Thoughts About Running
Trail Training for City Dwellers
Canada’s most iconic trail races are known for their natural landscapes, from alpine views to remote valleys. One of the joys of racing on the trails is finding yourself alone on the single-track with only wildf lowers for company.
Some runners are lucky to have these settings as their backyards, but that’s not the case for the overwhelming majority of Canadians. According to census data from 2016, 82 per cent of Canadians live in large or medium-sized cities. In fact, the country is becoming more urbanized, with larger cities growing and smaller ones shrinking.
Despite this, trail races are growing in popularity, both here and in the United States. A 50k race on challenging terrain has gone from a fringe activity to a bucket list item. Urban runners can survive t r ail races after weeks of road running, but most race directors don’t recommend it. A few simple changes to a training plan can better prepare urban runners for the rural races they’re targeting.
Hit the stairs
As well as uneven footing and unpredictable wildlife, trail runners contend with mountains – sometimes multiple summits in one race. Extreme elevation gain is hard to simulate in a city, but it’s not impossible.
Indoor stairs in skyscrapers are a good option if you’re sneaking in a run during a lunch break.
“It’s all about repeats and including the downstairs, because trail races have a lot of complicated footwork,” said David Checkel, the operations lead for Edmonton’s biannual trail series, the Canadian River Valley Revenge.
Checkel, a veteran trail runner, recommends starting with fairly rigorous runs up the stairs, then transitioning to walking up and running down as fast as you can safely. The confidence you build on the way down can help prepare you for steep descents during a trail race.
Running on uneven terrain reduces some of the repetitive motions that can lead to overuse injuries. It also requires more stabilizing muscles and typically forces runners to slow down.
Trail runners can still benefit by cross-training regularly. Plyometrics (short jumping exercises), skipping, lunges, squats, calf raises and heel walks can help improve foot speed and strengthen the wider range of muscles you’ll need on the trails. Pay particular attention to strengthening your ankles and core. Other sports, such as cycling, swimming, and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter, improve runners’ strength and endurance.
Three years ago, Checkel moved in order to live next to a ravine with great running trails, but you don’t have to relocate to find more challenging routes. Urban runners can construct their own “trails” in any city park by adding obstacles and taking advantage of varied terrain. Take the Beach neighbourhood in Toronto’s east end as an example: A runner could construct a route with tight loops around trees, pedestrian-dodging on the boardwalk, and beach running on the shore.
Stay safe on race day
Safety is important during any run, no matter the setting, but there are added dangers during trail races that urban runners should keep in mind. Although cars are not a threat on the trails, bears can be, so it’s important to remain aware of your surroundings and avoid running with music in your ears. On mountain ridges and other technical paths, paying attention and picking your legs up is paramount. When Checkel races on the trails, he repeats this mantra: “One step could put me out of the race.” Madeleine Cummings is a journalist based in Edmonton. Read her column in each issue of Canadian Running.