What can trail runners learn from road runners?

 In Running training

We, as trail runners, gravitate to trails for a number of reasons. It might be the scenery, the lack of focus on split times and PBs, the grassroots atmosphere of trail races or simply because we prefer running in nature than on roads. But somewhere along the way I think those of us who have made the switch have lost some of the important lessons that road running can teach us.

How many of you get to a flat section of a race and start wondering when the next hill is so you can walk? How many of you struggle on the road sections of races? If there isn’t a rainforest to run through or mountain vistas to gaze upon do we enjoy our runs less? Is the enjoyment of our runs more related to external stimuli than internal?

In my previous life as an Ironman Triathlete I didn’t choose my runs on how scenic the route was, I simply picked a route that allowed me to run the distance prescribed in my training plan with the least traffic interruptions. The goal of the run wasn’t to soak up nature and enjoy the views it was to run. Does that mean I enjoyed it less? Absolutely not – I enjoyed it in a different way.

I remember one of my favourite road runs was a 20km run after a 140km bike in the peak of an Adelaide summer. It was along a busy 4 lane road down to the beach and back. Why was it so enjoyable when I was running along a 4 lane road full of traffic? I was flying – 1 hour 15mins for 20km and although it felt hard I felt in control the whole way. I remember how that run felt, what my form was like and how I was buzzing the whole run at how I could be running that fast after a 140km bike road on a hot summer’s day. I was so dialled into my running form and pace that the time went in a flash. I didn’t need mountain views or a rainforest to take my mind off my legs, I didn’t want my mind to be taken off my legs I wanted to feel them, revel in the mounting fatigue they were experiencing but enjoy the fact I could override them and keep the pace up.

I remember tempo sessions on a flat road where the focus was on nothing more than hitting certain spots in a certain time and monitoring my form throughout. I knew to the second where I should be all throughout the 20 minute effort and the route became a place of familiarity where I could just switch off from everything and run. Just me the road and my watch. Nothing else needed – no people, no views, no music, no gnarly trails.

The track was (and still is) a favourite place to run. Knowing what times I had to hit every 200m of each interval gives a simplicity to the session (for example: simply run every 200m at 42 seconds and repeat for 5-8km). If I fell behind the focus was on what part of my form I could change to make some time up without blowing up.

I enjoyed running purely for getting lost in the actual motion of running. I didn’t need distractions like mountain vistas or music, the enjoyment was found internally rather than externally.

Nowadays every now and then I catch myself wishing a road section was over so I can get to the trails, but I stop (mentally not physically!) and remind myself there is joy to be had in road running as well.

So if that’s all a bit abstract for you – let’s talk about what we can learn from road running.

Running Form
A flat road gives us a perfect chance to think about form – there are no distractions, no uneven trails to be negotiated, we can focus internally and think about our current running form and make small changes and see how they feel.

Mental Strength Mental Strength
With no mountain or rainforest view to distract us, or let ourselves be consumed up by, our minds tend to struggle a bit more. Our thoughts start to drift to how much longer we have to go, how tired our legs are. It’s the perfect time to practice some mental strategies of staying present.

Leg Conditioning
Anyone who’s run a flat marathon after doing lots of hilly trails knows how hard a flat marathon is, especially if you aren’t trained specifically for it. The repetitive nature of running on flat roads loads the same muscle fibres over and over again compared to the variety that trail running offers. Adding some flat road runs to your routine can really help prepare you for those flat sections of your next trail race.

Good runners have an inbuilt sense of pace. Ask them to run 10 minutes hard, they don’t ask at what pace, they ask how many times, what recovery and off they go. Four reps later and every rep was the same pace. 

Road running is a great place to learn pacing, a flat road means pace can be kept constant and you don’t have to worry about adjusting pace to up and down of hills. Once you have a good sense of pacing you can then take that to trails and learn to apply it on the runnable hills.

Race Specific Training
If your race has flat sections then you need to train for them or you’ll struggle on race day. Don’t just look at the sections of a race that you enjoy, look at how much flat running there is in the race and adjust training accordingly.

Now I’m not suggesting we spend all our time on the road training for trail races but if you do have to do some running on the road use it as a positive not a negative, there is a lot we can learn from road running!

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Showing 3 comments
  • Paulo de Souza

    Great insight! I feel that a long downhill session on road a good training session… Thanks for writing it!

    • Andy DuBois

      Thanks Paulo – yep a long downhill road session is awesome training if you have built up to it.

  • Helen

    I really miss roads after lots of trails

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