How To Train For Trails In The City

Ian Sharman

Through winter we all struggle to fit in any type of run with less daylight, icy roads and snowy trails. This becomes even more difficult for city dwellers in cold locations where the treadmill can seem the only option. However, I picked up several useful tips living in flat, old London town about how to train for the mountains whether it’s cold or not. These have been tried and tested by many people I’ve coached who’ve had to deal with less-than-ideal training conditions. Wrapping up in warm clothing and preparing for the cold will not only make your winter running more varied and interesting but helps to build the mental strength to deal with adversity in a race. You don’t get to choose the weather on race day!

The value of specificity when training for any sport is undeniable and being able to practice on terrain similar to your goal trail race is clearly the best option. When that’s not possible and you have hilly trail races coming up, these tips will help.

Screw Your Shoes

No shoe works perfectly on ice, but drilling screws into the sole is the cheap alternative to winter-proofing them. Ultrarunner and winter expert, Jeff Browning, includes a good guide on how to do this. This can open up more outdoor running options in the cold, but care is still needed when running on ice.

Snow Works That Core

It makes your runs slower and harder, but that’s also a benefit, so embrace the snow on occasion. That slipping and sliding while you trudge through the white stuff will work your runner’s core even if you’re just running on a flat sidewalk. Then when you race on the trails your body will deal with the uneven terrain, twists and turns much more effectively than if you had stuck to the treadmill. Don’t be a wimp – get out and take advantage of snow running. If you have deeper snow, then snow-shoeing is an excellent option. Cities are less likely to have races in this discipline but that’s no reason you can’t get out and do it on your own.

Mix Up Indoors And Outdoors On The Same Run

There still is a place for the treadmill and it can be especially useful for tempo runs and interval workouts. A great way to mix things up is to do part of the run outside and part of it inside. It helps to break up the monotony of looking at your reflection in the mirrored wall and mentally resets you for each section of the run. In winter it’s usually best to go outside first, otherwise you’ll get sweaty then run in the cold. When the weather’s milder, this can work especially well as a run to the gym (possibly via an elongated route with hills), faster running indoors then running home. You’ll even save gas and parking money while making gymgoers think you’re especially hardcore with your outdoor endeavors.

Hike Hard

There may not be many hill options for city dwellers but getting stronger on the climbs is essential for trail racing. Ninety-nine percent of us need to factor in some hiking when on the trails so practice this on stairs and treadmills at steep gradients. Don’t just walk, but push yourself to go as fast as you can to cause adaptations in your muscles so that you become fitter and faster uphill. If your office building is a skyscraper then you can use the stairwells and the “fast feet” required to navigate the stairs also helps with coordination on the trails.

Leg Strengthening For Downhills

Whether hiking or running, weight vests or backpacks can be used to mimic downhills and strengthen your legs for the pounding you can expect in most hilly trail races. There’s no need to overdo it with the amount of weight since you’re an endurance athlete; even small additional weightloads will tone and increase muscle mass by simulating the higher impact levels of downhill running.

Lunges are also a great addition to any runner’s routine, but instead of keeping these as a gym-related workout, try including them before every single run. This helps as a warm-up, plus means you do them much more consistently and regularly. The additional strength will help on the trails and minimize the chance of injury, too.

Pull A Sled

If you don’t mind the funny looks then another great way to work on strength for the trails is to pull a sled on your run, or even something crazier like a tire. People might mistake you for a crossfitter but if you can survive that shame, it’s an excellent way to make you a more powerful distance runner. There’s no need to sprint. Running around a park with something in tow will make the difficulty significantly harder – even more so on the snow. In better weather, similar effects can be gained for parents by pushing a running stroller, but this may be tough in the snow and even tougher on your child!

In ultras, it helps to grab every opportunity to build your mental fortitude so winter running is an excellent way to do this. Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone in the city makes those difficult moments on the trail more manageable.



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Ian Sharman is an ultrarunning coach with USATF and NASM certification. He is on the Scott Running Ultra Team and has represented England for ultrarunning. He only started running in 2005 but quickly got addicted to races and became a student of the sport, interested in all types of running terrain and style of event. In particular, Ian loves to explore the world through running and has raced in six continents with almost 200 marathon and ultra finishes. Some highlights include setting the record for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2013, during which he won the Leadville Trail 100. He also set the fastest North American 100-mile trail time at his Rocky Raccoon 100 course record of 12:44.

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  • Jodi Richard

    Versaclimber….I use the Versaclimber a lot in the winter in my gym in the city and it is awesome training for trail runs, especially crazy technical trail runs such as Escarpment or Bear Mountain Northface Challenge. It works your hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, and core using just one machine. And the arm workout the Versaclimber provides helps with those steep hikes up boulders, etc. It’s a torture device for sure, but you see the benefits from that torture when you’re out on the trail and the next day, when you can walk down the stairs like a normal human being. :-)