Marathon Training: Balancing Trail and Road

Marathon training is very specific — specific to the person training for the marathon. Each athlete has a different set of parameters and requirements that will allow them to reach their potential. The balance between soft surface training and pavement running is no different — it’s specific to the athlete. And getting that balance correct can mean the difference between a strong finish, or struggling through the last few miles of a marathon with jelly legs from tapped out quads.

During training, it’s important to prepare your body for all the stress of the race by incrementally increasing the stress in your body in small doses so your body can adapt. To be prepared for a road marathon, you have to run the road. You have to condition your legs — specifically, your tendons, muscles and ligaments — to handle the vibrational and impact forces that the road imparts on your body. At the same time, running soft surfaces is also important. Running trails allows you to continue training while your body adapts to the stress of the hard road, it allows your body to heal and recover between hard efforts, and it will help condition other muscles that don’t activate as efficiently on the road.

So how much road running should you do? What’s the balance between road and trail? That’s a good question, and one that only you can answer. I’ll try to lead you in the right direction, but ultimately it’s going to be a balance between road and soft surface that works for you. I asked two of the top marathoners in the Northwest why running soft surfaces during marathon training is beneficial, and how much they recommend. Meghan Arbogast (of Corvallis) and Sage Canaday (of Portland) gave me their tips and insight into the right balance between hard roads and soft surface.

Your main goal in any training program should be no debilitating injuries. Fifty-nine-year-old Arbogast doesn’t have a particular formula. She hits the trails when her legs/feet/hips/back show any sign of soreness from running on the pavement. It usually just takes one run on trails to refresh her body. At 51 years young, 25 marathons, a PR of 2:45, and an Olympic Trials marathon qualifier for the fourth time in 2012, you can bet that Meghan has a pretty good idea of how much road running she can handle before overuse injuries set in. Experimenting and determining how much that is for you is critical. Since the goal is NOT to get injured, err on the side of more soft-surface running and build in road running gradually.  When you do hit the roads, use indicators like fatigue, “dead legs,” soreness in connective tissue and muscles, and increased inflammation like tendonitis and plantar fasciitis to urge you back to softer trails.  According to Meghan: “Anyone prone to injury due to impact (stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, knee issues, etc.) would likely benefit from using off road training every other day.”

Sage is on the other end of the marathon age spectrum. But he’s already a very accomplished marathoner with a 2:16 PR and two Olympic Trials under his belt. Sage echoes Meghan’s sentiment: “I wouldn’t assign a specific number as being an optimal, but generally I’d suggest running any recovery run or easy paced run on soft surfaces in order to give the skeletal-muscular system a chance to recover from pounding the pavement.” Sage regularly runs about half of his mileage on soft surfaces ranging from dirt or gravel roads to single track trails to fend off common overuse injuries from too much road running.

In training for a marathon, much of your goal is just to get your mileage up so that the distance isn’t as daunting. Twenty-six miles is a long way. That’s one reason Arbogast recommends soft surfaces as a training tool to get time on your feet: “Training for endurance is about being able to sustain motion over longer and longer periods of time (time on feet) somewhat regardless of speed.” Doing it on a soft surface can allow you to go longer without feeling overly fatigued and sore at the end of the run.

Aside from reducing the risk of injury, there are other tangible benefits to training off-road during your marathon build up. You may have heard that running trails can help activate those small stabilizing muscles and lateral movement muscles that don’t get as much of a workout traveling in a straight line down the road. “Running off road develops your stabilizer muscles differently and makes you a stronger runner as a result,” Canaday says. It is true, of course, and making sure those muscles function properly can have a big impact on preventing muscle imbalances and functional injuries. There we are, right back to preventing injuries again.

Along with those small stabilizers though, a common issue with runners is a lack of gluteus maximus and medius, as well as core (including the transverse abdominis) strength and activation while running. Trails tend to be undulating and twisty by nature — the two attributes needed to help condition both of these weaknesses. Going up hill — yes, even slowly — with good running form necessitates that the glutes turn on to power you up. That’s part of why hills are so important. The twisting, turning and cutting you do during a trail run helps to activate core muscles that should be used during road running but aren’t always doing what they should.

Often overlooked is the benefit of just changing it up every once in a while. Hopping off the monotony of the road can have a huge impact on keeping you motivated in day-to-day training. It will also keep you from becoming mentally stale as a result of doing the same repetitive work every day. Canaday sums it up: “Variety is the spice of constant adaptation and inspiration in (what can be) mundane road marathon training. I think off-road training provides a new strength stimulus and a refreshing mental challenge that will ultimately enhance marathon performance.”

Finding the right balance is important and tricky. Running on the road prepares you for the rigor you will experience during the marathon. The road provides much-needed fatigue resistance from the pounding on joints, muscles and bones. If you’ve ever been running on soft surface for a couple of weeks and suddenly decided to run only on the road, you may have found that running the same distance on the road was much more difficult. That comes from the fatigue that your muscles experience from the vibrational energy the road imparts. When your marathon day nears, it’s still important to get the miles in on the road that your body needs, but be sure to listen to your body. The aches and pains will often tell you when you need a much-deserved day on the trail.

Originally published Summer of 2012

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Max King
Max lives in Bend, OR and is a Salomon Running athlete. He’s still working on his weaknesses but gave up on being a professional basket weaver a long time ago. Check out his adventures around the running world at @MaxKingOR.