7 Secrets to Training for the Trail

Trail and mountain running are on the rise across Vermont. We asked elite runners to Share their insider tips on how to run better, faster and longer.

As we take off from the parking lot of the Skylight Pond Trail, I have the feeling that I’m running into a green tunnel. It’s July and the Green Mountain National Forest is teeming with life. Moving with one foot in front of the other at a comfortable pace, I fall in step behind Ripton’s Ryan Kerrigan and his yellow lab, Derby for a climb.

“One thing I think about as soon as I hit the trail is trying to be light on my feet,” says Kerrigan, lead coach of USA Skyrunning.

Kerrigan  is one of a handful of elite mountain runners and coaches who are helping to make Vermont an epicenter for trail running. With mountain and trail running races like the Ragnar Trail Run at Mt. Ascutney Aug. 16-17, Lost Cat 50K on Mt. Aeolus in East Dorset Aug. 24, the Race to the Top of Vermont on Aug. 25 and the new Climb the Moose, Oct. 12 in Goshen, Vermont’s summer and fall are packed with dirt races and festivals, with new events popping up every year.

“Even a competitive road runner has something to gain from spending time on the trail,” says Kerrigan. “There’s a real freedom I see for the people I coach, when they start to think about how they spend their time running, as opposed to focusing so intently on how many miles they are covering. Trail running, even at the elite level, lets you immerse yourself in a different sort of experience.”

For Kerrigan, that’s something all of us could use more of. “To move, breathe and travel cross country on our own combustion is the greatest gift we have and brings us happiness as hunter gatherers. It’s what our bodies—all of us—were built to do.”

Whether you’re in it to win it or to build trail miles for fun, there are some key strategies and skills specific to mountain running that will help you meet your goals. “Unfortunately,” says Kerrigan, “they aren’t things that everyone learns at high school cross-country practice.”

We asked a few local experts for their advice about how to train and hone your technique for the next big mountain race or a big recreational day on the trail.

Get the Tips
1. Ditch Your Pace Expectations.

One of the biggest mistakes Kerrigan sees when road runners hit the trail is a tendency to focus on running a certain number of miles at a particular pace. “Focus on seeking out terrain that is comparable to what you plan to race or run and get comfortable moving on it by foot,” says Kerrigan. “Don’t skirt or avoid tough trails because you’re focused on getting a workout in that includes a certain number of miles, or because you’re pressuring yourself to run at a certain pace.”

Instead, Kerrigan suggests setting aside a particular amount of time you want to spend running or training and filling it—such as running for an hour, or two. “The mountains don’t care what pace you run at. They serve you a certain amount of vertical gain and loss and that’s that. Your progress will come naturally as you’re able to move farther in less time. At that point, you can start thinking about your pace and setting goals.” 

2. Choose Your Races Wisely

“When you take on a trail race, you’re taking a leap into the unknown in a way that’s different from a road race,” says Josh Ferenc, an ultrarunner and coach from Bellows Falls. “Do some research and pick a race that will work for you. Don’t be afraid to call race directors and ask them about the terrain and the elevation gain, so that you can prepare yourself with the right training to have a good time. Consider that the gnarliest of gnarly races may not be the best first race experience. Work your way up to the distances and events you want to run.”

3. Hone Your Speedhike

“One common mistake is that you need to run every leg of a race or long run,” says Kerrigan. “Sometimes hiking is just faster and more efficient.” However, there’s more to it than just walking uphill.

For elite runners like Ferenc, the switch to a speedhike is made by monitoring their heart rate. “When I can hear my heat pounding in my ears, I know it’s time to stop running,” says Ferenc. “For me, it’s a tool to recover while I move until I can run again.”

Ferenc offers this advice: “Part of the advantage of hiking over running is that you can lengthen your steps going uphill if you’re walking. Use long, driving strides.” If not using poles, Ferenc suggests placing your hands on your knees. “Keep your back straight and drive your hands down as your upper body powers your lower body to make a cyclical connection with the ground that moves you forward.”

