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Cross Training: How and Why You Should be Trail Running This Season

Running? But I’m a cyclist. Depending on who your coach is, and what generation they are from, running is either viewed as a pariah or a secret training weapon. And even if they advocate the latter, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily enjoyable. I remember an old friend telling me that they used to ride up Palomar Mountain and then do a back-to-back run up it in the off-season. Somehow that’s never sounded like “off” anything to me.

If you’re racing cyclocross this winter, or planning on taking up winter triathlon, a sanctioned sport that consists of running, mountain biking, and cross country skiing, then you shouldn’t hesitate to get out and acclimate your body to a weight bearing sport. If you hole up on your trainer all winter in hopes of killing it in the spring, you may want to revisit your training plan. Why? Because running is going to enhance your cycling performance.

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I’m not suggesting that you invest in a pair of track spikes and start running repeat 200s at the local indoor running track, nor am I advocating miles and miles of dreary treadmill runs. I’m talking about getting your butt outside, in the scenery, and trail running.
Here are a few tips to help you adjust to being on your feet, rather than on the pedals:

Pay Attention

The trail runner’s mantra is, “If you look up, you’ll go down.” Whereas we naturally have a degree of hand-eye coordination, well, most of us do, foot-eye coordination takes a bit of time to develop.

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At first, you’ll look down right in front of your feet, and there will certainly be a slight hesitation between seeing the clear path and taking it. The more trail time that you commit to, the easier it gets. Eventually, you’ll keep your eyes 15- to 20-feet ahead.

Slow Down

Although the fastest trail runners are running times enviable for road races, in general, trail running is a much more casual-paced affair. There are rocks, uneven terrain, and the occasional obstacle. More important, though, there’s scenery galore. Treat your runs like you would a travel adventure. In other words, don’t be afraid to try new trails, take the road less traveled, and ignite your love of nature. Also, don’t be afraid to stop and shoot a photo to brag/text to your trainer-bound friends. You’ll soon find out why so many people brave the icy chill to trail run.

Let go of Fear

You’ve railed turns in crits, TT’d open road courses mere feet from moving traffic, and most likely outridden an over zealous dog or two. Having a run-in with gravity, while riding is never fun. Running, however, has different rules. Try to let go of your fear of Newton’s apple and let gravity be the driving force to get you downhill. Rather than leaning back and heel striking over-and-over again, lean slightly forward. Use quick footsteps to minimize contact with the ground, and to keep you moving forward.

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And because you aren’t on a running track or path, no one will think you’ve been drinking if you mix your steps a bit. Side-to-side strides, along with varying your cadence, also serve to strengthen hip flexors and other muscles that are often underutilized on the bike. Imagine starting next season with all the muscles in your legs being developed. Who’s winning the spring training rides now? Most of all, realize that a tumble on dirt isn’t as bad as a crash on pavement, though the story will be considerably funnier.

Change it up

Many trail runners find a shoe they like and stick with it. If you have very particular feet, and there is only one model that feels good, then such is your fate. But, if you are able, try a few different shoes. Basically, you have three categories to choose from—minimal runners, lugged trail shoes, and extra padded styles. It is important to note, though, that each shoe-type demands a specific running technique and foot placement. Being able to mix it up and vary your footwork strengthens muscles of the calves, ankles, quads, and calves. For example, a minimal runner requires that you strike with your forefoot. Accordingly, your knee is nicely bent at the point of impact, meaning that your calves and feet get worked. But, be forewarned, don’t try to blast out a dozen miles each time you try a new shoe. Give your feet time to get used to them on shorter runs.

So, ignore the voices in your head that tell you to pedal away indoors all winter and get outside. You’ll feel refreshed, you’ll develop more muscle groups, your core will be strengthened, and you’ll be ready to attack during spring training rides.

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Photo Credit: Ian Matteson