Do you remember your first trail run?
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.
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.
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?