Dirt over a white background

The Dirt with Jeff Browning



Bend, Boulder, Durango, Asheville, Flagstaff —these mountain towns conjure images of rugged mountains, vast forests, and limitless singletrack. But what if you don’t happen to live in a trail mecca? What if the trailhead is hours away from your front door, but your heart is on the trail? Never fear. With a little creativity, you can imitate some of the demands trail running will require in that concrete jungle you call home.

Altra athlete Jeff Browning has been finding ways to mimic trail runningthroughcity streets for years. In part 5 of his monthly series, The Dirt, heshareshis secrets.

Ready to dig up some dirt, kick up some dust, and sift through the soil? Let’s get started! 






Run on Soft Surfaces

The inconsistent surfaces of trail running putsdemands on the stabilizer muscles of the ankles, lower legs,and hips. So get off the pavement as much as you can. Does your urban area have gravel pathways? If so, explore your local urban pathway network. Find the nearest park or golf course and runon grass. Better yet, link up multiple parks in your city. This Tour de Parks will make you scour Google Maps and challenge you to find new routes. No more running the same old route. Trail running challenges your sense of safety, your direction,and yourcoordination. Fortunately, you can mimic these challenges in the city.When linking up grass and parks, make it a game to run on as many soft surfaces as possible. You know that nice manicured area between the sidewalk and street? It was made for trail runners! Run on the boulevards and when the grass ends, cross the street and pick it up on the other side. Cut through outdoor malls and areas with steps and landscaped embankments. Jump over retainer walls or run on top of them. Imagine crossing a river on a downed log. The idea is to work those stabilizer muscles and your mind. Challenge yourself by being engaged. Let your inner adventurer come out.


Jeff Browning running across a bench in a park


Use Stairs to Simulate Vertical Ascent

Stairs provide the perfect city vert. You’ll get used to some of the demands you’ll encounter in your next trail race by running up and down as many stairs as possible. I coached an ultrarunner in Florida who used a six-story firefighter training tower to simulate vert in preparation for the rigors of an upcoming 100-miler. He power-hiked up and slow-jogged down while wearing a 15-pound weight vest to put the eccentric load on his quads. Another athlete did a 30-minute warm-up (with a weight vest) in his five-story Manhattan apartment building before his 45-60-minute midweek run. Utilize stairwells in office buildings, apartment buildings,or hotels —find a publicly accessible staircase and knock out a circuit.

Travel for business? Make sure your carry-on is a backpack. Hike the terminal with your “weight vest” while waiting on your flight. I once did a 30-minute, three-story stair-hiking circuit with my carry-on backpack in the Atlanta airport as an impromptu training session.


Bridge and Bleacher Vert

Bridge or bleacher circuits are another good training tool for hills. Many bridges are built as an arch, so you can yo-yo back and forth over them to accumulate some vertical. Run over to your local high school and run a bleacher circuit. One athlete I know has coined one of his bleacher circuits, “Death by Bleachers.” He spent 10 miles on the bleachers in a single, leg-pounding workout circuit.


Hit the Treadmill

The treadmill is another good tool for simulating climbing. Some of the newer treadmills go negative to simulate downhill running, too. Do 20-40 minute mountain climbs at 10%+ grade. You can also mimic rolling hills by going up for a few minutes, then flat and faster for a few minutes to simulate downhill if your treadmill doesn’t have the downhill grade capability.


Weighted Legs

Another strategy for preparing for mountain running is weighted legs: heavier deadlifts, squats, and lunges. One specific workout for a flatlander athlete included adding Bulgarian split squats to a tempo trail circuit.He only had a one-mile curvy, flat,and wooded trail near his home which he ran at tempo effort to exaggerate the pronation and supination that trail running demands. He then recovered with an easy jog at the turnaround before another tempo curvy mile back. He followed that with a recovery jog to his house, where he had dumbbells in his driveway. He then did a high rep set of weighted Bulgarian split squats with a small hop on each leg to simulate eccentric load on the leg, then jogged back to the trail and repeated the circuit.



Jeff Browning running on the dirt strip between the sidewalk and the road



Disclaimer: This athlete worked up to the heavy Bulgarian split squats with a hop by doing a six-week build-up to prepare his legs. The progression consisted of bodyweight split squat (no hop), then weighted (no hop), then hop with the weighted split squat. Once that was comfortable with form and load, we added it to the running workout.

TLDR;Know your limits.

Training for trail running in the urban jungle can be engaging and fun with a little creativity and ingenuity. It will make you look at the next urban outing as a cross-trainer for your next trail adventure.



About the Author

Jeff Browning is a veteran ultrarunner and ultra-endurance coach. As a masters athlete, he has embraced both mobility and strength consistently in his training to slow down aging and to prepare his body for the rigors of up to five 100-milers per season—some just weeks apart. You can learn more about him, his adventures, and his coaching at GoBroncoBilly.com or on Instagram: @GoBroncoBilly