Cities may not seem like the best places for trail runners to hone their skills, but urban environs can provide some surprisingly effective urban trail running training adventures. This past week, on my way back home to Utah, I had a layover in Boston, Massachusetts. To my surprise, I discovered many enthusiastic trail runners living in the Boston area, including rising ultra-running star, Patrick Caron. Whether you’re living in the city, or just visiting, here are three tips to training for trails in cities.
Practice quick baby steps:
A key component to running effectively on trails is having a fast cadence and taking short strides. Trails can have sharp turns, uneven ground, roots and rocks. Taking short fast steps will help runners navigate more easily through this terrain. A faster cadence can help you be more efficient on uphills and downhills too.
There are effective ways to practice the short fast strides required for trail running, without actually running on trails. On your normal easy runs, I suggest running with a metronome (Pro Metronome can be downloaded for smartphones) and counting the number of steps you take per minute. I like to count how many times I step with my left leg in 30 seconds, then multiply that number by 4. Shoot for 180 steps per minute and if you’re short of this number, increase gradually by 5 steps per minute per week. Increasing your cadence little by little will help the change feel more natural, whereas increasing too rapidly can make your running feel awkward.
Add stair climbing and strengthening exercises to your routine:
Running stairs and performing hill-specific strength exercises are effective ways to improve hill running without actually training on hills. Running stairs reinforces similar muscle groups as running hills and gives you the same burn in your quads. I suggest running repetitions on bleachers at a high school or looking around the city for a not-too-crowded set of indoor or outdoor stairs.
Exercises that target the quads, glutes, core, hamstrings and calves are beneficial for improving your hill running. There are many places on the internet or in books and magazines to find such exercises, but one of my personal favorites is the one-legged chair squat. This exercise can be done almost anywhere because all you need is a chair. Check out the clip below to see how it’s done. I suggest doing 3 sets of as many squats as you can, 2 times per week.
There are trails in many cities if you know where to look:
Even in big cities, trail systems exist. Portland, Oregon for example has one of the largest urban park inside it’s city limits. The 5200 acre Forest Park contains over 70 miles of trails with one contiguous trail stretching 26 miles. Indianapolis, Indiana has an urban greenway system of trails along the White River, Fall Creek and canal. This system connect to several suburban parks which have their own trail systems. An ultrarunners delight!
Patrick Carron’s home town of Boston, Massachusetts is surrounded by a loose network of trails within and between many smaller city parks. The Charles River Trail may not be a fully dirt paradise but it will get you off the roads and connects with towns and parks West of the city. Follow the Muddy River South from the Charles River along the historic Emerald Necklace park system. This series of urban parks was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and will take you to the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and adjacent Franklin Park – home to world class country running races as well annual USATF New England championships.
Beyond Boston proper, you can find a huge network of Rails-to-Trails stretching from the New Hampshire border down to Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Check out our “Find a Trail” feature, powered by Trail Run Project, to find trail systems near you. Many parks and bike paths may have small dirt paths for runners and you can ask running stores in the area about such options.