How to be a hybrid runner

Learn to log miles both on- and off-road with these expert tips.

When New York City-based ultra runner Stephen England, of Team Novo Nordisk, a global all-diabetes sport team of cyclists, triathletes and runners, completed his first trail race in 2011, he was hooked. “I’ve found that, in general, my body feels far happier on the trails. The extra cushion provided by the dirt, pine needles, etc. helps reduce the impact on my knees and hips. Plus, mentally, trail running has a real escape factor that you can’t match on the roads. I can switch off from being a data geek and focus instead on being outside, enjoying the views and meeting other like-minded people,” says England. These are undoubtedly some of the reasons why trail running participation continues to climb—it was up 8.1 percentlast year, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). But being what England refers to as a “hybrid runner,” one who runs on roads, trails and treadmills, comes with its own set of unique challenges. Here are some ways in which you too can successfully tackle multiple terrains.

strengthen your weak spots

“The varied terrain on trails will put more of a lateral stressor on your hips, knees and ankles. The softer ground may also put more stress on your Achilles tendons,” says Rich Velazquez, a runner and regional personal training manager at Equinox in NYC. “As a result, you should focus on building up your hip mobility and ankle stability.” Perform 1 to 3 sets (15 to 20 reps each) of lateral lunges, single-leg deadlifts, stepdowns, and jumping rope two or three times each week, on your “off” days. Another easy-to-follow tip from England’s coach: Brush your teeth with one foot off the ground, switching halfway through.

take your shoes off

“Doing your lower body exercises barefoot will help improve your lower leg and ankle stability even more,” says Velazquez.

stop watching your watch

“Successful trail running is not about the watch—it’s about the effort. This is simply because it usually involves more elevation changes and the terrain makes you work harder with every step,” notes England. “It takes a dent out of your ego at first, but the sooner you realize it's normal to have to work at the same energy level to maybe only achieve half the speed that you’re used to on the road, the better.”

ease into it

“Start with short, moderate intensity trail runs that will enable your body to adapt to the different movement patterns. Every week you can build upon your base (increasing total trail volume by no more than 10 percent) until you reach your desired duration,” says Velasquez.

power-walk big hills

“One of the biggest strategies I use on the trails is to hike any climb where I cannot see the top yet. This way of thinking is alien to the pure road runner, but walking parts of trails is a key component to success—even the pros do it,” says England.

stabilize your core

“Your trunk stability will be challenged much more on the trails, so you need to incorporate planks and other core strengthening moves into your routine,” notes Velazquez. England performs a core workout daily before and/or after he runs to reduce the chance of injury.

adjust your view

“On the road, every coach will tell you to keep your head up, but in trail running, if you did that you would be face planting all day long. Instead, you have to constantly look just a few feet ahead, planning your route and deciding where to place your feet,” says England.

train specifically

“I think overall to be good at both, pick one big road race and one big trail race over the year and train specifically for each one separately. For example, sign up for a road marathon and then follow it with a trail 50K,” says England. “When I train for a marathon like Boston, I run 90 percent of my miles on the road, and when I train for a 100-miler like Western States, I try and do 90 percent of my training on trails. The key is to remain specific to your overall goal at hand.”