How to train on the trails for a road marathon

With two months to go until the Baxters Loch Ness Marathon, coach and race ambassador Tom Craggs offers his tips on training for a road 26-miler on the trails

The Loch Ness Marathon takes place on October 6

The Loch Ness Marathon takes place on October 6

Training for a road marathon on the trails? It can definitely be done effectively with a bit of thought and planning. You’ll save your body a lot of hard concrete impact and more than likely you’ll spend time in a healthier, more enjoyable environment. With Loch Ness Marathon less than eight weeks away, here are my top tips on training for your road marathon on the trails.

  • Natural assets: Embrace the undulating terrain. Hill training is great for building the strength endurance you need to sustain your pace in the final 10km of the marathon.

  • Consider working higher-intensity efforts around a hill trail loop working both up and downhill. Do three or four sets at a controlled discomfort for 6-10 minutes. As you get stronger you can even include these within a longer midweek run of 75-90 minutes.

  • Run on feel: One of the biggest benefits of training off road is that it can take some of the stress out of constantly worrying about pace and getting obsessed with times as opposed to the process of just running. However, you need to become good at judging your own sense of effort.

  • Try this: Imagine a scale from 1-10 where 1 is pretty much a fast walk, building up through a fully conversational effort up to 10 where you might be running at an effort you could only hold for 4-8 minutes or so in a race. The majority of your training should be in that relaxed easy 2-5/10 area.

  • Mix it up: While the benefits of hitting the trails are huge, it’s clearly important to develop a bit of specific endurance on the surface you are going to race on.

  • Plan in three to four key runs between now and race day in which you run on the asphalt and spend some time at your planned marathon pace. A good way to do this within a long run is to tackle something like 2 hours 45 minutes – 3 hours with the final 60 minutes at goal- marathon pace.

  • Taper caution: As race day approaches, think about your routines carefully. With your body tired from lots of hard miles and your brain focused on the coming race, your risk of injury increases.

  • In those final three to six weeks, consider carefully whether you should be tackling those more risky technical routes. If you are really experienced and happy, of course go for it, but if you are new to the trails, limit the risk of a badly timed fall and stick to consistent, easier-to-run trails.

  • ‘Controlled discomfort’: Your body gets fitter in response to stress. We have to work a bit harder sometimes in order to become fitter, but the key with the marathon is to keep this harder work specific to tackling 26.2 miles.

  • A couple of harder sessions each week work well for most runners. One of these could be run at or around marathon effort in longer blocks of 15-30 minutes or within a consistent run that builds a little each week. For the other run, it makes sense to run at ‘threshold’ effort or 3-4-word-answer effort. Imagine running 10km-10 mile type effort if on the roads. After 5-6 weeks of this work, you really will boost your fitness. Build up in basic blocks, e.g. 4 x 6 minutes, 5 x 5 minutes, 3 x 10 minutes, 2 x 15 minutes, etc.

  • Half-measures: A half-marathon can be a good option to include 3-6 weeks out from race day. It can help you break up the final few weeks of training, help you feel confident in your preparations and give you a chance to practise race day kit and nutrition. You could consider running your half at your goal marathon pace with easy running either side to leave you with a great training run.

The Baxters Loch Ness Marathon takes place on October 6

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