Running isn’t all that complicated. Ron Clarke, Australian middle and long distance running legend, once described it as “putting one foot in front of the other, as fast as possible, for as long as possible.” To keep things interesting, and to avoid overuse injuries, it’s a good idea to spice up your training with some off-road workouts.

‘Zatopekian’ 400s

After reading Today We Die a Little!, the latest biography of Emil Zatopek, I decided to try a modified version of his favorite workout. He liked to run 400m repeats on the wooded trails in Czechoslovakia while wearing boots and several layers of track suits. Zatopek would run each interval at an all-out effort, and would complete up to eighty 400m repeats in a single day.

I took my dogs down for a walk on the rail trail behind my house and measured a 400m stretch of trail. I hung a 2’ length of white rope from a tree limb at both ends to mark the start and finish. Then, I cleared any rocks larger than a golf ball to avoid potential injury.

Running speed workouts off road

I modified my ‘Zatopekian’ workout to meet the needs of a mere mortal. I decided on 8x400m with a 400m active recovery between intervals and wore my running shoes instead of heavy work boots. Even so, there’s nothing easy about running 400m at balls-to-the-wall pace. It hurts.

It only took a few times up and down the trail for the novelty to wear off, but I really enjoyed running in the woods for a change. A little pond full of spring peepers and lily pads became my 300m reference point, and a leaning birch tree signaled that my always-too-short-recovery was just about up as I returned to the starting point. Running repeats on an unmarked trail is both brutal and rewarding in its stark simplicity.

Kenyan Diagonals

I’d read about this workout somewhere years ago, and always thought it sounded like a great way to build speed and stamina. The idea is to run strides along the diagonal path of a soccer pitch (corner to opposite corner) and then recover along the length of the sideline before sprinting again along the opposite diagonal. For quicker recovery, and a more intense workout, you can choose to run along the baseline instead.

how to run diagonals

On a rainy morning last Saturday, I took my son down to the track to run some 200’s. We pulled into a crowded parking lot and saw a lacrosse game being played on the infield. So, I formulated a quick Plan B and drove to the middle school to run some diagonals instead.

When we arrived, there were a couple of guys painting white lines on the field. Well, actually one guy was painting lines. The other guy was sitting in the cab of the truck smoking a cigarette with the radio on. In any case, it looked like they were mostly done. So, we decided to run our warm-up and hope for the best. After 15 minutes on the cross-country trails we had the place to ourselves.

After some serious discussion and a moment’s hesitation, we decided to run 10 diagonals with a sideline recovery jog followed by 6 diagonals with a baseline recovery walk. The first 5 minutes wasn’t too bad, but the next 5 silenced us both as we gasped for air like a fish out of water. Afterwards, we cooled down with another 15-minutes of easy running on the trails. It was a very simple, but very effective workout- one that we’ll be doing again soon.

Mixing up your training with some off-road running is a good idea for lots of reasons. You’ll avoid repetitive pounding on paved surfaces, you’ll improve proprioception and balance, and you’ll have some fun. Running outdoors surrounded by the natural world is what we were born to do.

Thoughts?