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Every trail runner needs 4 pairs of legs

Trail & ultra running
Strength training
Background information

Sweat is dripping from my head, making dark spots on the white rocks under my feet. I look up to the top of the mountain. This climb looks endless. Slowly I start to move again. One foot in front of the other, as good as it goes. Grades of 50 percent and more, are definitely not my thing. When I’m finally on top I sigh deeply. A slow downhill lays in front of me. I give my legs a quick shake and try to run. It goes surprisingly well. My legs, which felt totally empty a minute ago, now are happy to run. Run at high speed.

A trail runner needs 4 pairs of legs. Each with its own specific goal: climbing legs, running legs, yoga legs and power hiking legs.

More than running

Trail running isn’t just running. It is steep climbs, long hard and or technically descents, power walking and slipping and sliding. Each of these disciplines requires its own technique and training. The interesting thing is; if one pair of legs is totally worn out, the other one can still be fresh.

It does mean you have to give every pair of legs its own specific place in your training schedule. Let’s look at them one by one.

Running legs

Your running legs are the legs you use on the flats, when the trail goes slightly uphill and on the easy downhills. You train them during your easy and long runs and longer interval sessions. Most runners don’t have to worry about them. They get their fair amount of work during almost every training session. As long as you make your kilometers in training, your running legs will be fine on race day.

Climbing legs

Your climbing legs are the ones that are forgotten most in training. These are the ones you use during the steep climbs. Unless you live in the mountains, you don’t train them by just going for a run. They need your special attention. Strength training will do the trick. You can do lunges, reverse lunges and squats. You can go to the gym and use some machines to improve your leg power.

If you don’t like gyms and you don’t want to invest in specific strength training sessions you can do combination training. That’s a kind of interval workout. Only instead of intervals, you do strength exercises. For example: you run a kilometer, you stop and do 30 squats and 30 forward and 30 reverse lunges. Next up you run a kilometer again and repeat that 5 to 10 times.

Strong arms and shoulders

Your climbing legs are team players. They like to work hand-in-hand with your arms and shoulders. So some weight training for your upper limbs is a good idea as well. Dumbbells will do the trick or just some body weight exercises. Think of lots of repetitions, instead of lifting big and heavy. When you’re in the mountains you’ll be climbing often for hours at a time, so you want to build up endurance in your arms and shoulders.

When I was running the Dolomiti Extreme Trail 55k, for example, my legs were fine the day after, yet my arms and shoulders were acing. Your climbing legs will also be your friends on the downhill, when it’s time to slam on the breaks. Going downhill is fun, but it can be tricky as well, unless you like to dive off the cliffs. So you want to give some extra attention to your quadriceps. Running downhill is also hard on the knees, which automatically brings us to your next pair of legs.

Yoga legs

Your yoga legs are the ones that are going to keep you injury free. Trail running is often slipping and sliding. We run through mud, we run through rivers, we run on the snow and over loose stones and tree trunks. It’s beautiful to play with the elements, yet there is a risk to it. Before we know it, we do a face plant. The more flexible your muscles are, the less risk of tearing them. Yin yoga will help you to keep your tendons and ligaments flexible. (Yes, they need to be stretched as well.) Vinyasa flow yoga will help you to keep all your muscles happy. 

You can do yoga as warming-up, cooling down or as a session on its own. It fits perfect in a recovery day. It will make your blood flow, but it won’t wear you out.

'The interesting thing is; if one pair of legs is totally worn out, the other one can still be fresh'

John Kraijenbrink

Core work

If you are on your yoga mat anyway, why not include some core work? Your climbing legs will be happy with that. If you make it a strong power class, you will train your arms and shoulders as well. That will save you a trip to the gym. Yoga is more than just asana (yoga poses). It can improve your breathing, help you with digestion and teach you how to stay calm on race day, but that’s a topic for another blog.

Power hike legs

The last pair of legs you need, are your power hiking legs. Hiking forms a big part of trail running. We hike up mountains to save energy, we hike at night to stay on our feet and we hike to be able to eat something. Some races we hike more than we run. Yet, hiking is a complete different form of moving than running so it’s wise to train our hiking legs as well.

Your long runs and low heart rate runs are great to train your hiking skills. You can hike because your heart rate goes up, or you can combine hiking and running just as a training purpose.

Fitting it in your training schedule

That’s it. Those are the four pairs of legs you need as a trail runner. So how to fit them in your schedule? For example: run 4 days a week, do 2 strength training sessions and 1 long yoga class. That makes 7 days a week, with the yoga class on your resting day.

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