In a Running Rut? It’s Time to Take to the Trails

Running trails will reinvigorate your routine—and make you stronger. Here’s how to make the switch from pavement to pure happiness. 

Are your runs starting to get a little … repetitive? Is that cleaved piece of sidewalk curving upward in the shape of a ramp the most exciting thing on your daily route? If so, your running needs a shot in the arm: It’s time to flirt with some dirt.

Last year, pro runner and Olympic Trials qualifier Addie Bracy reignited her off-road passion and decided to compete in the first proper trail race of her career. The event was the prestigious U.S. Mountain Running Championships, and she ended up winning the thing; her victory qualified her for the Mountain Running World Championships in Premana, Italy. “Now that I do the majority of my training and running on trails, I feel like I have fallen in love with running all over again,” says Bracy, who grew up near miles of trails but until recently had focused on the roads and track. She has learned a lot in her time on the trails, and her tips can help you in any trail event from an XTERRA to a 50K off-road ultra.

Here is Bracy’s advice:

For running off-road:

Go by feel, not pace. “For the most part, I just base everything off of my effort,” Bracy says. “For hard long runs or hard workouts, I wear a heart rate monitor. I know the range my heart rate should be in for various types of runs when I’m on the road, and I just try to follow that same heart rate on the trails.”

Don’t forget your feet. “It sounds obvious, but [get] good shoes. I was always used to wearing the typical road training shoe, and when I started trying to run hard on trails, I struggled with traction and stability. I don’t feel every single rock I step on anymore, and when I’m doing a descent on something dicey, I trust my footing a lot more.” (See page 38 for six top trail run shoes.)

Strava: not just for bragging. “Strava ends up being a really good tool. You can research trails in the area and also look at data from the segments. That’s helpful because it gives you a good idea of the elevation gain, how long it takes most people and what their comments about the trail are. I definitely spend a lot more time on Strava than I did before turning to the trails!”

For racing off-road:

Keep it breezy, accept the crazy. “[U.S. Mountain Running Championships] ended up an insane hill that topped out at 42 percent grade,” she says. “So, if I had known that beforehand, I probably would have been extremely stressed and nervous. Since I had no idea, when I hit that hill I remember basically laughing and saying to myself, ‘This is crazy.’ Keeping that light attitude has been good for me and made me OK with not knowing what to expect. That seems to be part of what makes trail running so fun.” 

Going down? Go with the flow. “When you try to fight or tense up too much [on downhills], you really increase the strain it’s putting on your body, and the downhills end up taking a lot out of you. Oftentimes, rather than trying to crush the pace on the downhill, I just focus on relaxing and not being anxious about it so that I can use it as a recovery period for the next climb.”

Going up? Fight on. “A tip that someone once told me before my first steep uphill race was to just focus on always moving forward. Even if you feel like you’re barely moving—or you’re slowing down—just don’t get too frustrated. Keep moving forward and you’ll be fine.”

Make the dirt hurt (less)

What: Uphill tempo runs
5 to 6 miles steady pace (6/10 effort) at a moderate grade of 5–6%
Why: Builds strength and steady-state power for long, tough efforts.

What: Hill interval work
4 x 3 minutes at very hard pace (8/10), short rest (~2–3 minutes); then 5 x 1 minute harder-paced (9/10), short rest (~2–3 minutes) on a steeper grade above 6%
Why: Increases aerobic capacity and trains your heart rate to not go bonkers on steep sections, or during abrupt changes of pace.

What: Agility Ladder Circuit
Using a 15-foot agility ladder, do the following routine three times through with 30 seconds rest; run each exercise for 1 minute:
Quick Feet: Basic forward steps from end to end, one foot quickly touching inside each box
High Knees: Same as Quick Feet, but exaggerate leg lift and arm swing
In In, Out Out: Standing next to ladder, facing it, step one foot in a box, then the other; take one foot out of the box, then the other; move to the right for next box
Lateral Box Fill: Standing in front of ladder sideways, right foot in box, left foot in box; right foot in next box, left foot in next box; back in the other direction at the end
Why: Strengthens tendons and muscles in lower-leg stabilizer muscles for injury prevention; also builds speed and coordination for descents.