6 Ways to Improve Your Trail Running

©istockphoto/vm It happens to all seasoned trail runners, sooner or later: the plateau.

You’ll know it’s happened to you when it feels like no matter how often or how far you run, you don’t seem to be making any notable progress. If this sounds familiar, it may be time to shake up your trail running habits. Here’s what you need to do to get over that hump.

Bring on the Hills
Very few trail runners will claim to have mastered the arts of running uphill and downhill—there is virtually always room for improvement. In addition to tackling hills on your regular trail runs, you should also incorporate hill-specific training to gain confidence and improve your technique.

As painful as they are, hill repeats are an effective way of boosting your uphill power. Throw in the occasional run that takes you up a long, steady climb, and don’t forget to focus on those downhill portions, too. These runs won’t be as much fun as your typical trail run, but they’ll help turn your weaknesses into strengths.

Boost Your Effort
It’s hard to simply vow to run faster on trails—unlike roads, the varying terrain of trails requires you to inevitably slow your pace at certain sections, like when facing a long uphill section. Rather than focusing on the clock, focus on your effort. You can do this in the form of intervals: find a relatively short, but technical portion of a trail and practice running it with greater effort than you’re used to. Take a break, then do it again. Keep these workouts relatively short at first, as you’re like to become fatigued much faster when you’re pushing much harder. Over time, increase the number of intervals and the distance of the segment that you’re running.

Cross Train
For many trail runners, the greatest shortcut to improving your trail running skills is to put some work in at the gym. Strategic strength training focusing on your core, legs, and balance and coordination will give you a noticeable boost on the trails. Leg workouts can include squats, single leg squats, and various types of lunges, while core work can include bicycles and numerous plank variations. Add a stability or bosu ball to work on your balance.

Pick a New Distance
Shake things up by challenging yourself to run a new distance. For instance, find a goal race that tackles more mileage than you’ve ever run before. As your long runs become even longer, you’ll surprise yourself with what you’re capable of.

But it’s not always about running farther: if you’re used to running ultras, why not switch it up—sign up for a shorter distance than you’re used to, but challenge yourself by ramping up your effort. When you’re used to running long and steady, running shorter but faster can be a refreshing change of pace.

Swap Out Your Shoes
When was the last time you picked up new trail running shoes? Beyond that, when was the last time you were properly fitted for trail runners? If it’s been awhile, you might be surprised at how much of a difference a new pair of kicks can make. Picking shoes that are suitable to the terrain you tread (whether that’s wet, mucky dirt trails or slick rock) can help boost your confidence. It’s much easier to throw yourself into those downhills when you know your shoes will prevent you from slipping.

Take a Breather
Don’t forget to take your rest days! If you’re the type who likes to be on the go, rest days can be even more challenging than the hardest of workouts—but they’re a key component to any training regimen and are a must for preventing injuries. Remember, rest days don’t mean you need to stay on the couch all day long—you can still do things like go on a long walk or bike ride, or hit up a yoga class.