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Technical trails can ask a lot out of the runner. They demand a fine balance of concentration, strength, and agility that can take years to hone. But being a strong runner of technical trails can quickly translate to improved efficiency, faster races, and overall health.
Like anything, upping your game on technical trails requires practice and preparation. That’s why we turned to our favorite coaches and athletes, asking them how best to build the skills for staying upright and moving fast through tricky terrain. Here’s what they said:
“One of my favorite sets of drills to build skills for technical trail running is Lauren Fleshman’s dynamic drill routine,” says elite mountain runner and coach Mason Coppi. “The routine includes dynamic drills that improve overall biomechanics, coordination, foot speed, and ability to move in multiple planes of motion.”
Though the routine was originally designed for track and road runners, it targets skills and agility that translate well to trail running. These dynamic, multi-directional movements keep you on your toes and help with the precise footwork you need for tough terrain. Coppi likes the athletes he coaches to do the routine after each run, to reinforce good footwork and form, especially when the legs are fatigued.
Take action: Do 10-15 minutes of mobility and drills after two to three runs a week to improve agility and footwork. Use the video above, or try using a ladder, cones or even chalk your own “ladder’ on the sidewalk to practice.
“Pure strength is always in fashion for any difficult race, so it’s a good idea for trail runners to improve their maximum strength output,” says Strength Running coach Jason Fitzgerald. “By getting substantially stronger, runners will be able to cover steep and technical sections with ease. And (of course!) spending time on technical trails is the best way to get better at them.”
San Diego-based Coach Jessica Riojas Schnier agrees, and says athletes should specifically target their toes and feet with strength training.
“I do toe yoga (stretches that target the feet and toes) and ankle inversion/eversion exercises while sitting at my desk and occasionally use a wobble board to help strengthen my ankles,” says Riojas Schnier. She also recommends toe yoga for athletes who struggle with foot and lower leg injuries, which can help with agility and stability on technical trails.
Being a strong runner of technical trails can quickly translate to improved efficiency, faster races, and overall health.
“When technical terrain is not available, I often utilize movement-specific strength work. The roots and rocks simply aren’t ladders on the ground – that would be nice and predictable, but there is more to running technical trails than a quick high knee,” says Coach Jenny Quilty.
“To prepare for technical terrain, I use run-specific strength moves that best replicate the movement patterns of climbing or descending on trails,” says Quilty. “A few of my favorite go-to strength moves often focus on eccentric loading to build stability and strength with downhill running. Since technical terrain often requires more time in the mid stance of the running gait (when the foot is planted on the ground) I incorporate a few moves to target stability and power navigating movements while a single leg is under load.” She recommends moves like step downs, single leg lateral slider squats, step-ups, and reverse nordics.
The best way to improve your technical trail running ability is to just get out there and do it.
“Go out on the trails and get comfortable,” says coach and elite trail runner Tabor Hemming. She and her husband and co-coach Eli Hemming recommend getting out on the trails as much as possible, while augmenting that trail running with some targeted strength training.
“Some of our favorite strength exercises are lunges (front, back, and lateral) and then planks. These are the biggest bang for your buck exercises, especially for a time-crunched runner. We recommend incorporating them two to three times a week following your run.”
Strengthening your lower core with stabilization exercises like planks and leg lowers will also help with stability when moving quickly through technical terrain. But, there’s no replacement for getting out on the trails, and honing your skills in the real world.
Nike pro runner and coach Matt Daniels recommends repetitive running on technical terrain. “It always helps to have someone who is faster than you on technical terrain to run in front so you can practice just staying with them and reacting to what’s ahead quickly!”
“If it is accessible, the best way to improve is to practice, by following others, joining a group, doing sessions on a specific section of trail where you run for a few moments, walk back, and repeat to test out and build confidence in footing,” says Quilty.
Take action: Grab a friend or join a running group and hit the trails. Notice the quick turnover and shortened stride most folks adopt when moving quickly through technical terrain, and see what lines your trail buds take.