Strength Training for the Trails

As the snow melts off of the mountains and temperatures get warmer, that means the transition from snow sports to trail running and hiking season! As the trails dry out, people often make the mistake of returning to the same frequency and distance of activity as the end of their previous season. This often results in a trip to physical therapy due to injury from overuse or trauma, such as a fall. It is important to make sure your body is trained to the demands, such as navigating rocks, having adequate endurance for longer runs and elevation gains, and the necessary power and strength to tolerate repetitive loading. It is key to train not only your cardiovascular system but to focus on strength and power as well. Not only will this help prevent injury on the trails, but improve performance by training both your anaerobic and aerobic energy pathways. 

Running has the highest prevalence of lower limb overuse injuries in aerobic sports. This is because it requires increased dynamic stability throughout your core musculature down to your foot and ankle. Overall, the stronger you are, the more resilient your body is to load, and less likely you are to sustain an injury. Therefore, emphasis should be placed on both strength training and plyometric movements. This combination targets training both slow and fast twitch muscle fibers, allowing for greater muscular endurance, and a faster pace overall. Major muscle groups that are important to focus on include the gluteals (maximus, medius and minimus), hamstrings, quadriceps, calves (gastrocnemius and soleus), and trunk (abdominals and back) musculature.  An ideal program would include the following components:

Compound lifts: exercises that recruit major muscle groups including the barbell back squat, front squat, deadlift, and bent over row for total body strength and stability.

Single leg exercises: targeted strengthening to muscles specific to trail running and hiking. Examples include weighted lunges (reverse, walking, lateral), single leg Romanian deadlifts, rear-foot elevated split squats, single leg hamstring curls on a physioball or machine, and single leg calf raises. 

Plyometric/explosive: jumping lunges, box jumps both double and single leg, lateral hopping, kettlebell swings, hurdle jumps forward/backward, lateral. 

Core strengthening: Farmer’s carry variations such as single-arm, asymmetrical (one arm overhead and other down at side), or both arms at your side. Others include the pallof press, plank variations (forward, reverse, side planks), dead bugs, Russian twists, and bicycles.

Along with progressive strengthening, appropriate increase in mileage is another important aspect to consider as you transition to the trails. As previously mentioned, another high risk for injury is increasing your weekly or overall mileage too quickly. A gradual increase per week of 10-15% for either time or distance is a good, safe progression for an injury free trail running and hiking season!  If you are dealing with injury, or looking to improve your performance on the trails, seeing a physical therapist specializing in these conditions can help you get back on the trails stronger than before.

Written by Anna Bechtold PT, DPT, OCS a Board-Certified Orthopedic Specialist at the APRS Physical Therapy West clinic, an avid trail runner, hiker, and outdoor enthusiast.