Fitting Trail-running into a Fitness Program

This will be much harder for some people than others, depending on how you structure your program and how rigid it is.

For people who are more towards the end of the spectrum where they are exercising by feel and having little structure to their program, this article may lack some relevance though there are probably some things to consider for them that this article will help with. Those who are more towards a structured end of the spectrum of exercise will find this article enables you to easily insert trail running into a program or routine.


Swap it in for Roads

For those running regularly, a simple swap can be done, regularly or irregularly, to include trail running in place of a normal road run. It should be considered that terrain can be much more challenging when out trail running so this should at the very least be considered when planning to head out for a trail run as it can be much more taxing than a road run. For more on this topic, check out the “How to start Trail running” article. 

If you are going to swap this trail run in or even just add it, ensure you do not do too much too soon and risk injury. See below information on “tracking” to assist in this.


Swap it in for Strength

Depending on the terrain and the elevation profile of the route, swapping a trail run for a strength training session can be very effective and may be the best option. This will of course depend on the goals of the program and the reason for doing strength training. It is less likely that a trail run will assist in achieving specific strength goals than a more traditional strength training session. Likewise, if the trail run route is relatively flat, it is much less likely to assist in strength gains than a very steep and undulating route.


Where it could be added

When inserting a trial run into an exercise regime or routine, it should be considered what your overall goals are first and foremost. In general, a trail will provide an aerobic stimulus with some strength components for some (depending on things like current fitness and strength levels). In terms of training fatigue, these runs shouldn’t be too taxing unless you really try to push it where they can become quite anaerobic and much more taxing.

Generally, I would suggest putting these runs in on a day after a strength session for your lower body with a day off for the lower body the following day or a very low-intensity aerobic session the following day which includes some lower body components (for example: walk, cycling, easy jog). If these sessions are quite taxing then a day of rest for your lower body on either or both sides of the trail run may be helpful and/or needed though this is unlikely depending on conditioning.

The most likely location for a run like this is the beginning or end of the training week, as opposed to the middle, which will again be based on goals. More endurance and running focused goals may mean having it at the beginning of the training week and having a running or aerobic capacity as a lower priority goal may see this run be the last day of a training week and very low intensity to facilitate further recovery.

Ultimately much of this question may end up becoming a logistics issue. What I mean by this is that the logistics of running on the trail may mean it is only possible at certain times a week and ultimately this is important, things need to work for your life and routine if you want them to be sustainable.



Whether swapping the road for the trails or just starting your running on trails, tracking is something that deserves some good consideration. Tracking your activities is exceedingly important if progress is what you seek. Unfortunately, tracking distance can be fraught with problems when vertical elevation varies week to week, as this can significantly change the training stress of the run.

A variety of options exist and ultimately the best answer is the one that makes the most sense and has the most meaning to you. If pressed I would suggest tracking time or “arbitrary units” (AU) of loading. AU is calculated by multiplying time by “rating of perceived exertion” (RPE). RPE is a number from 1 to 10 of how hard the session or run felt, 1 being very easy and 10 being exceedingly difficult. The product of RPE and time, AU, is a number that can be used to compare runs/sessions of differing durations, intensities, terrains, etc.

Ultimately, where trail running goes in your weekly schedule, is not of significant importance. Doing some trail running is much more important, why? See the article “Why trail running”.


Written by: Dr. David Lipman, Podiatrist and Exercise Physiologist

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