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Being a trail runner requires eschewing specialization. While our counterparts on the road and track repeat the same motion over and over again, trail runners need good form for flats, uphills, downhills and technical terrain. The goal in developing trail-running technique is to turn yourself into the ultimate all-terrain vehicle, equipped to tackle anything the trail throws at you.
If a runner focuses too much on the buffed-out trails and road-like trails of the Bay Area in California, they may be fast, but they’ll struggle in a rugged mountain race. Meanwhile, if a runner focuses too much on the rocky trails of the Appalachian Mountains, they may be technically proficient, but they’ll be slower than they would be otherwise. It’s all about finding balance by applying a few principles that work for all of your training and racing.
Imagine a fast running form. What do you see? For most people, the first thing that subconsciously gives away “speed” is quick turnover—a high cadence built to withstand many miles. The strides are soft and quick, with strong rearward kick. The person is running tall, with good posture and arms held closely to the body. And most of all, he/she probably looks relaxed and comfortable.
That ideal form is not just genetic, though it does have genetic components. By practicing form every day on your run, you can improve. And by improving your form, you can improve your running economy for the long haul. Let’s start from the feet and work up.
To overturn one misconception: there is no perfectly ideal place on your foot to first make ground contact. Some swear by running on your toes and others on your mid-foot, but all that really matters is where your foot strikes in relation to your center of gravity. The key is to avoid over striding by having the foot land under the mid-line in your hips, rather than slightly in front of that mid-line.
For many runners, that essentially means that landing “flat-footed” is ideal, which will usually feel like a mid-foot strike, but if you slow it down using a camera, you’ll see what we mean. The body wants to maximize the surface area underfoot at impact. Heel striking is often (but not always) associated with over striding. Toe striking is active, rather than passive, requiring a pointed foot that uses excess energy.
To achieve the ideal foot strike, relax your feet and ankles and take short strides that fall under your center of gravity. The landing that results will likely be ideal for your physiology.
While footfall is mostly passive, stride dynamics are an active set of choices you can make every day you go out on a run. Let’s start with the general and work toward the specific using a three-point strategy.
First, your strides should generally be soft, which usually means your form is more efficient. Listen to your footfall when running. Does it sound like a light pitter patter, or like a person playing the drums too loud? Ideally, you are quiet enough that you can sneak up on people like a ninja without them knowing you are there.
Second, your strides should be quick, which distributes load more efficiently over the course of a run. Often, it feels a bit unnatural at first, especially for people with a background in sports that involve sprinting. As a sprinter, you learn to practice long, powerful strides. As a trail runner, you want short, rapid strides.
Third, you should learn to target a running cadence that works best for you. There is no right answer for this. Most elite runners are around 180 strides per minute, and almost all successful runners are above 170 strides. However, there are exceptions. Trail-running superstar Jim Walmsley is notorious for his loping stride that is closer to 165, practically unheard of among fast runners.
While there is no right answer, most trail runners would be well-served to practice a soft, quick stride that is at least 170 strides per minute. A way to measure your stride rate is to count how many times your right leg hits the ground in 30 seconds. Multiply that number by four for your stride rate.
Engage the Glutes and Practice Good Posture
Glute engagement is about running form, rather than focusing specifically on what your butt does. A three-step process can be helpful to figure it out.
First, stand up. Most people will have tight hip flexors when standing. So, think about loosening the hip flexors and activating your glutes slightly. Your hips should move forward and your spine should straighten. That is the posture to use when running.
Second, when running, think about that relaxed-hip-flexor posture, then focus on flowing back, rather than pulling forward. The moment of power in your running motion is when your foot pushes off the ground behind your body; maximizing push-off comes from relaxed hip flexors that allow a full range of motion, not a flexed butt.
This rearward flow through push-off is most evident in elite road runners, who usually have a strong back kick. Meanwhile, many recreational runners look more like they are riding a bike, with pronounced forward motion.
Third, to really understand glute engagement, do a fast set of strides on a slight downhill. The best downhill runners have mastered that relaxed-hip-flexor, flowing-back running form. While accelerating, try to stay relaxed and get as close to top speed as possible without sprinting. Then, apply that form to the rest of your running, including at slower paces and on variable terrain.
So when people say, “Engage your glutes,” perhaps they should say, “Relax your hips and practice good posture.”
A good runner is like a T. rex—ferocious from the waist down and neck up, but unimposing in between. Your arm swing is meant to counter the motion in your hips to preserve balance, not to propel you forward. The most efficient way to do that is to make like a T. rex and keep your arms close to your body.
While studies have not found an optimal arm angle, start at 90 degrees. The key is what comes next. Focus on keeping your arm angle at 90 degrees or less throughout the arm swing—in other words, if you draw a line from your shoulder to your elbow to your wrist, it should form a right angle. Don’t let your arm angle open up.
If you watch many efficient road and track runners, their arms often form even shorter levers, sometimes around 70 degrees. By keeping the angle at 90 degrees or less, the arm swing uses less energy, which can then be used where it’s really needed—in the legs.
