Rocky Balboa didn’t just box, he also ran stairs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t just play football, they also practice ballet.

Karate Kid didn’t just crane kick, he caught flies (with chop sticks!).

Sometimes, in order to improve within a sport or discipline, you have to branch out of the obvious. Which leads me to today’s post … and a statement that has the real possibility of demolishing any trail cred I’ve fraught hard to build over the years.

Oh well, here’s it goes:

Smart trail runners don’t just run trails, they run roads too.

Before you go and smash your computer or delete RCR from your browser history, allow me to explain. …

… Roads make you faster.

… Roads help with pacing.

… Roads help with explosive strength.

… And, frankly, roads are a lot more accessible, and provide an opportunity to squeeze in miles you may not have time to run otherwise.

In other words, there ain’t no shame in the road running game.

A Quick Word for You Trail Running Purists

I’ve made statements like this before — I even did an entire Trail Talk episode on the topic — and inevitably someone will respond with a counter argument.

It usually goes something like this,

“But trails are better for your body, mind, and strength. Running on the road is the worst!”

For the most part, I agree. Trails do prevent injuries, they do build endurance and strength, and they’re a hell of a lot more fun. But that doesn’t mean roads should be ignored by trail runners.

Just as road runners should use trails as a training tool, trail runners should take advantage of and celebrate what the road has to offer. If we want to be great runners, we need to utilize all the tools available. Roads included.

So let’s set our trail snobbishness aside, and link strides with our short shorted, non-hydration pack wearing comrades from the road.

4 Road Workouts for Trail Runners

Not only will roads not hurt you as a trail runner, but there are certain types of road workouts that have major benefits. Workouts that train for speed, power, and consistent pacing.

Below I’ve outline 4 road workouts that do just that, and I encourage you to incorporate them into your training.

1) VO2 Max Workout

The Workout: 5 x 4 min at 5K effort with 2 minute light jog in between.

The 5K effort (Zone 4 for you heart rate junkies) is considered a hard effort. It should be uncomfortably difficult, especially towards the end of this workout.  Use the 2 minute jog break to get your heart rate down and recover between intervals.

To modify for an easier workout, reduce the interval time. To increase difficulty, add additional intervals. Sandwich this workout with a 15 minute warm-up and cool-down.

2) Half Mile Hill Climbs

The Workout:  5 x half mile hill climbs at strong effort.

Find a gradual hill at least a half mile in length. Run up at a strong effort, with a light recovery jog back down. Sandwich this workout with a 15 minute warm-up and cool-down.

These longer, gradual climbs are great for building the endurance and strength needed on a difficult trail terrain. By moving this workout to the road, you can find more consistent hills and better footing, which allow for regulated speed and effort.

To modify this workout, increase or decrease the length of the hill, keep the hill on the longer side instead of short hill sprints.

3) Half to 1 Mile Descents

The Workout: 3 x half to 1 mile downhill repeats at hard effort.

Find a long hill and instead of running hard up, run hard on the way down and jog your way back up. Sandwich this workout with a 20 minute warm-up and cool-down.

Part of running strong on the trail is being able to handle sustained and often quad busting descents. An easy way to train your quads and downhill form is to run down hills on the roads, where you don’t have to worry about the terrain. I recommend incorporating downhill days into your training just as you would uphill days. On downhill days, don’t run hard on the inclines.

4) Tempo Runs

The Workout: 4 miles at a comfortably hard pace (Roughly a 10k pace or Zone 4 heart rate).

What do I mean by comfortably hard? Hard enough that it feels tough, but slow enough that you can maintain it for roughly 45 minutes to an hour. For many people, that’s roughly their 10k race pace. Tempo runs increase your lactate threshold for more strength and endurance late in the long run or race.

To modify, shorten the length of the tempo run to 3 miles, or do 2-3 x 2 mile tempo intervals, with a half mile jog in between.

Bonus) Easy Run

The Workout: 5 miles at an easy pace.

The smooth terrain and gradual hills of the road make it easier for runners to keep their heart rates down and maintain an easy effort. Easy runs are crucial for recovery, base building, endurance, and maintenance.

If you want to round out all these workouts, consider including drills, exercises, or a strength routine after the workout.

Be More Like Rocky

And no, I’m not talking about slurping down raw eggs. Gross.

I’m talking about utilizing the benefits from all terrain to become a better runner. Instead of hiding from the road, we should run towards it.

Not all the time, of course — time spent on the trail is time spent becoming a better trail runner — but start looking at the road as the training tool it can be.

So what do you say? Will I see you on the road?

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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8 thoughts on “Why Trail Runners Should Hit the Pavement (Plus 4 Road Workouts)

  1. Definitely agree with you Doug. For me it’s simply a practical issue, I don’t have quality trails close by so I have to save those runs for the weekend. That said, as you suggested, I do think that you can get a pretty solid workout on the road. Sure it’s not always where I want to be, but faced with a decision to not run versus run roads, I’ll kick some asphalt every time. I personally like tempo runs, hill repeats and fartleks just to keep a longer run interesting.

    1. Yeah, for a lot of people, hitting the trail isn’t an option every day. A road run is always better than no run! Thanks for reading.

  2. nice , I love the trail but work constraints mean I do run on and enjoy the road. Once question. Do the majority of Americans actually use the imperial units? It just seems crazy , anyway I have done the conversions and they look like some good workouts

  3. There is no way I’d ever leave my trails to run on roads. Thank God I have access to 22 hundred acres of hilly, rocky, steep, wide & narrow trails to enjoy each & everytime I run. Roads are for…

  4. I add some road to every trail I run. Just to get to the trail its something between 1 and 4 miles. And some of the paved sidewalks are more technical than some trails so beaten up they are. If you know your city even a trail runner can have a challenge. Running in Seattle Queen Anne or Magniolia offers more steep hills than places around in the Cascades. As Dough says, use what you find and don’t stick to dogmatic thinking.

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