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Strength and Conditioning for the Trail Runner by David Leith

With many of our favourite mountain trails opening again, many runners are returning to the trails for their much-needed dose of fresh air, nature and adrenaline. With no organised races in the immediate future, now is the perfect time to build up time and distance on the legs and regain the strength and endurance that has likely deteriorated under the restrictions of lockdown. However, it is important to approach your road back to fitness systematically, following gradual progression, allowing your body to adapt appropriately along the way and incorporating specific accessory work that will both ward off frustrating niggles and boost your performance. So how do you manage this?

Runners and trail runners in particular would benefit immensely from the services of both a personal online running coach and a strength and conditioning expert. The former helps to guide the progression of running-specific sessions, ‘mapping’ the road towards a target performance or outcome. Importantly, this is not a generic plan! The coach will form a close bond with the athlete, learning about their training history and possible injury struggles, take into account their life circumstances and hectic work/family commitments, and use all this information to craft a running progression that is unique to the needs of that athlete. Over time the coach will gain further insight into what makes that athlete tick, what he/she does not respond well to and when it is best to either push harder or back off a bit. Having a coach that is in tune with your needs and goals and understands the science of periodisation and physiology behind your programming, will make a massive difference in improving the quality and overall balance of your running training. Trail races in particular are technical, involving varied terrains and profiles (e.g. elevation changes, altitude, gradients) that place different demands on the body. The running coach will be able to incorporate the appropriate exposure to these elements in your training plan to ensure you are race-ready.

Trail running places a significant load on the body, particularly on the tissues surrounding the ankles, knees and hips. Having a complementary strength and conditioning programme is hugely beneficial in terms of developing the level of mobility, stability, robustness and soft tissue resilience to withstand the significant loads associated with trail running. The strength and conditioning expert will again ensure that the programme is suited to your resistance training background, your needs and goals by conducting a comprehensive assessment and establishing where your weaknesses/imbalances lie and how these should be corrected with specific relevance to trail running. Examples of emphasis may include proprioceptive work and ankle stability, muscle activation (e.g. glutes, hamstrings, ‘foot core’), single-leg stability in multiple planes, eccentric control and strength (crucial for efficiently absorbing the load associated with downhill running), core stability as well as concentric strength and power to enhance your uphill speed. These would start light and gradually progress in load and complexity as you become more stable and stronger. All it takes is one hour of dedicated running-specific strength work, once to twice per week, to significantly reduce your risk of injury, build a robust and resilient athlete that is able to withstand and continually progress in his/her running/specific training.

The Sport Science Institute of South Africa offers online running coaching programmes to help runners develop their strength and enhance their sporting ability. For more information on online running coaching and/or strength and conditioning for running, contact David Leith at [email protected].

Browse and shop the First Ascent X-Trail Running range here.