Posted by: Dean Hebert | July 17, 2008

Training: Does trail running make for good marathon training?

A reader named Mike asks:

I am beginning to train for the ShamrockFest Marathon in VA Beach (March 22 – very flat course) and would like to do some of my long runs on trails. These are off road mountain trails, not park trails, and offer some pace challenges. Is this a bad idea?

Let me start with this comment: all your training should be in context. No single workout or type of workout can really be labeled a “bad idea” or bad for training purposes. However, training programs need to be targeted. They must contain race-specific training to get optimal results – for that targeted race. You do not just train for a race distance you train for the terrain and weather you will face on race day as well.

Second, as you allude to, not all trails are created equal. If you run on what might be a dirt road, or similar to the rails-for-trails type trails, you may in fact be able to get some decent pacing in. On the other hand, if it is tough or loose footing; is steep with lots of switchbacks; or is at a high elevation, then your pacing will suffer. There is the rub.

Given that, trail running is very good for developing lower leg strength and even contributes to general body strength. It forces you to use your ankles, feet, Achilles tendons, etc. in a variety of movements. This promotes well rounded training and more complete development of muscle groups which may reduce incidents of injuries. (That is a general consensus though I do not know of controlled studies which support it.) So, trail running becomes a supplement to your training program unless you race trails. It is best used early in your program – pre-season for instance. It can also be used in small doses to break up lots of track or road running for variety.

The down side is that trail running makes you slow… strong yes, but slow. Your leg turnover which is a neuromuscular function is slow in comparison to running on a track or other flat surface. Therefore, if you put in lots of miles on trails, you become stronger and slower unless of course you’re training specifically for a trail race. Then of course your training is race-specific. There is no such thing as “doing a 9:00 mile on trails is equal to a 7:30 mile on the roads.” Even if you do quality workouts each week on a track it will not compensate for slow trail running and translate into making your goal marathon pace feasible.

So, here is my advice. A trail run to get miles in and without regard to pace once in awhile wouldn’t be a bad thing – in moderation. In preparation for your flatter marathon, you need to get used to flat-land running. So, you need some long runs on the flats. Finally, and probably the most important element, is that you should do progressively longer goal-paced runs in terrain that simulates race conditions. If you fail to do so, you will run the risk of being very strong, in very good shape and able to run in very tough conditions for a long time while running a slower than desired marathon.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News



  1. […] 18, 2008 · Filed Under Training  Coach Dean Hebert answers the question “does trail running make for good marathon training?” Read more at […]

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