Do you remember your first trail run?

I do.

I came home exhausted, with dirty shoes, sore ankles, and a stubbed big toe. Immediately I knew I wanted more, but unfortunately I had no idea what I was doing.

So what I decided to do was to keep going back, pushing a little too hard, getting a little too dirty, and continuing to annoy my ankles, toes, and knees.

Instead, what I should have done, is realize that trail running is a different sport than road running, and needs to be treated as such.

It requires the use of different muscles and challenges your balance and stability in new ways.

If I was smart, I would have started training for the new sport instead of jumping in head first with serious risk of injury.

Now don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get excited about trails like I did. Nor am I saying you should avoid them (in fact, I’m constantly pushing for the opposite!).

But what I am saying is that when you start running trails, begin by learning the differences between roads and trails, and prep yourself for those differences.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest differences between roads and trails on the body is the use of new muscles in the feet, ankles, knees, and legs. To prep for that, I suggest to all new trail runners that they practice certain drills to build strength and technique.

But this advice doesn’t apply just to runners new to trails. We should all keep up with drills, even after years of experience.

Why Keeping Up With Drills Is Important

After awhile, once you’re comfortable running trails and dealing with uneven ground, it’s easy to fall into the routine of lacing up your shoes and hitting the trail without doing any sort of continued strength work.

I know because it happens to me.

I don’t particularly enjoy doing drills. They aren’t nearly as fun as running quickly through the woods or soaking in an overlook, so why spend my workout time hopping around?

Let me answer with a story.

Last week, while running down a steep hill towards the end of a 9 mile loop, I landed awkwardly on a loose rock. My ankle twisted, plunging me forward while I let out a yelp. Finding myself on the ground confused by what happened, I jumped up to keep going, but was immediately halted due to a sharp pain in my left ankle.


I wobbled around the near vertical trail trying to walk it off.

Many more expletives.

After a few minutes I tried running, but just a few steps later was reduced to walking. I hobbled another half mile before I could start jogging the last few hundred meters to my car.

Upon arriving home I immediately employed the R-I-C-E treatment (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) for a few hours, and by the end of the day the pain had subsided and I was able to walk without much discomfort.

Thankfully I dodged that bullet, but it was an immediate reminder that I need to take care of myself.

I need to continue to work the muscles tested on the trail, and not just by testing them on the trail but with targeted drills.

3 Drills for Trail Runners

Here are my 3 favorite drills that work the appropriate muscles for trail runners. Practice them often.

1) Hops

Benefits: Builds leg strength and agility.

Instructions: Find a picnic table, bench, or set of stairs. Place feet hip distance apart and drive from your lower legs to hop up onto the platform. Land on the balls of your feet. Complete 2-4 sets of 5 jumps once or twice a week.

This is an easy drill to perform when you just have a few minutes, plus you look wicked cool hopping up on a picnic table.

2) Four Square Drill

Benefits: Builds ankle and knee strength and durability, and trains agility and quick foot placements.

Directions: Draw a 2ft x 2ft square on the ground. Jump with both feet together from the center to outside the square and back to center. Rotate between all four sides. Repeat in opposite direction.

After completing the drill with two feet, repeat using only one foot at a time.

If it’s good enough for Mike Wolfe (featured in this video), it’s most certainly good enough for me.

3) Bounding

Benefits: Builds explosiveness in the legs, corrects running form, and improves your uphill running technique.

Directions: Take long strides while running, concentrating on getting the knees up high and really exploding off the back leg. Run for roughly 100 meters. Repeat two or three times.

This is a classic running drill, used by sprinters and distance runners alike. It also is a great drill for trail runners.

BONUS: Hill Running

This one isn’t really a drill, but I just can’t leave it out. Hill workouts are important for all runners, but even more so for trail runners, mostly because trails are often littered with hills.

The best way to feel strong and comfortable running both up and down hills on the trail is to practice. Once a week, add a few repeats on a tough trail hill after your run. The uphill will help build explosive strength as you climb, and proper downhill technique will add to strength in the knees and legs.

And the mental and physical comfort you gain from practicing on the hills will having a lasting impact on your daily runs.

Now it’s your turn. Do you practice drills regularly? Which are your favorite?

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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3 thoughts on “3 Must-Do Drills for Trail Runners

  1. My first trail run wasn’t all that long ago – late January this year – and I remember the excitement of it all, and the camaraderie of the more seasoned runners, but it was more memorable due to the injury I sustained during it, which wound up taking me off both roads and trails for the following 7 months. I fractured the 5th meta tarsal in my left foot – apparently known as a “Jones fracture” – and it’s required quite a protracted period of rest to heal to my surgeon’s satisfaction. Nevertheless, my intention is definitely to get back out there once all the “rest” has been stretched out of the foot. But, to your point in the article, I certainly learned that trail running is very different to road running in the challenges it presents to your body, and it is wise to go in prepared, especially with regards to strengthening your feet, ankles and calves. I’m absolutely going to make these drills a part of my routine. Thanks for the advice!

    1. Hey Basil, thanks for reading! I’m so sorry to hear your first trail run left you injured. I guess it just drives home the point that trails challenge different muscles than the roads!

      But I’m also glad to hear you weren’t discouraged. Hope you heal up quickly and are back out there soon. Just ease in and have fun!

      Thanks – Doug

  2. As a professional trainer I know first hand the importance of exercises for the calves, ankles & feet. Strenghtening the Flexor digitorum brevis will keep plantar fascitis from flairing up as well as tendonitis in the achilles tendon. Wearing compression socks or sleeves do an unbelievable job of supporting the muscles of the feet and legs by increasing blood circulation translating into way more energy. Your feet are your sole means of support! Think about investing in trail shoes that are meant to take on any surface from loose rocks, slipperly rocks, grass, mud & so on. Check out Salomon Spikecross for the best dam trail shoe I wouldn’t be without. I train in the Northeast @ Lynn Woods Reservation with 2,200 rugged hilly acres of trail blazing bliss.

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