• Training Tips: Prepare for Tougher Trails

    By David Castle

    Runner & journalist, Women's Running Magazine

How to stay injury free – and on two feet – when training for a challenging trail marathon 

A hilly off-road course, encompassing a mixture of challenging terrain, from open parkland and wildflower meadows to stony tracks and rugged coastal path, the Women Can Marathon is sure to test your stamina. And while a heap of long runs, interval sessions, tempo runs and cross-training will prepare you for the high mileage, it’s important, too, to prepare your body for the demands that come with running on such mixed and challenging terrain. The risk of injury increases with the uncertain footing that comes alongside off-road running and the solution for this is to train your body in preparation for this new style of running so that your muscles are able to cope with the new demands. Here’s five ways to stay injury free while training for the Women Can Marathon. 

1. Consider parking your PB aspirations

If this is your first trail event – or first trail race encompassing terrain that goes beyond running on flat grass – it might be worth using this event as a way of getting used to running on trails, and adjusting your speed later when your body is ready. 

“If you’re used to terrain like fairly flat grass, where every step is virtually the same, then you’ll need to adapt to the fact that every step [on rougher ground] potentially places new demands on muscles in a different combination,” says personal trainer Jeff Archer from The Tonic Corporate Wellbeing. “Slow down to avoid putting any high-intensity pressure on any area of your body. Running more slowly will give you the chance to adjust your position when necessary, while maintaining control of your movements.” 

2. Protect your knees

For those prone to knee problems, you may find that running on uneven surfaces causes knee pain, as the knee will have to work harder to stabilise you on uneven terrain. This means it’s important to build your trail runs gradually, see how your knees respond and strengthen the muscles around you knees by doing leg extensions and other leg exercises like bodyweight squats. 

“Strengthening your quads, hamstrings and calves is important for running on very uneven trails. It’s a great idea to spend some time specifically developing strong glutes and core muscles, so try practicing the plank, both in the forward position and on both sides, and regularly include plenty of glute bridge exercises,” says Archer. “This is where you lie face-up with your knees bent and feet flat and then lift your hips to create a straight line between your knees and your shoulders.”

3. Get strong

Having a strong core may help to prevent you falling on slippery surfaces. “A strong core makes such a difference on tricky terrain as you will move over the terrain more elegantly and are in a much better position to save yourself from falling or injuring yourself by moving very suddenly,” says Dr Jen Gaskell, a trail running ambassador for Montane. “Building up the muscles around the ankle is great too – this can be done at your desk by drawing the letters of the alphabet in the air with your pointed toe.” 

“The stronger your core, the better your balance will be,” agrees Archer. “Although it feels like your lower half is doing most of the work, running is a whole-body activity and is more efficient with a happy balance of strength, stability and flexibility. If your core area is weak, any instability can potentially be magnified throughout your body and will knock you off your stride. With a strong core, you can quickly correct any wobbles in your lower body and maintain alignment with your top half.” 

4. Look after your toes!

It is important to consider how uneven trails may affect your feet and increase your risk of metatarsal stress fracture.“You will benefit from some training of small stabiliser muscles in the feet, ankles and lower leg,” says Archer. “You can develop strength in these areas by doing walking lunges, squat jumps, clock lunges and training with a wobble board.” Try these exercises here. 

5. Improve your balance and motor skills

This will help you cope with any sudden twists and turns that you come across on your training runs or on the route on race day. Practicing movements such as walking lunges with a twist, while holding a medicine ball, will help strengthen your lower-body muscles, while simultaneously working on your core and firing your neuromuscular pathways as you focus on balance. Exercises that work well are bunny hops with zig-zags and twists, squat jumps with a twist, narrow-to-wide-leg squat jumps and single-leg hops while you turn in a circle.” 

Plan the transition from more predictable surfaces to uneven trails and make sure you train your body to adapt. “Once you get used to the new terrain, you can push the pace, but even then you shouldn’t expect to match your road times,” says Archer. “Some of your effort will be dedicated to balance and this might come at the cost of straight-line speed.”

Will you be running the Women Can Marathon for charity? Download our marathon fundraising guide here. 

To read more great content – at a special Women Can Marathon price – click here. 

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