Rule Your Running Terrain: Because races aren’t done on a treadmill

Unless you’re racing on a track, there’s SOME kind of terrain you’ll need to be prepared for come gun-time. Even during track season athletes have much to gain from varying the terrain on their workouts.

  • Power and Speed: Hills build strength and when taken to flats that translates to speed. That same kind of logic applies to doing repeats on grass, the times may be ‘slower’ but you’re working harder and building strength.
  • Injury Prevention: Running on softer, more forgiving surfaces helps reduce impact and thus lowers your chances for injuries in the long-term.
  • Diversity: Running is a very repetitive action and mostly only working in a single, horizontal plane. At least by varying things slightly you’re able to give your body a bit of diversity; if you fail to do this, smaller muscles get weak and imbalances become injuries in waiting.

Those are all general reasons why mixing up your running terrain is a good idea, but if you know your actual race course will have key elements you’ll need to be prepared for, it’s even more important to introduce those same obstacles in training.
turn left on the track
Hilly Courses

  • Uphill Repeats: It take power to get up those hills; including uphill repeats into your routine may seem like an obvious but not all runners actually DO hill work, or they don’t mix-up the kind of work that they do. Think of hills in a three-pronged approach, similar to your regular running workouts. 1) Do 100-200 meter hill bursts, allow for full recovery between each repeat; this is your speed session for the week. 2) Longer, 600-1600 meter hill repeats for your endurance-focused interval sessions. You could also do tempo runs uphill (on a treadmill set on a grade if you don’t have an actual course). 3) Including rolling hills into your easy days ‘sneaks’ hill work in.
  • Downhill Repeats: Many can overlook just how taxing a lot of downhill on your race course can be. If your race has a significant amount of downhills (Hello, Boston Marathon!), be sure to get used to running on the decline; your quads will be working even if you don’t ‘feel it’ right away. You can include some downhill repeats in your training; just be careful in terms of injury because downhill running does increase the forceful pounding of running.
  • Form: Running hills makes it even more important to have good form; when running uphill maintain the same effort that you would but decrease your stride length. When running downhill, make sure that you’re not tensing up and causing yourself to ‘brake;’ rather, relax and let the momentum of the decline help do some of the work for you.

trail runner
Trail running

  • Ankles and lower legs: Trail running is about as diverse as running can get, twists, turns, awkward foot-plants aplenty. Here is where you need to be sure your ankles and feet are used to landing in various positions. The way to do that is, well, running trails, taking turns, and including mobility work outside of running.
  • Core and Mobility: To reduce your risk for injury when running, you want to have a strong core, be flexible, and have as much range of motion as possible. Schedule time for strength training, dynamic stretching, and drills; not only will it help safeguard you against injuries it will improve your running performance.

Tracks, Roads and the Elements

  • Tangents: Some math logic here, but running longer adds more time to your race results. Road races are measured off of the shortest possible marked distance, so look for those tangents and don’t run wider around turns than you have to. On the track, unless you’re going to be boxed in, do your best to not needlessly wander into outer lanes.
  • Drafting: Even on the calmest of days drafting makes a difference, mentally it’s much ‘easier’ to sit behind someone else and let them do the work. If it’s especially windy, find a body and tuck in behind them!
  • Weather Conditions: The conditions of race day can make a HUGE difference in your performance; not only should you take these into consideration for your race-day pacing goals but train in the same kind of conditions. For cold races be extra certain you do a full warm-up to make sure your muscles are properly warm and ready to hit those faster paces.

Until the day that all races are held on treadmills, runners should be mixing up the terrain of their workouts and runs. By tailoring your training to your specific race course you’ll be setting yourself up for even better results. And hey, who doesn’t want to run that much faster and have a bit of an edge over their competition? 😉

1) How do you train for your course? If it’s for the track, how do you add diversity to your workouts?

2) Do you prefer road races, track races, cross-country, or trail races?

3) How do you plan, adapt, or prepare for various weather conditions?

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18 thoughts on “Rule Your Running Terrain: Because races aren’t done on a treadmill

  1. Perfect post since I just finished my long run for the week. I hate the treadmill but have used it more this winter than in the past since the weather conditions have been less than ideal this year. I just finished up my run outside and with a half coming up in 3 weeks, I tend to focus on making sure as many of my runs as possible occur outdoors. I find the treadmill is fine to get a run/workout in, even to work on speed, but nothing prepares me better for a race than actually running on pavement. I like to throw in some hill runs as well just to diversify myself and be prepared for hills that may come up in a race.

  2. Such a helpful post Cait! And you are right – terrain makes such a difference. Downhills are also very much under-rated! I actually find them harder than uphills if the slope is steep, because it’s so hard to maintain correct form and my knees inevitably protest.

  3. Oooh yah. This one’s been on my mind a lot lately – I wish I could fit hill running, trail running. grass and road into my plan every week! I feel like I do a little too much on the treadie right now (it was 2 out of 4 runs for a while), but I think I’m back down to just intervals on the treadmill – and whatever, it makes me happy.

    Trail running is bliss, and hills definitely make a difference!

    • haha…i can totally relate to actually LOVING the treadmill. i’ve gone thru phases where i had to force myself outside…but if u’re alone and need a good push to keep u honest on those intervals the tready can help!

  4. Hills build machines! Is there anything better than overtaking (or chicking as the case may be) ON A HILL 😛

    Great post timing for me too. I’m hoping I’ve covered the hills in my session to prepare me for race day but I am suddenly stressing about weather. I have trained all through the Aussie summer and now I am going to race in our coldest state. I expect to be racing in a temperature that is no where near what I have been training in. AHHHH! So I will definitely take your tip and be extra diligent with my warm up!!! :=)

    • It’s going to help you so much! I always found it sooooo much easier running in Canberra after training in Sydney (or Melbourne, for that matter). Your body is going to love you – and you’re smart enough to warm up 🙂

    • isn’t that murphy’s law?!?! 😛 but actually, if i had to pick one way to go, training in HEAT and then being able to race in a cooler temp, so long as u do a good warm-up, will prolly work to ur advantage. heat running is SOO taxing, u’ve been working over-time so the temp drop should make those paces feel easier. that said, how cold is the temp???

  5. I live in a really hilly area, so hill training pretty much happens anytime I step out my door for a run. I’ve definitely seen a direct effect from running hills every day when I run a flat/flatter race course. I feel so much stronger. Thanks for the great tips about different types of training/their benefits and drafting during a race!

    I prefer road races, but predict I may switch over to trail races some day. I’d say I prepare for various weather conditions by running in just about all types of weather during training. I don’t have a treadmill, so I always run outside and the only time I don’t go is when its really bad.

  6. I prefer road and trail races. I like to train in trails once in a while ‘coz it’s more forgiving to my knees. I live in Cincinnati which is perfect. I get a lot of hill training.

    I do my training outside. I like the roads better than the treadmill. I try to run in various conditions to prepare myself. My last race, I ran through sleet. Not really a good experience.

    By the way, I nominated you for Liebster Blog Award. Check it here –>


    • ya, sleet running in a race…doesn’t sound like a ton of fun but it certainly makes for good stories afterward!! and hey, makes u tougher!
      thank you so very much for the nomination, Ja! 🙂

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  8. Great post! I’ll admit, I’m guilty of running too many miles on the treadmill when the Wisconsin winter weather gets nasty, which has led to a few imbalances. But now that the weather is getting nicer, I’m excited to run more miles on the roads since that is where I do the majority of my racing.

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