Five off-road run sessions

Swapping smooth tarmac for a bumpier, more varied running experience not only focuses the brain more, but also offers excellent workouts that will enhance your racing performance


The prospect of training through another long, dark and cold autumn/winter is as bleak as the weather. You could join the masses pounding away on treadmills in gyms, those Lycra-clad battery hens rapidly going nowhere.


If you do head out onto the cold, mean streets to train, cars might not see you and there’ll be ice to slip on. There is an answer, though. And it involves embracing the cold, wet, mud, snow and darkness.

Going off-road is the perfect way to beat the autumn/winter training blues, to supercharge your fitness and to learn some valuable running skills and techniques.

On foot, slippery or heavy-going trails build strength and power. You’ll also tackle gradients far steeper than on tarmac, and once back on the roads will find it a breeze. Uneven terrain will force you to engage your core, develop an efficient mid- or forefoot strike and be less likely to lead to overuse injuries.

You’ll also learn good technique for climbing and descending, all of which will directly transfer to faster run splits when the race season comes round again.

Finally, getting off-road is fun. There’s a childlike joy to mucking around in the mud and training surrounded by nature is far more enjoyable and motivating than pounding the city streets or being cooped-up indoors.

So, try these session suggestions to see how off-roading can transform your triathlon performance.

The best off-road run sessions for triathletes

1. Gear down climbs

One of the most common mistakes people make on the run leg in triathlons is overstriding on steep hills. Use the same hill as you will for the hill sprints session (see tip 4), but this time you’ve got to run up it with a Zone 2 heart-rate cap. Super-short tippy-toes steps are the way to do this.

If you think you need to take two strides to get over a step or hummock, take three. It’ll feel weird to start with, but as you develop the technique and hill fitness, you’ll find yourself breezing up hills that used to be a slog. Aim to run up and down for 20-30mins.

2. Off-road tempo

Tempo runs should be a mainstay of all run training, and doing them on the trails adds intensity and variety. Warm up for 10mins, jogging easy, and then maintain tempo pace, which is typically heart rate Zone 3 or 80-85% of maximum heart rate.

On a flat road, tempo runs can be a bit of a mindless slog, but throw in climbs, descents, mud, twists and turns, and by concentrating on keeping your heart rate right will make the 20-40mins of tempo work fly by.

3. Fell race

If you’re spending the winter building your off-road running skills and strength, you might as well put it to some competitive use. Fell running differs from trail running in that paths are rarely used and the course often isn’t marked, requiring some navigational skills.

Entry fees are usually far cheaper, too. Despite the main season being during the summer, there are plenty of great races through the winter. Expect hands-on-knees climbs and daredevil descents. Find out more here:

4. Hill sprints

A classic workout to build up running strength, but throw in the off-road factor and there’s mud, sand and even gravel to up the intensity. Also, the softer surfaces are kinder on your joints and you’ll find steeper gradients off the tarmac.

Warm up by jogging for 10mins to your chosen hill, the steeper the better, and, for a real top-end blast, sprint 100% for 30secs. Jog down to recover and then go again. Perform 5-10 reps, allowing plenty of time for a thorough cool-down.

5. Downhill reps

Ignore downhill running technique and fitness at your peril. The eccentric loading on your quads is an incredible training stimulus and off-road is definitely the place to do this workout.

Find a moderately steep (10-15% grade) slope with no hazards (rabbit holes are especially dangerous!), and, after warming up, run hard down it for 30secs.

Use body lean to control speed, don’t jam your heels in and keep the sole of your shoes at the same angle as the slope. Walk back up to recover and perform 5-10 reps – and expect to be sore the next day.