Nature's Gym

Often, athletes get stuck in a rut. We find a regimen that’s beneficial, or perhaps just feels good, thus we believe it will provide long term benefits. The human body isn’t made that way. We must constantly stimulate the muscles we use often, and new muscles, with different workout routines—techniques to keep the muscles in a state of adaptation.


Photo Credit: Christy G.

As a coach, one question I hear frequently is, “I live in a flat area, should I use a treadmill to get elevation training?” I tend to steer athletes away from the treadmill for several reasons. My two main reasons are that treadmill running gives you a lack of practice at adapting to terrain changes, and doesn’t let you become familiar with instant pace changes. Simply put, I preach that athletes should “keep it natural.” In Nature’s Gym, you have every tool you need to develop the strength and endurance necessary to conquer all of your outdoor endeavors.

The three exercises I’m sharing in this blog post are perfect for runners looking to improve trail performance without having to worry about finding a gym or having an expensive treadmill conveniently available.

  1.     Quadriceps Muscle Endurance/Hip Flexor Strength/Balance


Photo by Christian Murdock

This one is quite simple. Find a steep area of land (it can be a hill on a grass slope, a mountain path, a trail or even a road). If all you have is flat land, I still recommend you avoid the treadmill incline workout and find a trail off the beaten path with some rugged terrain. A rugged trail will help you practice good form/balance for this specific workout.

For starters, you want to do 3 to 5 repetitions of 2.5-3 minutes of steep running, hiking or a mixture of both to prepare yourself for off-road conditions on race day. A treadmill cannot replicate terrain (sorry!). Getting your body used to terrain changes also allows you to engage more stabilizer muscles.

What to focus on:

  •       Make sure you are leaning into the hill. When you are running over the grass, roots, branches, twigs etc., lift your knees high and don’t allow your feet to drag or brush the terrain below as you pull your feet through. Put emphasis on over-engaging your hip flexors to strengthen the hip muscles necessary for climbing.
  •       When your foot hits the ground, focus on driving the knees straight back up, pressing hard and engaging your quadriceps to pop the knee to the sky. Your foot should spend as little time on the ground as possible. Every step should have this focus. Over time, your balance will improve as you focus on good form throughout the workout. You will be able to pick up your pace while maintaining good form, engaging the hip flexors and quadriceps even more efficiently.
  •       Practice transitioning from hiking with your hands pushing on your knees to running over the steep terrain. Using your arms to push on your knees as you climb gives you somewhat of a full body workout with your arms as it adds resistance work!
  1.     Agility and Speed Development


This workout can happen anywhere you can find a few rocks, preferably 2 or 3 in somewhat of a row. During this workout, you will jog slowly as you approach the line of rocks, then accelerate between the rocks, running as quickly as possible from the first rock to the last rock in the rock formation, making an “s” line.

Maneuver from the right side of a rock to the left side of the next almost like a snake as you slither between each rock. A great drill to help you improve up those switchbacks and give you a boost to your lateral movement and speed ability.  This also aids calf strength and flexibility, improves adductor and abductor strength, and engages muscles in the lower back that allow you to turn and change direction (i.e. switchbacks and tight turns).

What to focus on:

  •       Make sure to warm up properly. This can be a great workout to boost performance, but it can also be a good workout to get injured if you overdo it or do not properly warm up the body. Start with 3-4 repetitions.
  •       Focus on crisp movements first. Very few steps should be made. Essentially, try to look pretty when you are doing this with very little effort or concern with speed on the first reps. As the reps continue try to get through the S curves quicker and quicker with each rep. One to two steps between rocks maximum.
  1. Core Engagement/Trunk Strength/Balance

I call this exercise rock leaps, and it’s a perfect outdoor workout. You could go buy three expensive boxes for this drill, but trust me, it’s not worth the money. For one, rocks are not flat like boxes. Secondly, boxes afford you more landing space than a rock would. Remember when I said to keep it natural? If you are preparing for a trail event, you most likely won’t have smooth boxes to jump and climb on, so it’s best to do specific strengthening techniques on the terrain you will see on race day.

This particular drill allows you to fine tune your jumping ability, engaging the very important and highly forgotten trunk muscles (AKA Gluteus Maximus AKA your booty!). Obviously when it comes to bounding or leaping, your calves also benefit. So will your quadriceps, hamstrings and abdominals.

This is a two-part workout.

Part 1: Find a line of about 3-5 large rocks that you feel comfortable enough to jump on top of.

Now, you begin by running up to the rock jumping to the top of it and quickly to the ground before jumping to the next and so on and so on. Rest and repeat.

Part 2: Bound to the top of the first rock in the row, then quickly leap to the top of each rock without touching the ground until you jump off of the last rock in the row.

What to focus on:

  •       As you jump up to each rock and drop down before jumping to the next, make sure to use only one step before jumping to the next rock. Avoid stutter-stepping or running between each jump as the point is to engage glute muscles in a powerful bound each time you spring up.
  •       For the second part of the workout when you are jumping from rock top to rock top, focus on landing one foot on each rock, immediately leaping to the next rock with the other foot. Essentially, one foot touch per rock. Stability and balance development without the worry of finding a gym!

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