There’s a reason why fell runners are often seen returning from races sporting cuts and bruises. Technical trail running is a test for even the most seasoned of trail runners. When you hear a section of trail described as “technical”, you know you’re in for some serious running. Technical trail running demands enhanced skill and agility to stay on your feet in challenging underfoot conditions.
Technical trail running is characterised by the terrain being quite difficult to traverse. This may include obstacles such as rocks, loose surfaces, roots, mud, water, steep climbs and steep descents. Some technical sections may also require the use of the upper body in order to negotiate. Technical trail running is usually significantly slower than running on smooth surfaces, and there is a higher risk of injury.
Each of the terrains and obstacle types requires special skill and experience. If you are planning to run a trail race that has technical sections, you should devote a significant amount of time practising running on those surfaces.
Trail running can cover a broad spectrum of surfaces depending on where you live. One athlete’s version of trails may be vastly different than another’s. Therefore it is important to define the surface/terrain and characteristics of the trail you are training on, as well as the surface/terrain of where you will be racing.
When you hear the term “technical” used to define your race, be prepared for some rough terrain. This is the ultimate off-road test for the endurance runner.
Technical trail running is defined by the surface and environment you are running. Does it have rocks, roots, mud, water, steep climbs and steep descents? Are hiking poles recommended? Are there sections where you need to use your upper-body to assist?
What Is Technical Trail Running?
Expect The Unexpected
Technical trail running means handling whatever the trail might throw at you. Think taxing climbs and steep descents, traversing loose scree and tackling obstacles such as rocks, tree roots and streams. Technical trails are defined by their difficulty and you’ll need to remain agile and able to react quickly to sudden obstacles and changes in uneven terrain. You may even find yourself needing to use your upper body to navigate tougher climbs and sections of trail. You’ll need to be fully alert and focused and while your pace will slow, there’ll be no corresponding let up in effort.
Adjust Your Training
Technical trails demand power, agility and endurance with fast changes of direction and the ability to push off rocks, stone and other uneven terrain while staying light on your feet. Mix up your training and cross train to include squats, lunges and basic plyometrics to build explosive power and condition ancillary muscle groups. Hill sprint intervals will also build strength for tough ascents and descents while boosting endurance. Don’t forget, technical trails will slow you down, so train to perceived effort rather than pace.
Work On Your Technique
Shorter strides mean better stability, with your feet centred directly below your centre of gravity. A mid to forefoot foot strike will help reduce the risk of injury and boost your running efficiency, especially on uphill sections. Swing your arms to help propel you on the uphill and use them to help balance on the descent. Some technical trail runners also advocate working towards a faster overall cadence or turnover to minimise foot contact with uneven, rocky terrain through the foot strike. Learn to stay alert on the trail and always be prepared for the next 5 to 10 feet of terrain ahead.
Wear The Right Shoes
If there’s one piece of equipment you need to navigate technical trails, it’s a good pair of trail or fell shoes. These need to have an aggressive outsole with deep lugs to grip the terrain and help you stay on your feet. Sticky rubber outsoles help prevent slipping on wet rock, while reinforced toe guards and rock protection plates help protect your feet from injury. Good proprioception (or ground feel) is also essential on technical trails. This allows you to react and adapt quickly to changing terrain. Choosing a low profile trail shoe that sits close to the ground and facilitates that ground feel will boost your agility and reaction time as well as helping keep you safe from injury.
These are some of the most common obstacles you will encounter, and some tips for negotiating them successfully.
Rocks come in all shapes and sizes and each one requires a slightly different approach. Small rocks or pebbles can create a slippery surface or find their way into your shoes, making running uncomfortable. Larger rocks can result in twisted ankles or stubbed toes. The trick is to keep focused on foot position and plan your line.
Loose surfaces such as gravel or slippy mud can be challenging, especially when combined with a slope. Grippy shoes may help to retain traction, but in some cases, you may just have to slow down and take it easy.
Roots pose a similar risk to rocks, and come in many shapes and sizes, but tend to protrude higher from the trail surface and trap the foot a bit more. They also have the added benefit of being slippery and can result in a foot unexpectedly loosing grip. Because they differ based on the type of vegetation growing in a area, it pays to train in the area you’ll be racing in.
Mud can be some of the trickiest terrain to overcome, particularly the sticky, slippery kind. If it’s really bad, it can coat the bottom of your shoes, adding unwelcome weight and providing a slick surface with no traction at all. Sometimes there’s no alternative than to grab a stick and try to scrape the mud off.
Usually, water crossings just mean that you’re going to get wet feet. Fortunately, most trail shoes are pretty good at directing excess moisture away from the foot, and you’ll be reasonably dry in no time.
Steep terrain is one of the most common things you’ll encounter while trail running. To complicate matters, you’ll probably also encounter one or more other types of obstacle at the same time.
Tips for Technical Trail Running
Find the Right Shoes
Shoes are the main gear consideration for trail runners. If your first trail run will be on a mellow gravel road you can get by with your road-running shoes but as soon as you encounter roots, rocks and slippery mud you’ll realize the importance of having trail-running shoes.
How are trail-running shoes different? Trail-running shoes are generally beefier than road-running shoes and emphasize traction, foot protection and stability. For a good analogy, think of the difference between tires on a mountain bike and a road bike. Within the trail-running category, you’ll find a range of shoes that are suited for everything from easy, groomed trails up to highly technical, variable terrain.
