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Train for Trail Running on the Treadmill


If the visual highlight of your current running route is the back of the local bus depot, it might be time to let yourself loose in nature. Far away from the city with its traffic-filled roads and crowded pavements, trail running gives you the chance to exercise while making a meaningful connection with the natural environment, something that’s great for both your physical and mental wellbeing

More comfortable and varied than running on concrete, outdoor running comes with its own set of challenges - from the wind, the uneven terrain and those unexpected inclines. Trail running can feel unnerving at first and you’ll need to learn a whole new set of skills to increase your confidence. 

Luckily there is a way to train for trail running that doesn’t involve heading for the hills. Treadmill trail running is not just a substitute for the real deal when the weather’s poor, it can be an effective training strategy for beginners and ultra trail athletes alike. 

Newbie? It’s always a good idea to have some safe, effective running training under your belt before you tackle the great outdoors with all its unpredictable tree roots and patches of slippery mud. Training for a trail race? Strategic use of the treadmill can inject endurance and power to your race-day performance, and may reduce the risk of overtraining.

If that’s got you sold on incorporating a treadmill session into your trail training, where should you start? From intervals to inclines, our guide is here to make your session feel less of an uphill struggle.

And, when the time comes to make the transition to running outside, the PureGym app will really help you blaze a trail. Totally free of charge even for non-members, there’s a variety of outdoor guided runs available, from beginners to advanced. Why not try the 35-minute ‘Burning Up The Hill’ run? Aimed at intermediate runners, it incorporates incline work to your outdoor run, helping you build power and endurance in your lower body.

What are the benefits of trail running treadmill sessions? 

Staying competitive as a trail runner means logging a lot of miles in training. But not everyone is lucky enough to have wide, open countryside on their doorsteps, and very few can spend hours driving to suitable locations three times a week. 

Running outdoors is not always feasible thanks to the weather, too. Extreme heat or, as is more likely, extreme cold and heavy downpours, can see even the hardiest of runners hopping onto a treadmill to get their weekly mileage in. 

But besides the challenges of geography and climate, treadmill trail running has other, more specific benefits. For trail runners of all levels, hitting the gym instead of the hills lets you take control of your trail run training, and can make the most of your time like never before. 

If you’re a total beginner, running on a treadmill can acclimatise your body to the pressures of both long-distance and hill running. It lets you build your physical endurance gradually, without the risk you’ll injure yourself training on slippery or uneven terrain.

For intermediate trail runners, increasing the incline of your treadmill can help you gain the climbing strength you need in your legs to power up those hills. Not sure how to change the incline on our treadmill? Our guide to setting up your treadmill can help.

For experienced athletes, treadmill trail training offers the advantage of endless hill climbs without having to subject your body to the impact forces caused by the descent. Practising hill climbs on a treadmill lets you maintain a steady pace without having to slow down for obstacles, something that’s great for building power and endurance.

Read more about the benefits of running on a treadmill vs outside or discover more reasons to love the treadmill.

How to mimic outdoor trail running on a treadmill

We’ve listed some trail treadmill workout ideas below, but one of the best ways to simulate the rolling hills found in nature is to select one of the machine’s preset programmes. Hitting the ‘hill’ or ‘trail’ setting that’s built into the treadmill will gently raise and lower the incline as you run. This not only helps long sessions feel varied and interesting, it can also reduce the risk of an overuse injury.

Even if you’re aiming for a long, flat run as part of your cardio training, you should still set the treadmill incline to at least 1%. This mimics the energetic cost of outdoor running and makes up for the lack of wind resistance, according to research

How to transition from treadmill trail running to outdoor running

If you’ve so far been doing all your trail training in the gym, you’ll be surprised at how much slower you run when you’re outside in nature. Trail running is more physically and mentally demanding, so you’ll need to judge your run by effort level rather than by speed or distance covered, or you could get frustrated. Your body also needs time to adapt to the change in gait so start off slowly by swapping just one of your weekly treadmill sessions for a run outdoors. 

Are there any other exercises I can do to train for trail running?

Including strength and balance exercises into your training plan can really help, especially when it comes to tackling those notoriously tricky descents. Include lunges, squat and deadlifts into your routine, or read our guide to leg exercises to find a workout that will strengthen your quadriceps and hamstrings. 

For balance, try working out using a BOSU ball. The clever piece of workout kit looks like half an exercise ball with a flat platform on the opposite side and is great for improving ankle, foot and core strength, as well as stability. 

Working on your core strength is another good strategy as being strong in the core can improve the technical skills trail runners need to avoid obstacles and also helps prevent injury.

Read our guide on the best ways to train your core or try one of our Absolute Abs classes.

Treadmill trail workout ideas

Hill/speed combo

What is it good for? Mixing inclines with speed work means your aerobic capacity will be ready for whatever a real life trail can throw at you.

How to do it: Warm up for 10 minutes with a brisk walk or jog (whichever one feels like a light effort for you). Set the treadmill to a hill programme and run, jog or brisk walk (moderate effort) for 15 minutes. Drop back to a 1% incline then run as fast as you can for one minute (just below maximum effort). Repeat this sequence twice, then cool down for five minutes with a brisk walk or jog.

Treadmill trail HIIT workout

What is it good for? HIIT training has been shown to help improve muscular endurance with just a single session shown to stimulate changes in your muscles. Read our guide to treadmill HIIT workouts to learn more.

How to do it: Warm up with a brisk walk or light jog for five minutes. Then set the incline to between 3% and 10% and brisk walk, jog or run (whatever feels like you’re working hard) for one minute. Recover for 30 seconds on a 1% incline. Repeat eight times and cool down with a brisk five minute walk or jog on the flat.

Leg strength workout

What is it good for? Improve your leg power on those tricky uphill climbs with this programme aimed at building strong glutes, hamstrings and calves.

How to do it: Warm up with a brisk walk or light jog for five minutes. Get off the treadmill and do 30 seconds of squats. Then jog for one minute at a slight incline. Perform walking lunges for one minute (either on the treadmill at a slow pace or on the gym floor), then sprint for 30 seconds. Then do a power hike for three minutes at an 8 to 15% incline. Re-set the incline to between 3% and 10% and brisk walk or jog (whatever feels like you’re working hard) for one minute. Recover for 30 seconds on a 1% incline. Repeat the sequence from the squats four times and cool down with a brisk walk or jog on the flat.

It's also a good idea to incorporate strength training to help strengthen your legs and core. You can find some great exercises for runners in our Strength Training Guide for Runners.

Need to work on your leg strength, functional fitness or core for your next trail run? Why not book in a session with one of our Personal Trainers? From ultra trail challenges to shorter cross countries they can put together a plan to get you over the finish line. Or visit our online running hub for more inspiration.

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