Integrating trail running into your training can add variety and a new challenge to your running, as the stimulus of changing surfaces and gradients encourages your body to use different muscle groups throughout your run.
Here are some trail running tips and supporting videos to help you get the most out your training.
Trail running technique
You can trail run anywhere that is off-road, and can usually incorporate much more short and sharp climbs, if any at all, compared with fell or hill running. Here’s how to handle steeper terrains.
Tips for uphill running
Don’t lean too far forward
Whilst it is natural to lean into a hill when running up it, leaning too far forward can make you less efficient. Firstly, leaning too far forward limits the range of motion of your hip flexors, meaning you can’t generate force as effectively, making you less efficient. Leaning too far forward also means you can’t fully extend your leg behind you as you toe-off, meaning you also can’t toe-off as powerfully. To help you maintain your uphill running efficiency, use the cues ‘run tall’ and ‘drive your hips’, as this will help you run with a more open gait as you power up those steeper gradients.
Get into a rhythm
It is much easier to tackle a hill with an even pacing strategy as opposed to bursts of faster and slower running. This means potentially starting a hill at a slower, more sustainable pace, get yourself into an efficient rhythm, and increase the intensity as you get toward the top. Regulating your breathing/respiration rate can help build into this rhythm.
Break up long climbs with walking sections
On prolonged, or very steep climbs, there is no shame in walking sections. In fact, research has shown that over some gradients, walking may be more efficient for you. Power walking allows you to use muscles that have been less active whilst running uphill, redistributing the load to those muscles and giving your glutes and calves a bit of a break to take some of the load.
Tips for downhill running
Leaning back too much can increase the chance of landing more on your heel and on straight legs, causing you to brake and jar your gait, increasing your chance of slipping on muddy descents. This can encourage you to land more heel-heavy, and a smaller surface area, which can increase your chance of falling.
Keep your knees bent
Having your knees bent allows you to recycle more impact energy into elastic recoil (springiness), keeping you moving nimbly and efficiently! It also stops you from landing straight-legged, which can be very uncomfortable and increase injury risk. This skill can be improved with plyometrics.
Increase your cadence on steep, technical descents
This helps reduce contact time and combined with bent knees, helps navigate technical parts of a route effectively. Skipping and coordination drills really help with this.
Use your arms
Be sure to use your arms to help you balance as you descend. Don’t keep them close to your chest, instead relax and let the arms flow in the air.
Gradually introduce longer descents
Like anything, a new skill requires a lot of concentration. So on particularly long technical downhills, try to break up long descents into sections and tackle each of them in sections, with breaks in between them.
Strength and conditioning
Often neglected by us runners, but doing some solid strength and conditioning can make all the difference with keeping your downhill running form, even when really fatigued. Single leg squats and core stability are a must!
Practise makes perfect
Regularly exposing yourself to some downhill sections will keep your body knowing how to tackle descents. Every so often, integrate some downhill reps within a workout to see how fast you can get your legs turning over!
How to handle slippery and softer surfaces
Trail running requires precision, even more so when running in mud, ice or snow. The tips below also apply when running on rocky or dry trails.
Look for the best line
Don’t look down at your feet but a few meters ahead. Analysing the terrain while running is a skill but it comes quickly with experience. That’s what makes trail running so exciting!
Shorten your stride
A shorter stride results in better stability on slippery surfaces.
Embrace kinaesthetic learning
The idea is to develop a frame of reference based on what a movement feels like. It’s about being physically aware of what your body is doing. In other words, it’s doing and practicing! For instance, purposely choose to run a small section of your run on the muddiest or slippiest section and see how your feet will react. It will then become a frame of reference and the next time you encounter a similar terrain you’ll know how to adapt foot placement and adjust stride length.
The uniqueness of trail running comes from the need to fully immerse your mind and body to the terrain and environment surrounding you. Reaching a state of flow on a trail run is probably one of the most pleasing and enriching experiences.
General trail running tips
Run by feel
Don’t pay too much attention to pace on your watch. You will be running significantly slower on trails compared to when you’re running on the road. Instead, gauge your run by effort and time, like with hill running.
Wear trail-specific shoes
Get a good pair of trail shoes. These provide much better grip, and much better lateral stability and structure than road shoes. This will make you feel much more sure footed over loose, slippy terrain and when you have to change direction at faster speeds.
Plan your route in advance and let someone know where you are going. Although many trails are much easier to navigate than open hillside, it is still easy to get lost, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the area.
OS Maps are invaluable and are packed with information and unmatched detail. Other route-sharing apps such as Map My Run and Strava (Premium) can help you discover and plan new routes.
Hit the trails and have fun!
Trail running is fairly accessible, as you only require access to off-road tracks, as opposed to mountainous terrain, which is more likely to be found around most of our immediate environments.
The advice in this article will hopefully help you enhance your trail running training. Or simply give you more confidence to go tackle the trails. Don’t let interferences like speed (“I’m too slow”) or fear (“I’m going to fall for sure”) stop you from doing or trying anything. Just go out there and have fun!