If you’re looking to improve your trail running performance, you have come to the right place. For years I have been dialing in routines and testing a multitude of trail running gear, all so that I can improve running performance and then maintain it. It’s so often the case in life that the best cure is actually prevention, and although many unfortunate issues you may experience while trail running can be prevented with the proper training, experience, and gear, some cannot. In this post, I’m going to share my routine for maintaining fitness, strength and a mostly injury-free running lifestyle.
In the case of needing a solution (rather than prevention) to problems that may occur while running on the trails, whether it’s a fast 10k race, or an ultramarathon in the mountains, I have discovered products that will bring you out of the pain cave right when you need them too. I’m also going to recommend some of the high-performance running gear, nutrition, and recovery tools that completely changed the game for me.
My Top Running performance hacks (Table of Content):
- Cross Training, Muscle Stimulation, and Balance Training
- Nutrition while running
- Best Performance Running Gear
- Recovery Routine (protein, massage tools, CBD)
Cross Training, Muscle Stimulation, and Balance Training: Keep on training and building muscle while you take a break from running in order to reduce the impact on your joints.
Cross-training is commonly overlooked by runners. I know, I know…running is super fun and it’s easy to convince yourself that you don’t need to do other sports other than running but the fact is, if you want to become a stronger, faster trail runner then you need to stop running every so often and put some of your time towards strength work in the gym, cycling, hiking, swimming and even ski touring if that’s your jam.
Many of the top mountain running athletes will switch to skis during the winter months and hardly run at all. They do this to give their legs a rest from the impact of running.
Ski touring is an exceptionally good workout, especially when there’s an uphill gradient. You’ll be working similar muscle groups to that of running but without the impact of your legs hitting the ground. Unfortunately, I don’t have local access to snowy slopes at the moment but If I did, ski touring would be in my winter regimen.
Consider adding some bodyweight strength exercises to your weekly routine. They are so effective, can be done from the comfort of your own home, and won’t take up too much of your time. Doing exercises including split jump lunges, squats, bridges, planks, and situps will build up your leg and core muscles, ready for anything the trails throw your way. You can add intensity to these exercises by holding some small dumbbells while you do them.
2. Muscle Stimulator with TENS
For years I have been using a Compex muscle stimulator to help build leg muscle. It is such a great additional method of gaining strength while giving your legs a break from the impact of actually running. On a day when I’m not running, I can still build muscle in my quads and calves all while watching my favorite tv show! It’s a huge time saver and also a practical way to supercharge and fast-track your training. I first used this technique when training for my first Matterhorn Ultraks race, which incidentally went really well for me.
Using a Compex in this way was a highly effective way for me to build strength into my muscles (I wasn’t living near any big hills at that time) that I knew would be needed for climbing nearly 4000m of elevation gain in Switzerland for Matterhorn Ultraks.
I also use the TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) function of my Compex on my Achilles heel when I feel like it may be flaring up, usually after a high-intensity road run. TENS calms it down, reduces the pain and helps it heal faster.
The Compex Mini Wireless Muscle Stimulator with TENS is their latest device, it’s so small that it can very easily be taken with you on the go. Very handy if you want to give yourself a recovery massage straight after a race (more on that in the Recovery section below). The Compex Mini has 6 programs to help athletes improve their running performance. The programs are ‘Prewarm Up’, ‘Endurance’, ‘Resistance’, ‘Training Recovery/Active Recovery’, ‘Muscle Relaxation’, and ‘Pain Management’.
Find the Compex Mini Wireless Stimulator at the stores below.
2 new from $249.99
The first Compex unit I owned was big enough for me to entertain the thought of not taking it with me on my run-cations but the Mini Wireless Muscle Stimulator has changed the game, with its extra convenient portability.
3. Balance Training
I wrote a post about how to become a stronger runner using a balance trainer previously on trailandkale.com. In that post, I shared some exercises that can be done with a balance trainer like the Bosu NexGen Pro Balance Trainer and how effective they are at helping you improve your technical running skills when the trails get super gnarly.
Balance is so important to trail runners, which is why it’s invaluable to train your muscle/mind connection in this way. Balance training is fun, can be done in your own home and will improve your balance/coordination for flying over trails with reduced chances of accidental falls.