To put it another way, T. rex arms are essential for Velociraptor speeds.
Shorter Strides = More Stability
When in doubt, aim for shorter strides. They will involve less impact forces, which in turn will make you more resistant to injuries. In addition, you’ll have more stability on the trail, since each footfall will be under your center of gravity, allowing you to adjust. Meanwhile, if you over stride, you are susceptible to every patch of mud and every false step, since you’ll be kissing the ground before you can adjust your weight and adapt.
Running uphill can be pretty darn horrible.
The social-media accounts of professional runners (or even normal people with very short memories) may claim that running up steep grades is “awesome” or “epic.” But no amount of heavily filtered photos can hide the truth: If we were meant to run uphill, we would all weigh 100 pounds and be born in a hut in the Spanish mountains like Kilian Jornet.
So, yes, gravity can be a jerk. But you can make it your friend. A few simple techniques make every uphill a breeze … well, easier.
The main thing to focus on when running uphill is to lean into the ground and use your forward momentum.
First, look down at the ground in front of you (which you should be doing anyway to watch your footing on trails). Second, tilt your center of gravity forward, aiming to mirror the gradient beneath your feet. For example, when on a 10-percent grade, think about leaning 10-percent forward from center. On steeper grades, go even farther forward.
Finally, when running with this technique, think of your legs less as powerful pistons, and more as tools to keep you from falling face-first into the ground. With each step, your momentum while leaning forward will carry you up the mountain—your legs merely keep the forward motion going.
This technique takes practice, but staying too upright is the number-one mistake that most self-proclaimed “bad hill runners” make. Concentrating on leaning forward is the first step to becoming a mountain goat.
Running uphill, tension makes every step harder, forcing you into a hike that much sooner. But relaxing is a simple two-step process. First, and most importantly, focus on letting your leg muscles loosen whenever your leg is not in active contact with the ground. The step-to-step cycle of contract-loosen-contract-loosen will delay accumulation of fatigue in your legs and allow you to push longer.
Second, while leaning forward, concentrate on letting your lower back and arms release tension. A slight forward lean on uphills can immediately be counteracted by a lower back that springs you upright every chance it gets. And flexing arms are using up blood that should be going to your legs and lungs.
Power Hike Strategically
Hiking is the dirty secret of the trail-running world. You almost never see a magazine cover with someone walking. But like pooping, everyone hikes, even the pros!
That said, there is often a massive difference between how people hike. And that difference can turn something fast and efficient into a waste of time. So how do you hike with a purpose?
First, as with running uphill, lean forward. Even farther forward. Even farther. Perfect. When power-hiking uphill, you want to feel like you are almost parallel to the ground (even if you are actually not even close).
Second, focus on using your arms. The ideal technique is to place your hands on your quadriceps closer to the hip than the knee. Each time your leg pushes off, use your arm to push down and give you an extra lift.
Finally, alternate uphill running and purposeful hiking for maximum efficiency. Like running uphill, power hiking is hard, and mixing it up will allow you to go farther, faster. A good breakdown is 10 seconds running, 50 seconds hiking, but any mix can work. Adapt to the terrain, hiking on steeper gradients, and running on flatter ones.
As for when you should start hiking, that is a personal choice based on your fitness level and background. Experiment with what works for you. Some people should be hiking whenever the trail goes up; others might never need to hike unless the trail almost requires rock-climbing ropes. A good rule of thumb for long runs or races is to hike any hill when you cannot see the top.
One of the toughest things for new trail runners to learn is that moving fast downhill requires two different types of running form. Let’s call them the angry hippo and the dancing mountain goat.
The hippo is best on slight downhills without too many big rocks or girthy roots, such as fire roads or typical Northern California trails. On these hills, the most efficient form is one that eats up the ground with slightly longer strides. A slight heel strike is natural on these downhills, but try to land as flat footed as possible to distribute the load away from your knees and toward the big shock system in your quads and butt. To train your musculoskeletal system, do relaxed, 30-second strides on gentle downhills, emphasizing a powerful stride and rearward hip extension that engages your glutes.
Steep and Technical Downhills
The mountain goat is reserved for the steep, rocky descents common in Europe, Colorado and much of the eastern United States. Imagine a vertical line drawn from your hip bone to your ankle, and try to keep it from moving forward or backward. Run with short, choppy strides, raising your knee rather than kicking back powerfully. This technique will lead to a soft, high-cadence stride that reduces impact while lessening the risk of tripping. To practice, there is really no substitute for finding steep, technical hills and running down them as often as you can.
Embrace the Dirt
One of the big reasons trail running is so fun is that it is dirty. Unlike the road or track, it involves mixing up your stride over and over again, with different technique needed on different types of trails. There is no one-size-fits-all trail runner, because there is no one-size-fits-all trail. Roads are clean. Trails are messy.
With that in mind, embrace what makes you unique as a trail runner. Your form can be dirty and messy just like the trails. You can be successful on the dirt as a hippo or a mountain goat, a short-striding waterbug or a long-striding gazelle. Start by applying these principles, then find the form (and the animal analogy) that works for you.