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6 training tips for trail runners who don't live near trails - Columbus, Ohio

6 training tips for trail runners who don't live near trails - Columbus, Ohio

I like to be in a constant state of readiness to take on a trail adventure anywhere in the world.  To be ready, that means I need to train for those conditions as part of my regular training regimen.  Problem is, I live in Columbus, Ohio which isn’t exactly known for its mountains or trails, and that many of the adventures I like best are trail runs in the mountains.  Columbus has some nice trails, and there are some great trails farther away in other parts of Ohio, but it’s just not efficient to drive somewhere for a training run.  As such, I had to get creative to leverage my surroundings to prepare for trail adventures.  

I’m happy to share with you my 6 tips for how to train for trails when you don’t live near trails or mountains:

Tip 1: Avoid the asphalt and concrete

At first glance, avoiding asphalt and concrete would seem hard to do when you live in a city or a suburb.  However, alongside almost every suburban sidewalk is a patch of grass.  Even when there are no sidewalks, I just run straight across front yards on my way to a park that has more grass. In even more urban areas such as Berlin it’s also possible.  My friend James showed me trails along train lines and also how to string together runs by meandering from one park to another.  I once just ran loops in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, NYC for 2 hours. Be prepared to look weird, because all the “normal” runners will be in the road or sidewalks while you find your own path.

Tip 2: Always be running up or down hills

My challenge living in Columbus, Ohio is to train for elevation change.  I’ve scoured US Geological Survey (USGS) maps to find spots in Columbus with the most elevation gain.  The sad thing for me is that there is no sustained climb of over 100 feet (30m). I strongly believe in sport specific training, and also don’t have the time to do isolated eccentric training on my legs. As such, the best thing you can do to train your legs is to run downhill as much as possible.

A positive side effect of the first rule is that grassy areas frequently have more natural undulations than a paved road or path.  I live close to the Griggs Reservoir Park in Columbus, Ohio.  It’s 3 miles (5k) long with an access road that’s just a few feet above the river, and a grassy slope between the access road and the main road 50 feet higher.  The river also includes a 35 foot (10m) high dam.  It’s these two elevation changes I take advantage of for my training.   I run in a serpentine way between the lower and upper roads crossing the grassy park area.  It makes a funny-looking path on Strava that looks like this:

Which results in an elevation map like this:

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If I want to maximize elevation, then I just run up and down the steepest slope.  To keep track of how many times I’ve done it, I place a rock at the top and move it from one guardrail post to another each time I come back to the top.  That kind of runs looks like this:


Tip 3: Take the stairs!

This one is easy, especially if you work in an office building, just taking the stairs instead of the elevator is a great way to get in your elevation.  Even if you don’t like to get sweaty hiking up the stairs, take advantage of going down to get in more eccentric motion.  Since I travel a lot, it also means I avoid escalators in the airports…and hefting my luggage just adds to the training.

My other tip here is to work on using your quads instead of your calves.  By firmly planting my heel and then pushing with my quads I get a combined benefit of stretching my calves and Achilles while also strengthening my quads.  On my first 50k at the Laurel Highlands Ultra, I can still feel my feet going numb because my calves were so pumped from the 6000 foot (2000m) climb in the first 9 miles.  I’ve found that by keeping my heels planted and pushing with the quads I can avoid this kind of pain.

Tip 4: Be self supported

It can very tempting when running in your neighborhood to rely on your knowledge of the area to pick up water or food whether at a friend’s or family place.  Some even plot their course based on the available water fountains.  Since most forests don’t have water fountains or 7-11s, I like to practice by carrying all my water in my backpack, often up to 3 liters, and even carry an additional 10 pound weight to simulate the rest of my clothes and gear.

Tip 5: Work on your technical skills

My technical footwork skills are not great, and I’ll blame that on where I live, you it's no excuse not to try to improve them.  When I go on runs, I do my best to vary the terrain, which can even mean running:

  • along curbs to work on balance

  • in gravel to work on keeping the feet light

  • a pattern between the road, driveways ramps and grass

  • through areas with lots of small broken tree limbs

Tip 6: Cross train on a bicycle trainer

I’m a huge proponent of being as efficient as possible in training and also adapting your training schedule to your lifestyle.  I travel a lot so have worked on staying consistent with my cardio.  While I like to get out for a run and explore, I’ve found that by staying in hotels with bicycle trainers I can almost always fit in a workout no matter the time of day or weather.  In my training regimen I thus try to get in three, 1 hour bike rides a week and find it an excellent way to keep the quadriceps in shape for the hills.  Quadriceps strength and endurance is very helpful for the up hills, but especially protects the knees during the down hills.

Many of the ultraruns I do involve thousands of feet of elevation change.  As many of you know, if you are not trained for the downhills, late in the run it’ll feel like ice picks are being jammed behind your knee caps, no matter how slowly you pick your way down the mountain.

Jockey Hollow Trail - Morristown, New Jersey

Jockey Hollow Trail - Morristown, New Jersey

Kloarbyn Eco-lodge - Skinnskatteberg, Sweden

Kloarbyn Eco-lodge - Skinnskatteberg, Sweden