You can buy a Bosu Balance trainer on Amazon below:
Nutrition for running
Nutrition can be a very difficult thing to get right, especially for ultrarunners who run for hours (sometimes days) at a time, where nausea, gut bombs, and code browns can manifest at any moment. If you’re having trouble finding a solution that works for you then I feel your pain. I have made my way through so many different running nutrition products because most just didn’t work for me, even though they seemingly work for others.
4. Natural Food
Don’t overlook natural foods when searching for excellent running nutrition, just because they’re not branded or marketed to runners, does not mean they don’t work just as well! For example, I’ll always have a banana 1-hour before a race starts because it will fuel me nearly all the way to the first aid station (race dependant), where I can usually find some more banana slices. Other natural foods that work for me while running, and are portable and stomachable are dried apricots, olive oil, and hazelnuts. Take care while eating nuts during a run, they can be dry and easy to choke on! Always make sure you have plenty of water with you during a run.
Natural foods are great but they don’t last very long in your pantry. If you need a convenient way to store your nutrition and take it with you on a run then check out my two suggestions below (Tailwind Nutrition and Hammer Nutrition).
5. Nutrition Powders
I recently had a lot of success using Tailwind Nutrition as an all-in-one food solution while running. Tailwind is a powder that you mix with water, and it will keep you going without the need for solid foods. To anyone having stomach issues, this is the product I recommend. Having said that, I have also had some bad experiences using Tailwind. So it’s not all roses and sunshine. On a couple of occasions I felt nauseous and as a result unable to take down more food/liquids but for me, this happened when I was operating at a high-intensity race pace for more than 3 hours.
If you want to try some different flavors before buying in bulk, you can order a 7 stick sample pack below, I personally enjoy the taste of the unflavored one.
1 new from $20.00
An alternative to Tailwind Nutrition, that many swear by is Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem. Find Perpetuem in your favorite store below.
Try either one of these if you haven’t before, they will likely be the running nutrition savior you’ve been searching for all this time!
6. THC-Free CBD to reduce inflammation and pain, improving recovery times
I’m fairly new to the wonders of CBD for endurance running and I admit I was a little dubious of anything related to Marijuana before actually trying it, but this was just my ignorance and lack of knowledge about CBD (Cannabidiol). For one, CBD can be derived from Hemp too (not just Marijuana), and has no addictive properties when there’s no THC in it! I have since learned much more about CBD and experienced the benefits first-hand, using Venga CBD’s THC-Free CBD products to help relieve pain, speed up recovery, improve on my sleep quality, fight inflammation and reduce stress. Why wouldn’t you want to try something that does all that, right?
LEARN MORE ABOUT VENGA CBD FOR RUNNING: Venga CBD Review 2019: THC-Free CBD Products For Endurance Athletes
I have been using all three Venga CBD products, let me explain what the two edibles do, and why I use them. The third product is the exceptional Recovery Balm which isn’t nutrition so I’ll talk about it in the Recover section below.
Aid Station CBD Gummies for intense training and trail running races.
I have been using Aid Station CBD Gummies during long training runs and tough trail races. I used them recently during a couple of European mountain races: Matterhorn Ultraks and UTMB OCC. Both very tough races that I was so thankful to have them with me for. I stashed 4 Aid Station CBD Gummies in my Janji [Re]Run Cap zip pocket during my Matterhorn Ultraks 30km race, a pretty good use for that pocket I thought! I wanted a solution for when I hit the wall and entered the pain cave, these CBD gummies helped me find my way out much faster than I normally would have. They seem to be very fast-acting too which helps get you out of the pain cave ASAP!
Aid Station CBD Gummies are available for purchase only at vengaendurance.com below. GET 10% OFF YOUR VENGA CBD ORDER WITH CODE: TRAILKALE10
Ultra Gels for daily life and training blocks.
For my daily routine during a training cycle, I have been taking 1 Venga CBD Ultra Gel capsule each morning. This has been a really convenient way to get the general benefits from CBD when I need it most, during heavy training blocks. Ultra Gels are formulated to:
- help alleviate any pain during long training sessions & competition.
- speed up recovery to help me get back out there more regularly.
- enhance sleep; the most important time for your body to heal and recharge.
