full blast might make you think you are slow, when in fact your brain just isn’t used to it.
Fortunately, just as that overwhelming Christmas tree becomes old news by December, the signaling pathways between the brain and the body can adapt to new stresses very quickly. That’s why you can reap the neuromuscular benefits of basic speed workouts almost overnight. Every pace “feels” slower, and in the process, it gets easier to hold a pace that used to require the wind at your back or a wonky signal from your Garmin.
Megan Roche reaping the benefits of an improved neuromuscular system on Black Mountain, outside Cupertino, California. Photo by David Roche
If you were Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s stunt double, would sprinting after the evil rival car driver (or Russian, or tidal wave) make you sore? If the answer is yes (and I bet it would be for most trail runners), your training could be way more fun and effective.
As you get accustomed to running fast, every little piece of muscle and connective tissue from your buttocks to your bunions gets stronger. That strength makes you more resistant to injuries and better equipped to handle high-speed chases, whether those chases are as a stunt double for The Rock or on the trails of the Hardrock 100.
All of the workouts in this article involve very short intervals with nearly full recovery. So how will they help your cardiovascular performance over longer distances?
The benefit comes from an increase in stroke volume—the amount of blood your heart can pump with a single beat. While the physiology is far too complicated for me to understand (after all, I’m a lawyer), it works. I think of it like a song playing at a party. Sure, you need a song with a good beat, but what’s the point if your speakers don’t have bass that can bring the house down? These workouts give your heart that earth-shattering thump that will scare your competitors—just like the speakers did your neighbors.
1. Strides: 4 – 8 x 100 meters after normal run
Whenever I start coaching an athlete and I find out they aren’t doing consistent, quality strides, I cackle maniacally. Almost no matter what their other training entails, I know they’ll get faster within a few weeks, which will make me look like an evil genius.
Strides are best done after a normal run, up to five times a week depending on how your body responds. On each 100-meter stride, start relaxed and build speed until you are going the fastest you can go without breaking into sprinting form. Jog around until you are completely recovered, then repeat four to eight times. At first, you may feel like a clumsy puppy learning to run, but after your body adapts, you’ll be striding out like a full-grown dog in adventure mode!
This dog has done its strides. Photo by David Roche
2. Short hill intervals: 8 x 30 seconds on 2 – 4% incline after warm-up
So many training plans focus on things like “marathon pace” or “10K speed.” That’s great (and necessary), but it overlooks a simple concept—what if you are actually capable of a marathon time that is one hour faster than you think possible? Short hill intervals can help you break through some of those barriers and start realizing your true potential by rapidly teaching your brain and body to accept faster paces.
For short hill intervals, find a gradual incline (no more than 4 percent). After at least 20 minutes of easy running to warm up, start the first interval relaxed, building pace for the first 10 seconds.
Then, as you get close to halfway through the interval, let it fly! Flail up the hill as quickly as you can, take a moment to laugh at yourself for not caring what spectators think, then jog very slowly back to where you started. After fully recovering, do it again and again (anywhere from 4 to 20 intervals is great, depending on your background). Since the intervals are uphill (less pounding) and short (less physiological stress), you can do them up to three times per week.
3. Even shorter hill sprints: 6 x 15 seconds on 8 – 12% incline after normal run
Short hill sprints are a variation on the workout above. On a steeper incline, just go. Flail up the hill like one of those inflatable balloon-men outside of car dealerships, pumping your arms and powering up with your butt. After your first set of these sprints, you may find out that you have muscles you didn’t know existed. Keep doing them, no more than twice per week, and you won’t forget those muscles ever again!
Strides, hill work and diagonals make you a more efficient runner over all terrains. Photo by Kathy Koetje-Simin
4. Diagonals: 20 – 30 minutes of strides after warm-up
So you’ve done your strides, your hill intervals and your hill sprints, and you are ready to take it up a notch. Diagonals are the workout for you.
Diagonals let you reap the benefits of all the other work to feel strong and free, like you’re a kid all over again. Here’s how it works: run easy for at least 15 minutes, finishing your warm-up at a grass field (preferably a soccer or football field). Start at one corner, and run diagonally across the field as if you are doing a controlled stride. Jog the width as slowly as you’d like, then do another diagonal stride (your footsteps should form an elongated “X” with the stride sections), jogging the width back to where you started the first stride. Repeat for 20 to 30 minutes, focusing on form. Once you successfully complete diagonals feeling healthy, strong and fast, you’ll know that you’re ready for whatever a race throws at you.
The biggest lesson I’d like you to remember is this: you have the ability to be fast. And don’t disagree or I’ll have to call bull-sprinkles on you.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. When not frolicking on single-track or working as a public-interest attorney for the Environmental Law Institute, he enjoys spending time with his wife and puppy, both of whom are substantially better at running than he is. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.