How off-road running can improve your triathlon run performance

Taking your run off-road can reap multiple multisport benefits, including more speed, greater strength and a damn big dollop of fun. Here's how to get the most out of every mile…


The season’s come to an end, meaning you can sit back, flood your system with craft ale and pile on the pounds. In the process, of course, you can wave goodbye to those hard-earned season gains and bid adios to a PB next year.


Yes, it’s good to unwind from your summer of events but you’ve more than likely enjoyed that period of R&R and should be champing at the bit to train. And that’s where off-road running, or trail running, comes in.

This simple but effective slant on your normal running will deliver many physical, mental and performance benefits, including higher aerobic capacity, stress relief from the bucolic backdrop and faster run times.

Running off-road also varies foot strike, meaning the chances of overuse injury are reduced compared to the metronomic and often debilitating striding atop hard tarmac.

That said, don’t stop pavement running completely. A good mix is what’s required for all-round gains.

If you need evidence that off-road running can send your fitness into the stratosphere, look no further than Kilian Jornet. The Spanish runner holds myriad trail titles and world records including winning the acclaimed Skyrunner World Series six times.

In 2018, he also smashed the Bob Graham Round, one of the most celebrated challenges in endurance sport, comprising a course of 106km with 8,200m ascent over 42 fells that must be completed in 24hrs.

Jornet completed it in 12:52hrs (the record lasting until American Jack Kuenzie broke it in September this year). His VO2max has been measured at a frankly ridiculous 92ml/min/kg with his resting heart rate down in the low 30s.

You might not reach those levels but, as Jornet shows, there’s no denying hitting the trails will give your run a boost.

10 ways to improve your triathlon run performance

1. Gauge time not distance

Trail running’s a more liberating exercise than pavement pounding. You’re far from the madding crowd and free from polluting traffic.

That liberation extends to how far you run. What with the technical trails, gnarly surfaces and numerous obstacles – tree stumps, rocks… – gauge your run over time rather than distance.

2. Perfect your uphill position…

When it comes to running uphill, remember not to lean forward too much. It’s common to overcompensate due to the gradient but go too far and you lose speed… and find it harder to see where you’re running.

Instead, don’t bend your chest forward; instead, stand up straight while remaining balanced. Life your head, too, as this will help you breathe more proficiently.

Also, look to run on your forefoot while cranking up the arm action. Both will help you stride if not effortlessly, at least more efficiently.

3 …Perfect your downhill position

These technique pointers will boost speed while decreasing stress on the legs for reduced DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) in a day or two.

Firstly, ensure you lean from your hips and not your shoulders. This adjusts your centre of gravity for better balance. Just don’t overdo it and tip over!

Use your arms for balance. While flailing your arms out to the side might feel a little crazy, it’s an oft-used technique by legendary off-roaders like Lesley Paterson.

Don’t overstride – think circular striding – look down the hill not at your feet.

4. Get the kit

Invest in a good-quality pair of off-road run shoes. These tend to have a more aggressive tread pattern than road shoes for better grip on muddy terrain.

Many feature extras like toe bumpers and reinforced sidewalls for greater protection.

Depending on distance, we’d also recommend a waterproof jacket, hydration pack, fuel, navigation tool (a top-end multisport watch can come in handy here), gloves, headgear and extra layers.

5. Start slowly

Pacing’s important in all three tri disciplines but arguably even more so when it comes to off-road running. The variations in terrain, obstacles, plus often quagmire surface means it’s a skill in itself to pace your efforts without hitting the wall.

So, start slowly and pick up the intensity if you see fit. Yes, that sounds less scientific than running by zones but striding by feel’s arguably more beneficial than homing in on your sports watch.

You could also trip if you’re laser focused on your wrist.

Off-road running can deliver many physical, mental and performance benefits, including higher aerobic capacity, stress relief and faster run times. (Credit: Bob Brunot)

6. Enter an event

Signing up to an off-road run race this off-season will deliver multiple benefits: it’ll give your trail running a clear focus; it’ll satiate your competitive hunger while triathlon hibernates; and you’ll enjoy running a new route.

7. Discover duathlon

Sticking to the event theme, you could also sign up for an off-season, off-road multisport race. Ideally you’ll have a mountain bike for the run/bike/run format, though gravel or cyclocross bikes might be suitable if the course isn’t too gnarly.

8. Brush and balance

The rugged terrain cranks up strength and fitness, but it does raise the spectre of an acute injury like an ankle sprain. That’s where a spot of balance training comes in.

While cleaning your teeth, stand on one foot and lower yourself as if you’re doing a one-legged squat. Rise and repeat on the other leg.

Keep doing this for the duration of your dental-hygiene routine to improve your proprioception (your body’s awareness in space).

9. Light the way

Head torches are essential when running off-road in winter. Things to consider are the brightness of your headtorch – is it sufficient for the terrain? How long’s the battery life? How comfortable is the fit? And how easy is it to use when running with gloves on?

10. Know your neighbourhood

You don’t have to venture to rural retreats to benefit from off-road running. Even in the most urban of environments, you’ll have great parks, towpaths alongside canals and the occasional woods to run through. Local football fields will also add variety to pavement pounding.


Top image credit: Bob Brunot