Running Technique - Navigating the Trails

Coach Kirk on running technique

Running technique on the road versus the trail can look a bit different. On the road, you’ll likely be able to maintain a smooth pace. You might not need to toggle between a run and a walk. Chances are there won’t be any big descents to fly down, either.

On the other hand, the trail will throw lots of terrain changes at you. Whether you’re cruising up, down, or around, having a pocketful of helpful tips can transform your trail experience from tough and tiring to tough and fun. Check out the following tips to help you get up and over the hills on your next trail run!

Uphill Running Technique

First, you have to get up the hill! Rather than beat yourself up on the way up, try these three strategies to climb smarter.

Tips for uphill running

#1. Pace Yourself

There’s no such thing as a constant pace on the trails, especially when you’ve got a lot of elevation changes on your route. Rather than focusing on maintaining a certain pace whether covering flat ground or climbing a hill, make an effort to slow down on the ascent. This will save your legs and your energy so that by the time you get to the top, you’ve still got some gas in the tank to power you down the other side.

If you’re in the habit of checking your watch to see what your pace is, try flipping the watch face down to the other side of your wrist so you’re less tempted to look at it. The last thing you want is to feel discouraged because you aren’t hitting the pace you’d normally be at on a road run.

Finally, as an alternative to your pace, pay attention to your body. Are you gasping for breath? It seems obvious, but if you are, slow down! Try to keep a steady breath on your climb and it will help you regulate your speed more easily.

#2. Use Your Arms

Though it may feel like your legs are doing all the work to get you uphill, they don’t have to! Your arms can contribute a great amount of power and energy to your run. By pumping your arms and leaning slightly into the hill, this exaggerated run form can help propel you up and forward, saving your legs from some of the work.

Be sure to keep your head up and scanning the ground ahead as you go. Keeping your head bent down to look at the ground not only lessens your awareness of the trail ahead but can also pull your upper body forward, compressing your lungs and limiting your breathing capacity.

#3. Embrace the Power Hike

The last uphill tip: don’t be afraid to walk! Stopping to walk is not quitting – not when it comes to the trails. Rather, it’s a very strategic tool in uphill running. Walking is commonly called power hiking in the trail world, as it’s not just a slow meandering along the trail, but rather a way to conserve energy so you can run again on the flats and downhills.

Power hiking changes your form enough that it recruits your muscles in a different way than running, which also helps diversify your energy output. Sometimes power hiking can even be faster than running, depending on how steep the terrain is.

The next time you’re making your way up a steep incline, try bringing your arms into your power hike. You can alternate between swinging them strongly, as mentioned above, and using them as extra leverage. You can push down on your quads as you climb, transferring power from your arms to your legs.

Downhill Running Technique

Once you make the summit, take a moment to catch your breath and take in the view. Maybe even squeeze in a few minutes of movement to freshen up your legs. Then it’s time to make your way down the other side!

Coach Kirk and downhill running technique

#1. Keep Your Feet Under You

When you’re cruising down a descent, it’s tempting to open up your stride and bound down. Though this may feel good for a minute, you’ll probably soon start to notice all the impact your body is taking on. A longer stride puts your foot farther out in front of your body and the cumulative impact will leave you a very stiff and sore runner by the end of your effort!

Instead of bounding down, try to keep your stride short and tidy with your feet under you. This shorter stride makes it easier to control your footing and reduces your impact with the trail. It also leads us to our next tip!

#2. Quick Feet

On the trail, quick feet serve multiple purposes. Not only are shorter, lighter steps easier on your body, but they also help you avoid snagging a toe on a root or rock. We’re not saying you need to high step like a dressage horse, but keeping quick feet will help you navigate the trail as you pick your way down.

#3.  Don’t Hesitate

Depending on how steep of a descent you’re looking at, it can be a little scary! You may be dealing with unstable footing due to loose dirt or rocks. Maybe there are big rocks scattered along the trail that you need to keep an eye on. You might be worried about how much it would hurt to misstep and take a fall. Falling is a part of trail running, and even the pros take a spill from time to time.

We’ve all been there! Just like all aspects of running technique, it takes practice to get more comfortable with the trail. You might start off tense and resisting the path downward, but over time you’ll learn how to relax into the descent. You might even find yourself leaning forward a bit and letting gravity help pull you down. Remember back to when you were a kid and you spread your arms to speed down a hill at the park. How fun was it to feel the wind on your face and the building speed as you flew along?

The next time you’re running downhill, try to channel your inner kid and don’t hesitate on your way down!

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