- fight inflammation to allow me to train more consistently.
- reduce stress and anxiety which helps me stay focused, calm and moving forward.
Ultra Gels are available for purchase only at vengaendurance.com below. GET 10% OFF YOUR VENGA CBD ORDER WITH CODE: TRAILKALE10
7. SaltStick Electrolytes: Prevent or fix muscle cramping
I used to get leg cramping ALL THE TIME when I first started ultrarunning. My nutrition routine was out of whack and I sweat a lot while running at high intensity. So, of course, I would always cramp up toward the last 30% of my races. It was always such a bummer to start out so well and then have to death march my way to the finish line with people overtaking me.
IF YOU SUFFER FROM MUSCLE CRAMPS WHILE RUNNING then have a read of this post: How Can I Prevent Muscle Cramps While Running? I hope it helps put a stop to the dreaded muscle cramping.
When I first discovered SaltStick salt capsules I couldn’t believe how remarkably well they prevented my cramping. If you suffer from muscle cramping while running then you probably know that feeling roughly 5 minutes before it hits. As soon as I get that feeling I will always take a SaltStick capsule which prevents the cramping. The capsules are also very fast-acting, so if you miss that 5-minute window and you’re suffering, no worries, just take one capsule and the cramping should pass within 5 or so minutes.
Learning about SaltStick Caps was a HUGE game changer for my trail racing and I always have a stash on me during every race.
There have been many times during a race when I have helped others who happen to be cramping when I pass them, simply by offering a capsule. The capsules are particularly good if you’re unable to take down powdered electrolyte drinks due to nausea because they have no taste and are swallowed with water.
Available at Amazon.com below:
Running Gear that helps improve my running performance
There is so much great trail running gear available right now but it takes trial and error to find exceptional products that exceed expectations. This is a list of the products that I use right now because they offer tons of value towards making me a better runner. They also make running much more enjoyable, either because they’re comfortable, practical or provide actionable insights into my training which in turn gives me endless amounts of motivation to get out there and run, day after day.
8. A GPS Watch with an on-wrist Heart Rate Monitor and actionable real-time data
I used to run with one of the first Suunto GPS watches that came with a chest strap HR (heart rate) monitor. The extra training data that this setup gave me was insanely helpful in improving my trail running performance but I hated wearing the chest strap, it was uncomfortable and restricted my breathing. Good GPS watches now come with On-wrist HR monitors that no longer need a chest strap to measure your heart rate. When I discovered that all I had to do was to keep my heart rate steady and within a comfortable zone, ultrarunning became so much more predictable for me in terms of not blowing up too early. HR training is very useful in trail running where hills are very common.
GPS RUNNING WATCH BUYER’S GUIDE: Best GPS Watches for Ultrarunning & Trail Running in 2019
Training with your heart rate is the only decent way to formulate a training plan that’s uniquely tailored to your body and current fitness level. If you have a GPS watch with HR monitor, to get started with HR training you’ll first need to find your maximum heart rate. Once you have that you can begin running in specific HR zones, specified in various training plans.
All Coros GPS Running watches come with a free app that pulls in all your run data and analyses it to the max. With this data, the app actually builds plans for you based on your historic runs and the intensity level that you ran them at, it’s very clever.
The Coros APEX GPS Watch is very lightweight and small ( it comes in two different sizes) which makes it an excellent choice for those with smaller wrists. It also has the best in class battery life with up to 35 hours in full GPS mode! It also happens to be much cheaper than its competition.
The APEX tracks course, speed, time, pace – all the usuals, as well as elevation gain/loss, weather (via the built-in barometer), cadence, calories, and heart rate. From this data, the watch also calculates estimated fitness levels including VO2Max and lactate threshold, and the efficiency of your aerobic and anaerobic training activity.
FULL REVIEW: Coros APEX GPS Watch Review.
The APEX is available to purchase on Amazon.com below:
9. Comfortable, high-performance trail running shoes
Owning comfortable trail running shoes will help you make the most of the sport. You’ll enjoy running more and as a result will run more. Running more means improvements!
TRAIL RUNNING SHOES BUYER’S GUIDE: The Best Trail Running Shoes: The Ultimate Buyers Guide!
