Steep Trail Running: Tips For Handling The Terrain

Steep trail running is its own technique. It requires practice and knowledge in order to make informed decisions.

In this article, we’ve got a couple of steep trail running tips guaranteed to help you ascend and descend quickly but safely.

Steep Trail Running: Not All Hills Are Created Equal

Before we dive into strategies for steep trail running, it’s important to figure out which type of hill you are running. For a longer trail race or run, not all of the hills are going to be runnable.

You may be physically able to run the tough hill, but on a long course you will pay for that later on in the run.

And not all hills are created equal. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of hills we might encounter.

The Runnable Hill

The first hill is the runnable hill. It’s not too long, and while it might be tough to do so, we can run up it.

For the runnable hill, keep your stride short and compact. Maintain a steady pace as you work your way up.

Avoid over-exerting on this hill. Keep a steady pace and a short stride to preserve energy.

The Partially Runnable Hill

Depending on how far into the run you are and how steep the hill is, you may need to combine running and hiking.

Run a few steps, and then hike a few steps, and steadily alternate until you reach the top.

A good starting divide is running 20 steps and then hiking 20 steps.

Hikers-Only Hill

The last type of hill is simply too steep to run in the middle of a longer course. For this one, just hike it.

While it may feel weird to walk during a race if you are racing, your body will thank you in the long run for recognizing the need to walk.

Spiking that heart rate too high too quickly will send your body out of endurance mode and into anaerobic, panic mode.

Steep Trail Running: Common Mistakes

Foot Position  Steep Trail Running

The first common trail hill running mistake is to keep the weight on the toes. While it may feel more powerful to attack the hill on your toes, you need to save your calves for the rest of the race.

In order to avoid burning out those calves, your heels need to touch the ground.

This may feel more difficult than usual, because running uphill requires more dorsal flexion in the foot.

To accommodate this, hinge forward slightly at your hips. This way your heels can touch the ground more easily. Be sure to keep your abs tight to avoid throwing off your posture here.

Run/Walk Divide

The next two mistakes fall into the same category: choosing when to run and when to walk.

The first common mistake here is to run too long. It can be a tough thing to allow yourself to walk, especially if it’s early in the trail race.

However, if your heart rate spikes too high, it is going to take too long to recover from that feeling, and by the middle or end of your race you’ll be totally gassed.

The second common mistake is to let yourself walk for too long. Be tough on yourself here. Walk only when you know you need to do, and start running as soon as you can after that.

You can always return to walking if you got going too soon, but the goal should always be to get back to running as soon as possible.

Steep Trail Running: Don’t Forget the Downhill

When we’re running on steep trails, the downhill is not our rest period. Use the flat portions for that.

Going downhill on a steep trail requires focus as you’re going to encounter loose rocks, tree roots, and other obstacles that can be dangerous on the downhill.

Also, from a competitive standpoint – the downhills are often what separate the top finishers.

As you do running uphill, figure out what type of hill you’re on. Is there loose gravel to look out for? How steep is the hill? Is it so steep that you need to hike down in order to be safe?

Make those decisions at the beginning of your descent so that you know what you’re up against.

Use Your Eyes

This seems like an obvious downhill tip, but look ahead! Try to focus on what lies ahead so that you can adequately prepare for it.

Alternate looking at the terrain you are currently running over and what’s up next, and keep switching back and forth to ensure you’re ready what’s to come.

This will help avoid “careless” downhill errors that could be costly.

Keep Your Cadence High

Steep Trail Running

It can be tempting going downhill to take an easy pace. For most downhills, this is doing you a disservice.

First, it’s putting a lot of pressure on your quads, a muscle group you will desperately need on the next uphill portion of the race.

In addition, keeping a high cadence reduces the likelihood of stumbling. By picking your feet up and turning them over more quickly, you are less likely to drag your feet behind you and accidentally trip on something.

Keep Your Center of Gravity Forward

Steep Trail Running

Our bodies’ natural tendency when going downhill is to lean back. This actually increases the likelihood that we will slip.

With less weight directly over our feet, they are more likely to slip forward out from under us.

Instead, keep your bodyweight forward. The more forward you are, the less likely you are to slip.

Practice Your Downhill

It’s important not to descend beyond your ability. This means that while the tips above are certainly going to improve your downhill running, you don’t want the first time you try them to be on race day.

If you can, practice the specific downhills you will be running on race day many times beforehand.

The more familiar you are with the hills, the higher you can safely keep your cadence, and the less afraid you will be to keep your bodyweight forward.

Practicing downhills is the only way to ensure your safety come race day.

Steep Trail Running: Get Some Gear

Steep Trail Running

On a steep trail with loose gravel, tree roots, and other obstacles, invest in a trail running shoe with some teeth on the bottom.

It is important that your shoe can hold onto the trail. Your running technique and cadence will play a role in this, but a good trail running shoe is the last piece to the puzzle.

Also, keep the time of year in mind. A trail might be less slippery if it’s been raining a bit, because the moisture helps pack together the dirt and gravel.

Dry trails are often more slippery because things are free to move around. However, if it’s so wet that the dirt has turned into slippery mud, it may be even worse.

The fix here, as stated above, is to practice. Practice your uphills and downhills in different weather conditions so that you are prepared for anything on race day.

The more you practice, the more educated your decisions will be about when to run, walk, speed up, and slow down.

This will also help you avoid injuries. Check out this article on injury prevention for more tips on that.

With that said, happy trail running!