At one end of the trail-running spectrum, there’s Spanish superstar Kilian Jornet, who in October decided to run to the summit of every peak higher than 3,000 metres in the Pyrenees. He ran all 177 in just eight days, using a bicycle to travel between mountains.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a growing crowd of runners venturing off the paved road at a more modest clip. In the past decade, according to a report from RunRepeat and World Athletics, participation in organized trail running events has more than tripled. Moreover, Canada was one of just three countries where women outnumbered men on the trails.
Running is running, but new trail runners soon discover that the off-road environment poses unique challenges. Three recent studies offer insights on what it takes to thrive on the trails.
Researchers at the University of Lyon in France compared groups of recreational and elite trail runners in a series of lab tests. The goal was to figure out which characteristics distinguished the best from the rest.
The results, which appear in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, show that the elite runners moved more efficiently over both level and hilly terrain, burning less energy to sustain a given pace. One possible explanation: They had greater leg strength than the recreational runners.
Interestingly, the same researchers found a similar pattern in an earlier study comparing elite trail and road runners. Even though both groups were at a similar competitive level, the trail runners had stronger legs and moved more efficiently on hilly terrain.
The takeaway? Leg-strengthening exercises such as squats and lunges may be especially useful for trail runners, enabling them to handle variations in terrain and incline.
Adjust your pace
One of the most famous trail events in the world is the Ultra-Trail de Mont-Blanc, which consists of a series of races ranging from 40 to 171 kilometres. In the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a team from the Universidad de León in Spain analyzed pacing patterns for all 5,656 finishers of the 56-kilometre race between 2017 and 2021.
The total ascent and descent during the race is more than 3,000 metres, so judging effort on the ups and downs is essential. The most notable finding was that faster finishers showed greater variability in their pacing. They slowed more on the uphills and accelerated more on the downhills relative to their average pace.
This is a pattern that has turned up in previous studies of more moderately hilly running routes. We tend to lock into a pace and try to maintain it regardless of the terrain. A more efficient strategy, the research suggests, is to keep your effort rather than your pace constant.
At the University of Udine in Italy, a research team led by Italian mountain runner Nicola Giovanelli has been putting runners on the steepest treadmill in the world. It can climb at angles up to 45 degrees – a grade of 100 per cent.
Their most recent findings, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, show that using trekking poles on steep hills doesn’t save energy, but does save your legs. On a hill with a roughly 20-degree incline, subjects applied 5 per cent less force on their legs but reached the top 2.5 per cent faster.
Poles remain a topic of spirited debate among trail runners, and they’re most relevant in the mountains. (Jornet used a pair of superlight prototypes from the German company Leki in his assault on the Pyrenees.) But with a little practice they can also be a useful balance aid for all sorts of tricky terrain, and the science now backs up what pole fans have long claimed about their leg-saving benefits on hills.
These ideas – strength training, pacing variations, poles – are all potentially useful if you’ve already caught the trail bug and are looking to improve. If you’re trail-curious, on the other hand, you don’t need any specialized training or equipment to get started. Just get out there, enjoy the scenery and solitude, watch out for roots – and make sure you end up back where you started.
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.