My current favorite all-round trail shoe is the Nike Pegasus 36 Trail. It’s a high-performance trail running shoe that’s so comfortable it feels like a road running shoe. The Pegasus 36 Trail could actually be labeled as a road/trail hybrid, or a door-to-trail running shoe because quite honestly it performs very well on both surfaces. Contributing to the comfort is the Nike Air Zoom cushioned midsole that provides plenty of protection from sharp rocks too. The Pegasus 36 Trail is also very lightweight at 9.17oz (260g), breathable, responsive, and grippy.
Here are some quick stats – Drop: 10mm / Weight: 9.17oz (260g) / Support Type: Neutral.
FULL REVIEW: Nike Pegasus 36 Trail Review 2019
At $129.95 the Nike Pegasus 36 Trail is very reasonably priced too. If you were to ask me which all-round trail running shoes I would recommend, my current opinion is these, and that’s why they rank number 1 on this list.
Available for purchase at the stores below:
3 new from $151.74
NEW GTX VERSION: Nike has just released a GTX Waterproof version ready for wet and cold winter running.
NIKE TRAIL RUNNING SHOES COMPARED: There are two other trail running shoes in the Nike Trail collection, both of which I have compared to the Pegasus 36 Trail in this post here: Nike Trail Running Shoes Compared: Which Are Best?
10. Trail Running Poles
If I’m taking on a super technical trail marathon/ultramarathon that involves an excessive amount of vertical gain (most of them do) then I’m going to take trail running poles with me. Here are some reasons why trail running poles can be so helpful when running:
- They make light work of uphill climbs on steep (eg mountainous) trails.
- They save your legs on long, hilly races.
- They allow you to get into a rhythm!
- They help with balance on steep descents by allowing you to probe for stable ground.
- They allow for space (and self) preservation during busy races.
MY TOP PICK: The best trail running poles right now are the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z.
TRAIL RUNNING POLES BUYER’S GUIDE: You can read more about these poles and other great alternatives in my 5 Best Trail Running Poles Buyer’s Guide.
RUNNING WITH POLES GUIDE: If you want to learn the best technique for running with poles, read our Trail Running with Poles advice guide which explains in-depth, how best to use them while running in the mountains, plus their pros and cons.
RELATED GEAR GUIDE: 5 Top Hydration Packs: Best Race Vests For Trail Running
11. A Technical Running Cap
Got sweat? Yes, I sweat a lot too so if I didn’t wear a hat or a BUFF headband on my head, I would constantly have sweat running down my face and into my eyes. Been there, done that and didn’t enjoy the ride.
I’ve tried so many hats for running with but my favorite right now is the BUFF Pack Run Cap because it:
- is comfortable to wear for long durations.
- is breathable and keeps my head cool during intense exercise in the heat.
- protects the top of my head from the sun’s harmful UV rays.
- wicks moisture to prevent sweat dripping down your face.
- is lightweight and packs down small to be stored in my hydration pack when needed.
- has a bill that flips up and down which keeps the sun out your eyes when it’s low on the horizon but can then flip up so I can see ahead of me when climbing steep hills/mountains.
TECHNICAL RUNNING HATS BUYER’S GUIDE: I alternate between a few different hats on this list which you’ll see if you follow my stories on our Instagram feed: The Top 5 Technical Caps for Trail & Ultrarunners.
SEE IT IN ACTION: See below for a video of me wearing the Buff Pack Run Cap during UTMB OCC 2019.
12. Wearing a BUFF Headband on my wrist
This is a simple one but still very practical. You can either buy an Original BUFF and cut it in half or just use a BUFF headband as it will already be the correct size to wrap around your wrist, I use them both ways. Once on your wrist, you can then use it as a way to wipe sweat from your face or even, dare I say it, wipe SNOT from your nose. I use it for this if I need to blow snot rockets, haha, yeah I know it’s gross but let’s keep things real and honest here.
13. Wireless Headphones for speed sessions gains
When I’m training for speed and running intervals, I find listening to my favorite upbeat dance music helps me hit my goals. I don’t know exactly why but it’s one heck of a motivator for me to push harder than usual! Some of my fastest road runs have been done while listening to music.
