These moves target the muscles needed for your fastest, strongest, best trail running outings ever.
Trail running enlists different muscles than road running, which creates different needs for strength. The uneven nature of a trail, the ups and downs, and the challenges created by the varied terrain all call for different sources of power. Whether you’re an elite-level trail runner or someone who just likes to get out on the dirt once in a while, these seven exercises will make you stronger, faster, and more comfortable on the trail.
Each exercise below is demonstrated by Yusuf Jeffers, a trainer and coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City. Do each move two to three times a week. You’ll need a resistance band, a foam roller, a chair or bench, and an exercise mat (optional).
1. Overhead Squat
How: Start holding the resistance band with both hands, feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing slightly out, and raise arms up overhead, elbows locked. Hinge at the hips to send butt back to squat down as low as you can, encouraging gluteal contraction, and keeping your back as straight as possible. If you can’t do a full squat at first, hold on to something stationary at shoulder height. Start by doing three sets of 10 with arms extended, then work up to doing three sets of 10 with your arms overhead.
Why: You need a lot of power—through a large range of motion—to run fast and efficient on the trail. This is especially true when the terrain heads uphill or is very technical, requiring maximum agility. The overhead squat is a time-tested exercise requiring full-body range of motion. It takes some practice to get it right, but there is no better exercise to encourage maximal gluteal and hamstring activation. You will gain strength and neuromuscular power you could never hope to achieve on a squat machine or with a typical half-depth standing squat.
The Benefit: You’ll notice yourself flying up large steps and steep climbs, and your ability to do this movement well also lowers your risk of injury.
2. Single-Leg Half Squat
How: Start standing and shift your weight to left leg with right leg lifted out in front of you. Extend arms straight out for balance. Keep your pelvis level, your spine vertical, and your knee tracking slightly wider than your foot. Send hips back to sit into a half squat. Your shoulders will come forward a bit, but keep your back straight. Stand back up to starting position and repeat. Perform 3 sets of 5 reps on each leg and work your way up to 3 sets of 10. Pay close attention to your form and use a mirror to monitor your alignment.
Why: Running is a series of jumps from one leg to another. There is never a time when both feet are on the ground at the same time. Each time you land, one leg absorbs multiple times your body weight at impact so focusing on single-leg strength and stability can add up to big performance gains and injury prevention.
The Benefit: When you can do these movements well, every step will be more predictable, more powerful, more accurate, and will propel you further with less chance of soft tissue strain.
3. Single-Leg Balance
How: Start standing. Shift weight onto left leg as you lift right knee up in front of you to a 90-degree angle. You can place hands on hips for balance. Keep your pelvis level, and your spine vertical. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on other leg. Complete 5 sets on each leg and work your way up to 5 sets of 60 seconds per leg.
Make it harder: Advance to an unstable surface, such as a soft mat or inflated disc. Start with five sets of 30 seconds per leg, then progress to five sets of 60 seconds per leg. You can also try this move on an unstable surface with your eyes closed.
Why: Trail running is a dance. Watching a runner negotiate a rocky trail without faltering is a beautiful sight. Graceful trail running requires excellent proprioception (a sense of where the body is in space), coordination of foot placement, and accuracy of each step. On the trail, our eyes are two to three steps ahead of our feet. That means our feet need to step where we looked seconds earlier. At that point, our eyes are already looking down the trail seconds into the future. So, learning how to “feel” where you are in space, rather than see it, is an important trail running skill.
The Benefit: Doing most balance or agility exercises with your eyes closed can provide benefits to a runner hoping to improve trail agility and prevent dreaded ankle sprains. It will also help you negotiate technical sections faster.
4. Bulgarian Split Squat
How: Start standing facing away from a bench or chair. Place the top of your right toes on the bench or chair with slight bend in right knee. Place hands on hips for balance. Bend left knee to lower right knee to floor. Press through left heel to return to starting position. Repeat for 10 reps then repeat on other leg. Complete 3 sets. Work toward 3 sets to fatigue (when you can’t do any more reps).
Why: Split squats build the single-leg strength needed to propel you forward through the trails. They also challenge your balance and help build your smaller, stabilising muscles that often get overlooked.
The Benefit: Improved strength and stability in each leg and increased core strength.
How: Start in a high plank position, wrists over shoulders, core and glutes engaged so body forms a straight line from head to toe. Bend elbows to slowly lower until your chest touches the mat, then push back up, remaining in a straight plank position. Don’t let your hips dip or lift. Repeat for 3 sets of 10 reps or 3 sets to fatigue (when you cannot do another rep) if you are experienced.
Make it easier: Drop to your knees to build your chest and upper body strength and perfect your form. Then advance to a high plank pushup.
Why: While most runners (and endurance athletes in general) avoid upper body strength like the plague for fear of lugging around a bunch of useless muscle, the reality is that our arms are a critical piece of our strength in running. This is especially true when running uphill or over technical terrain. The trunk and arms act as a counterbalance to our legs and also provide much needed power transfer down through our core to our legs. If you can gain strength in your upper body without gaining appreciable mass, you will be faster.
The Benefit: Pushups work your triceps, anterior delts, pecs, abdominals, and scapular and shoulder stabilisers—and complement the muscles you work by doing pull-ups.
How: Using a pull-up bar or assisted pull-up machine at the gym, place hands just wider than shoulder-width apart on the bar, palms facing away. Engage abdominals to keep your back from arching too much. Focus on pulling your shoulder blades down and together, as you bend arms to pull chin up and over the bar. Lower slowly, and repeat. Starting with just one pull-up is beneficial, but try to work up to three sets of 10 or 3 sets to fatigue if experienced.
Why: The goal is to get functionally strong while staying light. Performing exercises like pull-ups that use your body weight as resistance will help you carry your body weight through your run without adding unnecessary bulk.
The Benefit: Pull-ups work your forearms/hands, biceps, posterior delts, lats, back muscles, and scapular and shoulder stabilisers with one exercise—and complement the muscles you work during push-ups. These two “old-school” exercises are an efficient way to improve your functional upper body strength. This will help you run with more balance, and faster, overall.
7. Foam Roller Pectoral Stretch
How: Start facedown on the mat with the foam roller places under your left arm across your pec (chest) muscle. Slide left arm up overhead, dragging your fingers along the ground then draw the arm down to side. Stop at tight spots and hold, allowing the foam roller to help release the muscle. Repeat on other side.
Why: Posture and flexibility of the upper body and trunk are often overlooked parts of a runner’s performance plan. Strong, but relatively flexible legs can help your running, but you may not know that poor posture and stiffness in the upper body and trunk can translate into decreased breathing and lung capacity, poor core muscle function, and ultimately, performance losses below the waist in the legs. With a simple foam roller, you can undo much of the damage caused by extended sitting, computer work, and years of slouching.
The Benefit: You will loosen up tight chest muscles that can prevent proper breathing.