You can also choose from stripped-down minimalist shoes that give you an enhanced feel for the trail and your own biomechanics or maximalist shoes that have lots of cushioning to reduce impact on joints and fatigue on high-mile days.
Gear Up to Run
The beauty of technical trail running trail running is that you don’t need a bunch of gear to do it. Going for a quick, short trail run can be as simple as pulling on shorts and a T-shirt, lacing up a pair of running shoes and heading out the door. With that said, there are several gear considerations that can make your run more enjoyable and comfortable, especially as you begin taking on higher mileage and more challenging terrain.
What should you need?
- Carrying Water
- Navigation Tools
- Sun Protection
- First-Aid Kit
Work on Your Technique
Overall Technical Trail Running Tips
Eyes Front, Please
Gawking at scenery and staring at your feet are two temptations to resist. Instead, you want to keep your eyes down and scan the trail 10 to 15 feet in front of you for obstacles.
Shorten Your Stride
Shortening your stride can make you more agile and able to react quickly to obstacles. You’ll also be able to lengthen a single stride when needed—to avoid landing on a rock or muddy patch, for example. (If you’re already taking long strides, you forfeit the amount of “emergency” extension you have available.)
Keep Your Shoulders Straight
Hunched shoulders put stress on your back and rob your lungs of inflation space. They are also a sign you’re too tense, so take a moment to relax them. Then hold your shoulders straight, align them with your back and lean your whole body slightly forward as you run.
Whenever you run, check your running posture periodically. Are you hunched over? Straighten up. Are your shoulders caving forward? Roll them back.
Hone Your Arm Swing
Keep your hands in relaxed fists. Orient your arms so they are perpendicular to your torso, rather than pumping diagonally across it. Your fist should lightly graze the side of your running shorts on each swing.
Having an efficient swing motion helps you build forward and upward momentum through your entire torso, rather than relying solely on your legs.
Downhill Trail-Running Tips
Wing Out Your Elbows
Charging down a steep, rocky trail is a balancing act. Wing out your elbows to improve your control, just as a tightrope walker might hold arms out for balance.
Land on Your Midfoot
The argument in favor of a midfoot strike is twofold: maximizing balance and minimizing injury.
Much like in skiing, staying over your center of gravity, rather than behind it, helps you maintain balance and control your speed on descents. If you’re landing on your toes or heels, you’re less likely to stay over your center of gravity.
In addition, if you’re a new trail runner, it takes time to develop precision in your stride. If you’re a forefoot or a rearfoot striker, a misstep can lead to a rolled ankle and/or a tumble. Aiming for the midfoot simply gives you a greater margin for error.
Note that pain and injury can also result from changing to a different foot strike. So pay careful attention to how your body feels and go slowly with any stride changes.
Uphill Technical Trail Running Tips
Shorten Your Stride Even More
Bounding up a hill isn’t sustainable. When you’re climbing steep hills, short, quick strides will be easier on your cardio system. They’ll also help you avoid strains to your Achilles’ tendons, hamstrings, calves and glutes.
Switch to Speed Hiking
On sustained hills, speed hiking is often more efficient than trying to keep up a running cadence. This is especially true on a longer run or race, where preserving your endurance is key. With practice, you can maintain almost the same pace with a much lower energy output.
Keep Your Toes Up
In order to avoid catching your feet on roots, rocks, and even minor bumps in the trail, run with a toes up approach. This often entails minor heel striking. But with proper footwear, a shorter stride, and good knee lift this shouldn’t be an issue for anyone.
Having the proper footwear ensures protected feet, and upright running. Find a shoe that provides a secure heel fit. Once laced/tightened you should not be able to slide your foot out of the shoe. When you place your foot the last thing you want is your shoe rolling from side to side or your foot moving in the shoe.
The shoe tread matters, so make sure your shoes have a tread pattern that can handle the technical trail. Lugs help you climb hills, rocks and muddy slope. They also help you brake when needed on steep descents. A good tread pattern will clear mud as you run and not hold onto water after a stream or river crossing.
Shoes also provide much-needed protection. If you can feel every pebble you encounter it will make for a long day on trail. A small rock plate built into the shoe can be a superb counter for this. Plan ahead for what you need from your footwear as the miles accumulate and your legs get tired.
Foot Strike Cadence is Key to Staying Upright in Technical Trail Racing.
Fast feet move over the terrain quicker, and spend less time in contact with the ground. When the footing is poor, this is crucial. The feeling of producing fast feet could be best described as “touch and go.” Move through the terrain, avoid stop and go movements, which slow you down, waste energy and can even make the terrain harder to pass through. Take the most efficient path.
If your training grounds don’t offer up similar terrain to what you will be racing on, use an agility ladder, practice taking shorter strides during your daily runs, and learn to study the ground while running. On trail, your feet go where your eyes focus.
Aim to Finish
Don’t take unnecessary risks. Technical trail running takes time. In a race situation, focus on finishing, not your position. In training, challenge your limits gradually to improve your skills. Run the same familiar trails at progressively faster paces. Each time, you’ll make improvements in foot placement and you’ll become progressively more confident.
I hope you found this useful. Do you have any tips or advice for technical trail running? Please leave a comment below to let me know.
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