The best wireless running headphones that I have ever tried (by a LONG shot) are Jaybird’s latest VISTA buds. The sound is incredible, and they are very lightweight (so they don’t ever pop out). The battery life is perhaps one of the most amazing things about them though, with 6 hours on one charge and an extra 10 in the tiny carry case that they store in.
FULL REVIEW: I wrote a full review of the Jaybird VISTA which has all the details about the product and also what they’re like for running with. There are also lots of pictures of me using them while running to give you an idea of how small they are: Jaybird VISTA Review 2019: Editor’s Choice Award Winner.
You can get hold of them at your preferred store below.
1 new from $179.99
14. A Headlamp for running at night
After I signed up for my first ultramarathon, I knew I was going to have to train in the dark for two reasons:
- The ultramarathon I had signed up to, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail started at 11pm, so I needed to practice running in the dark with a headlamp.
- It was wintertime and always dark after I finished work, so I had no choice but to get some night miles under my belt.
Sometimes there just aren’t enough daylight hours in the day so if you want to keep training (and don’t like running on a treadmill) then you’re going to almost certainly need to buy a headtorch and learn to run with it. Don’t worry though, they don’t have to be expensive, the one I use and love is the BioLite HeadLamp 330 which costs $50. It’s the lightest headlamp I have ever tried and there’s zero bounce when running with it.
FULL REVIEW: – If you would like to learn more about this headtorch, read my detailed review of it here: BioLite HeadLamp 330 Review: The Best Value Headlamp.
HEADLAMPS FOR RUNNING BUYER’S GUIDE: If instead, you’re looking for an alternative to the BioLite then head over to our 5 Best Headlamps for Trail Running Buyer’s Guide and see some other excellent options including the Kogalla RA which is a multi-functional waist-torch for those who feel nauseous when using a standard headlamp.
You can buy a BioLite Headlamp from your preferred online store below but GET 15% OFF YOUR BIOLITEENERGY.COM ORDER WITH CODE: TRAILANDKALE15
1 new from $49.95
15. Using an elevation training mask to simulate being at altitude
I don’t always train with an altitude mask, and I certainly don’t go out in public with one. Have you seen what they look like when worn? Think Bane from Batman haha. These masks do however serve two training purposes when trying to improve running performance, which are:
- if you’re training for a race that is going to take place at altitude, then it’s important to know what that’s going to feel like and also get your body used to feeling the effects of running at altitude.
- you can actually speed up your progression by training with an elevation mask, in a similar way that actually training at altitude does. Your cardiovascular system will be able to perform more efficiently with less oxygen hitting your lungs. So when you do eventually get to race (don’t forget to take the mask off first, haha) you’ll feel like Superman (or woman)!
If you’re curious as to when I use an elevation mask (seeing as I mentioned that I don’t go outside with it), I use it indoors on the treadmill or turbo trainer for my road bike.
I have the Training Mask 2.0 available on Amazon below, but there are plenty of alternatives available.
My recovery routine: Protein shakes, massage tools, and THC-Free CBD balm
A recovery routine after a tough run will help you feel strong and ready for your next session much sooner than if you were to ignore it. Your muscles take a real beating after a long run or a speed workout, so don’t neglect them, instead help them repair faster. It’s not easy to get faster if your muscles don’t get stronger, fact. Like nutrition, running recovery routines are something that will be very personal to you and your body, what works for some, may not work for others.
To give you a starting point, or even if you just want to try something new, give these tips a go. This routine is what I use during heavy training blocks when I absolutely must feel strong and ready to run frequently without minor injuries. This recovery routine also helps fast track my running performance in time for race day.
ANOTHER TIP TO FAST-TRACK RUNNING PERFORMANCE: Benefits of a Running Streak: Accelerated Fitness Gains
16. Protein Powders to help repair your muscles
Repairing muscles after an intense workout is something that many runners overlook. If you can recover faster then you’ll be able to get back out there putting in smart miles that actually count, rather than running on tired ‘always recovering’ legs. I don’t drink one after every run, that would be hella expensive, just the really intense ones like ‘races’, ‘speedwork’, ‘hill repeats’, ‘long runs’. I have found two protein powders to work especially well, they are also both 100% plant-based proteins.
Plantworks Protein Powder with Super Herbs.
