Trail Running for City Slickers

Park Running

There is nothing I despise more than city slicker runs. Pavement — my personal run of last resort. I relocated to Bend nearly two decades ago for a reason — the abundance of dirt. In my world, running trails is where it’s at. I love the mountains and all things dirt. Let’s face it though, sometimes business travel, family commitments, and careers don’t allow us to live in a locale that has tons of trail options right out the door. We find ourselves surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

My earlier life was spent chasing a graphic design career, and building my resume working for an advertising agency in Denver. I ran a lot of pavement back then — almost every lunch break. But, I did learn a few things from that experience. Over the years, my creative mind spent that time finding ways to avoid the pavement when I could. I made it a game. And, the more I got into trail running, the more fun the game became. Whether you’re looking for a way to escape the pavement monotony or train for an upcoming trail race, here are a few techniques and tips to help you simulate trail running in the concrete jungle.

Avoid the Pavement Game

This is my favorite and most widely-used technique to mimic off-road running within a city landscape. The rules are quite simple:  avoid all man-made surfaces on your city slicker run. Attempt to only cross roads and sidewalks, but not actually run on them unless it’s the only option. Bonus skill:  use the old game from your childhood when you do have to run on pavement, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” If you’re on a sidewalk, avoid stepping on cracks.  This will require you to have exact foot placement and a varied stride length,  mimicking technical terrain.

I like to think of manicured sections of grass between the sidewalk and the street (prevalent in commercial business parks) as specifically there for my off-road running pleasure. You know, the ones that seem to serve no apparent purpose?  Well, they do now.  Running on uneven surfaces, like grass, will help develop the extra stabilizer muscles and ligaments of the ankles and lower legs. You’ll need these on the trail, as they help prevent injury. This technique will also add other benefits:  You’ll have to pay attention, look ahead, and pick a good line — making city running monotony a thing of the past. You’ll be forced to duck a low hanging branch, weave around landscaping and other features, and hop into the street then back up on the grass.

Le Park Tour

Another favorite city run of mine. Find all the parks in and around your typical training routes and link up every park on the map while using the Avoid the Pavement Game in between each park. Look for hilly parks to mix into the route, and try to get as much ascent as possible. Don’t just run a straight line through each one. Take the time to meander and explore each park before moving onto the next one. If the park has wooded sections, follow the line of the trees. You might even come across a short pirate trail within a park that you didn’t know existed. These small, yet cool little discoveries can then become part of your normal running route.

Le Park Tour Tempo Variation: Take the Le Park Tour concept and run tempo intervals in between each park while on the pavement, and recover as you meander through the park. Once back on the pavement, pick up the pace to the next one.

Run to the Gym

I use this one all the time. Run to the gym as a warm up before a full body strength-training workout. Don’t forget to mix in some dynamic plyometric and core work. After your strength circuit, jump on the treadmill for a trail specific workout — my personal favorite — mountain climbers. Set the treadmill at the steepest incline setting. Most treadmills will be 12-15% at max. Max out the incline and set at a pace that’s hard, but at a pace you feel you can maintain smoothly if you’re focused. Power hike hard, then every once in awhile (especially if you feel yourself fading to the back of the treadmill track) jog for 10-20 seconds before transitioning back to power hiking hard again. Hiking-running-hiking-running. This will help your transitions for the next trail race, and is a great 20-30 minute cross-training workout. When that big climb hits in your next trail race, your hiking-running transitions will be as smooth as silk.

Take the Stairs

Out shopping? Avoid the elevators. Traveling in an airport? Avoid the escalators. You know what I’m talking about. Those conveniently located stairs in every airport between the escalators. They’re always empty and like the manicured grass between the street and sidewalk, specifically there for your trail run cross-training.

You’ll have a little grin on your face during your next travel excursion, knowing you’re cross-training while the cattle are herding onto the escalators and looking at you oddly while you power hike two stairs at a time with your luggage. I like to hike hard enough on these sections so that I’m forced to have to take a couple of loud exhales at the top of the stairs to get rid of the quad burn. Hurts so good!

If you live near a downtown area, find a public high-rise building where you can ascend and descend the stairs. This will develop the specific muscle groups for hard climbing, and technical descents that trails throw at you. Better yet, do repeats.

Bike Run Bike

Being an avid cyclist and commuter, this is one of my favorite workouts of all time. Use your bike and commute to the nearest trailhead. This can be a small quickie workout or an epic long workout, depending on your proximity to the nearest trail.

I do this all the time, even in the trail mecca of Bend, OR where we practically have trails out our back door. This can open up a huge variety of ideas and workouts. After a couple of trial runs, you’ll start figuring out gear, too. I like to use my townie commuter bike, since it’s an old, inexpensive mountain bike with a rack and pack (to stash my helmet and carry a lock), and flat pedals (so I can wear my running shoes). You’ll want to take extra precautions for theft if you have a high-end mountain or road bike.

Bronco’s Bike Buying Tip: Don’t have a dedicated bike commuter? No problem. Go cruise some local garage sales or second hand bike shops, and pick up an old mountain bike on the cheap. Fully rigid (no suspension) is best for commuters. Also look for racks and packs in these places, too. Take your find into a local bike shop and drop $50-$200 on getting some basic maintenance for things like new brake pads, cables and housings (so it shifts smoothly), fenders, and new semi-slick commuter tires. Other bonuses:  cool new grips, a bell, a strong cable lock, flat pedals, and waterproof panniers (packs).  These are all simple upgrades to update a used mountain bike. Perfect for not only the Bike Run Bike trailhead commuter, but for grabbing groceries, or heading to the coffee shop.

So, there you go. My favorite ways to take you from a city slicker pavement pounder to hardcore urban trail runner without having to quit your job and become a hermit in the mountains. Giddyup.