How To Get Faster at Running Trails

By RacingThePlanet Staff

We discussed have discussed in a previous article “How To Become A Trail Runner From A Road Runner” in which we demystified trail running and went somewhere towards blurring the lines separating the disciplines, especially in terms of training, and necessary talent.

We will continue on this theme when looking at getting faster on the trails. We are able to tap into the knowledge that is generally accepted when looking to get faster at road and track running, and then go on to add a little more specificity in order to put a little icing on the trail running cake.

Interval Training

This mainstay of road and track running should be every runner’s friend (no matter what their chosen terrain), but is often their worst nightmare. Trail runners may believe that these kind of sessions are not relevant to them as very often it’s a case of shuffling along the trail in a very efficient way, and rarely running anything close to a 4-minute kilometer. The truth is, however, that interval and speed training should never be neglected, and it does not have to be quite as barbaric as the perception.

A typical interval session will consist of efforts and rests. The efforts can and should change in order to force the body to adapt. The rest periods can be altered too, in order to intensify or regress the session a little. A typical session might look like this:

5K pace: 8 x 600m, jog 200m recovery

Here, in essence, we have why these sessions should never be feared. They are only as fast or slow as the individual concerned. The above example breaks the session down into 8 repetitions of 600 metre efforts, with our rest being actively recovering by taking a nice slow jog back to the start line for the next effort. The effort itself is defined by the runners own 5km pace, not a standard time limit set by the organizer/coach.

The idea behind this pacing is that the efforts should be challenging, but not 100%. The latter efforts will be more challenging than the first, but the emphasis is on completing all designated repetitions in the same time. In theory, running only 600 metres at your 5km pace should be relatively comfortable. The first one or two are, but with every repetition the goal pace gets that little harder to achieve. The only rep when we really let loose might be the last one, when we can really leave everything out there on the track.

Fartlek Sessions

A variation on the ‘Interval Training’ theme, we instead use natural features (or our own GPS device) to switch between efforts and more relaxed periods. Fartlek is a Swedish word which translates as ‘speed play’ and will entail ‘efforts’ in a similar way as interval training but we may choose these efforts on the fly like “run hard to the next lamp post/bridge/tree”. We may instead still decide to do something far more structured and try and run hard for 1km and then easier for 500 metres. As the speed of the efforts may be dictated by natural obstacles (hills, gates, busy roads, etc) we may not be quite as hung up on hitting every effort in a given time, but they will be essentially mimic the same format of effort/recovery/repeat that we see in traditional interval training.

Hill Running (Ascents)

Trail running isn’t all about hill running but it inevitably plays a large part of things. With beautiful, idyllic, wondrous trails, we tend to also find mountains. This is not a bad thing and we must combat any natural fear of the hills and both embrace and attack them!

Running up hill is never easy, it is always a challenge. With every attempt up a given hill, the job will become easier and easier, and your ascent speed will become faster and faster. A great way to test your hill strength/power development is to choose a hill close to you and set a time for running up it. Strava is a great tool for this as most hills will already have a course record (CR) attached to them. You can go ahead and run the hill as best you can and Strava will do the rest by recording your personal best time. That first time you manage to run the whole way up a particular hill may be a defining moment. The moment that you beat that hill, and demystify it, you’ll grow in confidence that the hill is not to be feared and each run (however slow your foot cadence might be at times), will get stronger and stronger.

Speaking of foot cadence, in an ideal world we will keep a high cadence when running up hill, and shorten our stride accordingly. This technique will make for a faster and more efficient ascent of the majority of hills/mountains.

So how to really use hill running to gain speed?

Hill running will cause a similar physiological response as the interval and fartlek (speed) sessions described above. The running of hill repeats will push your cardiovascular system and will develop your trail running speed on both the flat and he hills.

Hill Running (Descents)

One might intuitively believe that ascents are more important than descents in terms of overall trail running speed. We certainly can gain massively from being a strong uphill runner, but what frustration if this speed is negated by a very pedestrian descent down the other side.

Unlike ascending, we generally do not have our cardiovascular system to blame if we are slow at descending. As such, simply getting faster/stronger by repetition might not be quite as much of a given, and may actually take far longer. As with anything though, repetition will certain help a great deal. Hill reps whereby you walk up the hill and attack the downhill can really work. Facing a decent with legs that feel strong and springy will help remove a lot of the inherent doubt that may be blurring the mind. And here, perhaps, we have the crux of the situation, the mind!

Descending hills, especially very technical ones, is largely about technique, but equally so, getting the mind to come to terms of what you’re asking it to do. It is so easy to imagine face-planting and once that image is ingrained it is hard to shake. Even when you do manage to bury the idea for a section, it only takes one slight error to remind yourself how wrong things can go.

To say it is all about the mind might be over stating the issue however, and will not do justice to technique training and repetition. With every development in your technique, greater confidence will grow, until you begin running under complete control at speeds that previously you’d have considered too risky. Here too, repetition is key. With every successful descent, confidence will grow. The brain will have an ever greater slideshow database of successful descents to scan through. With so many references to success, and not face-planting, the brain will eventually believe that the activity can be achieved without the high level of danger it once perceived.

Every descent will also build the necessary tools to cope with the activity. The foot/eye coordination will be honed and foot cadence/speed will increase. The leg and core stabilizing muscles will also gain in strength allowing for greater control, and will better enable the body to make small micro-second adjustments should the need arise.

Weighted Sessions

Finally we can consider weighted sessions in order to increase our speed. These sessions should be used sparingly as they may take longer to recover from fully, but they can add a great deal of strength and power to a runner’s gait.

The benefits of incorporating weighted sessions come two fold. Running with added weight will add lean muscle mass to all your working running muscles as they adapt to the greater load/burden. The added weight will also force your body to become a more efficient running machine as it looks for more and more ways to reduce the strain we artificially impose.

The physiological response is obvious, but we can also gain from a psychological boost when we remove the weighted vest, or laden backpack. We all at once feel light, bouncy, and ready to fly! The kilometers suddenly feel effortless and so running faster comes naturally as we stride along the trail faster than before, while all the time our perceived effort remains low.


To run faster on the trails (or anywhere else) we must use the correct stressors/stimulus to make the body adapt. We make incremental changes which in turn bring incremental improvements. Using the idea of progressive loading and training variety we force the body to adapt over time in a controlled, patient, healthy way.