I’d say this protein powder is my favorite in terms of taste and purity. We first discovered it at the Hood to Coast Pacific City relay event in Oregon when we were given some to try at the finish line. By the way, if you haven’t done a Hood to Coast event before, DO IT! 🙂
Each serving of Plantworks protein has 20 grams of plant-based protein from Pea, Mushroom, Pumpkin, and Rice proteins. It contains 0g of sugar and 7g of fiber, and there’s No Dairy, Soy, or Gluten. It is also mixed with Adaptogens and Super Herbs to help you speed-up/improve recovery times, Plant Power baby!
Available at Amazon.com below.
Tailwind Nutrition’s Rebuild recovery powder
This is the other powder I enjoy. It comes in ‘single-serve’ stick packs or in 32 oz packs for $38.99 which provide 15 servings, a great way to reduce packaging waste.
The ‘single-serve’ sticks are a convenient way of taking your recovery drink to work or the gym, and at $3 a stick isn’t too expensive.
We especially like the taste of the Vanilla flavor but I wouldn’t say no to chocolate! 🙂
Available at a few stores below.
6 new from $38.98
17. A Massage Gun to work out knots
The Compex Fixx 1.0 Massager is a portable battery-operated massage device that has been fantastic at working out muscle knots.
I have been using it for a couple of weeks now so it’s still a relatively new addition to my running recovery routine but already invaluable! It’s now much easier for me to massage out localized tense muscles. The noise output is very low on the slowest setting but gets a bit louder the faster you make it go.
It has three speeds that you can use to help relieve different levels of soreness and you can also change the tips and rotate the gun head to reach areas that may be awkward otherwise.
The Compex Fixx 1.0 Massager is available at the stores below.
2 new from $249.99
18. Muscle Stimulator with TENS
I mentioned the use of a muscle stimulator at the top of this post as a way to build muscle but the truth is, it’s just as effective for giving you a recovery massage after a run. The Compex Mini Wireless Muscle Stimulator with TENS is the obvious choice for a TENS massager because of its size. It’s so tiny that you can easily take it with you for use after an event, or on a run-cation holiday.
Find the best price for the Compex Mini Wireless Stimulator below.
2 new from $249.99
HOW IT WORKS: If you’re not familiar with a muscle stimulator TENS product, the video below shows it in use.
19. Foam Roller for rolling and extending my back
A foam roller is another effective way to roll out muscle knots. It’s a lot more low-fi than products from the likes of Compex but they serve a purpose.
The GRID foam roller by Trigger Point is good for rolling through tight muscles, knots, and kinks that prevent feeling good and moving well. The three-dimensional surface has a variety of widths to replicate the feeling of a massage therapist’s hands. I also use my roller to help straighten my back by laying down with it underneath my back. Then I lift my pelvis up to send the weight down towards my back and the roller, and then just roll. You’ll likely feel a few clicks as your back straightens out.
Then there are massage balls… The great thing about the massage ball is its tiny size, which means you can take it with you on those longer hiking and running adventures. Massage Balls can target all sorts of isolated muscle areas due to their small size.
20. Recovery Balm applied to sore muscles
I have been having so much success with Venga CBD’s Recovery Balm product. I first noticed its power when I was in Europe for Matterhorn Ultraks 30k and the UTMB OCC 56km 5 days later. I wouldn’t normally stack races so close to one another, but when I was offered the opportunity to run both, I couldn’t refuse. I used the Recovery Balm on my leg muscles after Matterhorn Ultraks and felt repaired and ready to run UTMB OCC 5 days later.
That impressed me but what really blew me away was just how good my legs felt the day after UTMB OCC which saw me running 57km, with 3200 meters of positive gain for 10.5 hours. That’s a long time for me to be running on such steep mountain terrain. I can only attribute it to the Venga CBD Recovery Balm I smothered over my legs the night of the race. Kudos to Venga CBD with this Recovery Balm, it’s a pretty amazing product and I couldn’t think of a better one to end this list with.
Recovery Balm is available for purchase only at vengaendurance.com below. GET 10% OFF YOUR VENGA CBD ORDER WITH CODE: TRAILKALE10
If you have any questions about anything I have talked about on this list, please just drop it in the comments below and I’ll reply as soon as possible.