Ramp up your endurance and mileage on the trails while avoiding injury.
So, you started trail running and now you want to know how to increase your mileage. “Practice makes perfect” can be applied, but the path for how to increase your distance trail running is surprisingly nuanced. This guide explores the things you can do to safely rack up the miles so you can go the distance.
How to increase your distance trail running
The key to increasing distance is patience–it takes time to prepare your legs for running longer. Building leg strength, endurance and incorporating consistent body maintenance all contribute to successfully increasing your distance trail running so that you can run injury-free.
Build leg strength
Strong legs are an element of successfully increasing distance. There are many ways to gradually build strength in your legs for running on trails, including the types of trails you run on, pacing, training in phases and running hills.
Running on trails is different from running on roads because your feet contact the ground in a different way. Unpaved surfaces are variable, and it takes time for legs and feet to get used to those surfaces. Not to mention, it’s easier to roll an ankle!
Many novice trail runners start on gravel or hard-packed trails before advancing to more challenging trails. As your body adjusts to smoother surfaces, explore trails with obstacles like rocks and roots.
Early on, you can wear regular running shoes. Eventually, as you’re tackling different surfaces and more technical terrain, you’ll want to invest in a good pair of trail running shoes.
When you’re just starting out on trails, it’s super common to feel like you’re slower than molasses. It’s tempting to compare your pace to other runners. Most people train for endurance or speed, usually not both at the same time.
Your best pace feels comfortable, maybe a little challenging, but it should be something you can maintain when you’re focused on endurance for running longer distances. Speed work for shorter distances can be added for a little variety.
Breaking down your training into phases helps build endurance because you can focus on a set of workouts and advance to something more challenging when your current training phase starts to feel easy.
Hill workouts help your muscles work differently than on a route with little elevation gain, and they’re great for working on proper running form.
You don’t have to run to the top of a mountain to reap the benefits of running hills. Find a short hill that you can practice on. Start by running part way up before turning around, then increase how far up you go with subsequent attempts–these are called hill repeats.
Running downhill is just as important to practice. It may be tempting to lean back and let gravity take over, but the best way to run down hills is to tighten your core, shorten your stride, vary your steps (it might feel like skipping) and have your arms out for balance. Try landing more on the middle of your foot instead of your heel to decrease the impact on your heel, ankle and knees.
Not only do hill workouts build leg strength, they can also help with endurance by improving cardiovascular health. Don’t forget… it’s okay to walk! A lot of competitive trail runners power walk up hills, then run the flat sections and downhills.
It takes time to build endurance for trail running. You might focus on setting a mileage goal or aim for total time spent on your feet. Both are valid strategies and are easy enough to add mileage or time to as your cardiovascular fitness increases and you find yourself needing a new challenge.
For a new runner, wrapping your head around a mileage goal can feel daunting. Or, if you’re squeezed for time and aren’t sure if you can hit a certain number of miles in the time you have, it may be easier to think about training in terms of time spent on your feet. Whether that’s 30 minutes or five hours, time-based training is a great way to explore building endurance because it’s easy to add time as your fitness grows.
Picture it: You’ve been running at a consistent pace for 30 minutes three times per week and it has begun to feel comfortable. When this happens, you have two options: challenge yourself to run a slightly faster pace in the same amount of time or keep your pace the same and add time (or both!). Both will help gradually increase your distance trail running.
Many runners training for a specific distance–such as a 5k, 10k or half marathon race–will train based on mileage to ensure they’re prepared for that distance on race day.
Picture it: You’re currently running a total of 10 miles per week across three runs and feel ready to increase your mileage. You might consider increasing your running volume each day, or schedule two easy runs and focus on adding mileage to a single day that will become your “long run” day.
Many runners will do a mix of both, but those training for a specific distance pick a day in their training schedule that is designated for longer runs and focus on adding mileage to that day. For example, adding one mile to the long run each week is generally a safe way to increase mileage to avoid injury.
The 10% rule: The running community often refers to “the 10% rule” as a strategy for safely increasing mileage by no more than 10% within a week. Here’s some simple math: 10 miles x 0.10 = 1 mile added to your weekly mileage. Not everyone agrees with the 10% rule as a strategy to increase mileage. While it works for some runners, the best rule of thumb is to modestly add mileage and see how your body responds to it.
Break up your run
It can be hard to figure out how training fits into your schedule as you add miles. When you can’t set aside a big block of time for a long run, try breaking it up and running twice in one day.
This isn’t ideal if you’re training for a race because it’s harder to gauge how you’ll perform on race day. But in a pinch, it’s a good way to get your miles done.
A significant part of training to increase distance involves strength training, stretching, hydration and fueling and rest. A healthy body is better prepared to add mileage without getting injured.
Incorporating strength training is an easy way to improve your running, but many runners struggle to make time for it. Strength doesn’t have to take up a ton of extra time, and it doesn’t require fancy equipment. When starting out, refer to a strength-training guide that is specific to trail runners.
Keeping muscles limber is essential for keeping them healthy and ready to perform. Dynamic stretches before a run are designed to warm up the muscles by putting them through full range of motion, and static stretches that are held for a short period of time are best for your post-run cool-down. Plus, massage tools like foam rollers, massage sticks, percussive therapy devices and even a lacrosse ball are great for keeping muscles limber. Yoga for trail runners is also a great way to stretch out.
Hydration and fueling
Trail running burns a lot of energy, and it’s important to stay on top of your fueling as you head out for longer miles. What to eat before a trail run starts with fueling in the day (or days) before and your pre-run meal. During the run, we love 2Betties snacks and liquid fuel from Endurance Tap.
And don’t forget to hydrate. Water is a good starting point, but adding electrolytes is essential for keeping muscles primed. LMNT is great because their sugar-free drink mix can be added to your favorite running bottle with 16 ounces of water.
Believe it or not, rest is an essential part of a good training plan. Scheduling a recovery day after a hard effort helps your body bounce back. Recovery doesn’t have to be a lazy day on the couch. Active recovery, such as taking walks, taking a gentle yoga class or tidying up around the house keeps your muscles from getting stiff. Paired with stretching and massage, muscles stay limber and healthy.
Most importantly, listen to your body. Injuries aren’t always obvious–recurring strain, light pains and even weird “niggles” are a sign that something is off. Continuing to run through injury will set you back from your goal to increase your distance trail running. Back off or take a break at the first sign of injury, and schedule a visit with your doctor.
Check out our blog for more tips to help you take the trail less traveled.