To practice, he suggests finding a steep section of trail or hill, something with a 15 percent grade or higher, and practicing doing circuits. “Even in a race, there will be times when you have to stop, and that’s OK too! Practice walking with purpose, keeping your body moving in a straight line, with no side-to-side movement—only forward motion.”      

4. Vary Your Stride

Heidi Caldwell, a running coach at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center and a winner of this year’s Mt. Washington Road Race spends a lot of time working with elite road runners on their stride. On the trail, she says listen to your body and be willing to vary yours. “Do what feels comfortable in navigating rocks and roots and mud on aggressive ups and downs and learn to vary your speed so you can recover throughout the race,” she says. She advises shortening your stride while running uphill, with a focus on driving crisp, efficient repetitions. On the downhill? “If you want to lengthen your stride, let yourself go. But don’t let it get so long that you sacrifice the ability to be light on your feet.”

Ferenc adds that in technical, very steep terrain, shortening your stride and driving your arms is a good move. “On the downhills, your stride will depend on the terrain and whether you’re rock hopping. But know that if you’re making your muscles break with each long step down a steep mountain race, that’s going to be a quad killer.”

5. Train for the Hills

When eyeing a race with staggering vertical gain, a lot of runners focus on training for the uphills and neglect the downhills. “If you want to take advantage of those opportunities to recover, you need to prepare for them,” says Caldwell, who suggests that competitive racers integrate on-trail speed workouts on steep sections of trail into their training for distance races. She suggests sprinting the ups and downs.

Ferenc likes to integrate hill sprints into shorter runs. “Find a hill with a good incline where you can still run with your normal biomechanical form and sprint up it for five to six seconds without hunching over. Pump your arms, drive your knees and run like a bear is going to bite your ass, then turn around and sprint downhill. Do five of these short sprints, waiting for a full minute or until you recover fully between sets. Then finish your run and repeat three times over a ten-day period.”

Kerrigan adds, “A common mistake people make running downhill is aiming for the dirt instead of the roots and rocks. Aim for the high points on a technical trail—the rocks and bumps— and focus on being light on your feet.” When working with kids, he has them practice memorizing a short three-to five-foot section of trail and running it with their eyes closed. “Like skiing, you want your head up and looking ahead of where your next step is.”

6. Know Your Body and Fuel Accordingly

Once you’re running for more than an hour, as even the most elite 25K trail racers are, it’s time to start thinking about food.  “Skip the processed stuff and don’t rely on race organizers to provide the food that works for your gut during a race,” says Kerrigan, who suggests practicing fueling on recreational runs in preparation for a big adventure or race.   

In distance events, such as trail races that are 25k or longer, Kerrigan warns against fueling prematurely or under-fueling. “Get to the aid station and survey the table. Listen to your gut. In hot weather, you’ll crave juices and salts. When it’s cold, you’ll likely be drawn to carbohydrates and protein.” His go-to mid-run snack? “Boiled or roasted potatoes with a hint of salt and pepper.”

7. Understand The Art of Poling

Some runners love them, some hate them. “Poles are most helpful for times when you know you’re going to be on your feet for longer than you can physically hold yourself upright to navigate technical terrain,” says Ferenc who has competed on skyrunning courses with steep descents that last for miles in the Tyrolean Alps and Colorado. “Ask yourself this: for how much time will I be using the poles and is it worth carrying them?” He suggests using them for short, steep races.

If poling, Kerrigan suggests either double poling while speed hiking or placing them on the ground one at a time in an alternating pattern. “Flip them ahead and channel the same motion you would with your hands on your knees. Keep a short tempo and find a rhythm that matches your stride. On the downhills, you can flip them ahead and sink into them for added stability, but don’t get tempted to lean into them too hard. They should be a tool for balance.”

Meet the Experts

Featured Photo Caption: Vermont Huts Association executive director RJ Thompson finds solitude and a great workout during a solo run on The Long Trail. Photo by RJ Thompson

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