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Strength training for trail runners

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3 key strength exercises to support your trail running.

by Doug James, Physiotherapist & Podiatrist, intraining Running Centre

Trail running is tough! It often requires more strength, flexibility, and balance than road running. Being able to conquer hills, run through creeks, and navigate uneven terrain requires more than just basic fitness – so it makes sense to do additional conditioning exercises. Here are three key strength exercises to keep support your trail running.  

NOTE:  If you’d like to see Doug’s video next week on how to do these exercises CLICK HERE and we’ll send it to you.  



Sore hips and glutes are one of the most common complaints of trail runners.

Running up – and especially down hills – requires more hip stability and glute strength than if you were running in a straight line on flat terrain. Lateral movement is used when navigating uneven rocky terrain and needs a high level of hip stability which comes from strength in the glute muscles on the outer part of your hips. If these muscles aren’t adequately conditioned for the duration and degree of difficulty, they will tend to fatigue and may start feeling tight as a defensive mechanism. Stretching tends not to fix the problem as it only reduces the sensation of tightness but does nothing to improve the strength and endurance of the affected muscles.

Building strength in your lateral glutes can be achieved through a number of exercises, but side lunges have the added benefit of helping improve your knee and core strength.  

Exercise:  Side Lunges

        • Start with your feet facing forwards about shoulder-width apart.
        • Step out to the side as far as possible while keeping your foot facing forwards.
        • Transfer your weight across to the foot you just moved and bend the knee to perform a squat movement.
        • Push down through the foot to return to your starting position.
        • Alternate legs and perform 10-12 of these per side for 3 sets. 
        • Side lunges are also useful warm-up exercises before a run.


Hip flexor muscles help you to lift your thighs and they get a huge workout on hilly runs. Building strength in these muscles is key to surviving runs with lots of elevation, particularly over longer distances. Improving your core strength will also help you to maintain your running form for longer, particularly on uneven terrain. The following is a great exercise to improve both your hip flexor and core muscle strength.

Exercise:  Heel Taps

        • Lay on your back with your knees bent to 90° and your shins horizontal. 
        • Press your lower back against the floor
        • Slowly lower one leg down towards the floor then return to the starting position.
        • Tip:  If you are new to the exercise keep your knee bent at 90° while lowering your leg. Once you’re comfortable with the movement, straighten your leg out as you lower your leg.
        • Alternate legs and perform 10-12 of these per side for 3 sets.


Another key muscle group needed to successfully conquer hills are your calves. Strengthening your calves can have the bonus effect of warding off Achilles tendonitis and plantar fascia niggles.

Calf raises are key to developing strong calves, but doing them correctly makes a huge difference. Too often they are rushed and this reduces the improvement offered by the exercise. Aim to keep in time with a slow rhythm taking 3 seconds to rise on to your toes, and 3 seconds to lower back down.

    • Perform 3 sets 15 raises

TIP:  If you haven’t done calf raises recently, it’s best to start by doing the exercise on both feet at the same time. Once you are comfortably doing 3 sets of 15, then progress to doing one leg at a time.

Challenge yourself:

For an extra challenge, and to improve your ankle stability, try doing calf raises on a soft surface such as a thick yoga mat or a couple of cushions.


All runners are built differently, and you may find you need extra assistance in a certain area beyond what was listed. The exercises above are a great starting point to improving your strength for trail running but if you’re still having difficulty with muscle soreness or injury then it’s worth booking an appointment with a running specialist at the intraining running injury clinic. We’re able to check that you are performing the exercises correctly and activating the right muscles so you can get the most out of your running.

Doug James – Physiotherapist and Podiatrist,  intraining running injury clinic


Doug James  – Physiotherapist  & Podiatrist 

Doug James is a qualified physiotherapist and podiatrist with a special interest in running and sports injuries. He combines the two treatment approaches to achieve successful outcomes for clients of all abilities from non-athletes to elite athletes.

Bachelor of Podiatry (honours), Master of Physiotherapy Studies.

Doug has undertaken further training in dry needling, Pilates, and Rocktape and may incorporate these as necessary during treatment.

Doug is also a keen runner having completed the New York Marathon.