How to Get Free Speed Out of Switchbacks
Technical trails can serve the bonus purpose of helping you build speed, especially when training for twisty mountain races.
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A switchback is an opportunity. If used right, a switchback-proficient runner can gain seconds on each turn over a runner of equal ability who gets shy when the trail gets twisty.
Just this past weekend, an athlete I coach named Sara Kadlec made her debut on the national trail-racing scene by earning a second-place finish at the Aspen Power of Four 50K. Her race had close to 250 switchbacks, on both climbs and descents. If each of those is a two-second opportunity, that is more than eight minutes that can be gained from technique and training, rather than pure fitness.
Fortunately, Sara often trains on Boulder’s “Swoop” trail, a winding route up Mount Sanitas overlooking the city. In part because she has switchback practice, Sara was able to excel at the Power of Four.
If your trail has so many switchbacks that it looks like a large intestine (or even just normal twists and turns), learning a plan of attack is key. Here’s how.
1. Flow, chop, flow
Normally, your stride should be smooth and flowing, as if Barry White’s voice has possessed your legs.
But around a switchback, your stride should be choppy and quick, as if the Bee Gees have gotten into your legs and are giving the trail a drug-fueled disco serenade.
Don’t overstride and heel-strike to brake when approaching a switchback. Instead, try to keep your speed high while shortening your stride (usually just a yard or two from the turn itself), leaning into the turn as you chop at the trail. Once you reach the turn’s apex, let go of the chop and resume your normal, flowing stride. This technique allows you to turn more precisely at a faster pace.
2. On uphills, take the inside of the switchback when possible
In Italy in 2014, I learned the hard way that you always take the shortest route possible on the trails.
I was feeling good about myself, in the top 20 at the World Mountain Running Championships. Then, on a switchback, I took what I later learned was an “American” turn, going around the outside. Meanwhile, a pack of Europeans cut up on the very inside of the dirt, technically legal but not something I had seen before. They all gained seconds on me with less work than I was doing, huffing and puffing a few yards away. (Note: always stay on the designated trail, as cutting a switchback off-trail will lead to disqualification in most races.)
The shortest line is almost always the best line. Even if you have to power hike the steeper inside line, it is likely worth it from a time-and-energy perspective.
3. On downhills, use the whole trail
When Barry White/Bee Gee-ing down a hill, it is best to take the inside line too. However, that is not always possible if you are bringing a lot of speed into the turn. As you chop your stride, let your feet wander to the outside of the trail if needed. In essence, you can use the slingshot effect to hold more of your speed.
1. Do strides
That flow-chop-flow approach requires you to quickly accelerate after turns to gain back any speed you lost when trying not to fly off into the shrubbery. Running fast down a winding trail feels like a bunch of strides, decelerating then accelerating over and over again, extracting every second possible from the terrain.
So practice those strides in training! During the second half of your easy runs, work in 8-10 x 15-20-second strides with full recovery in between. On strides, work up to the fastest pace you can hold while running smoothly and comfortably, then ease back to your normal running pace. These will also have the benefit of improving your running economy, which will make you faster at all effort levels.
2. Build leg strength
If you are taking the inside of the turn on an uphill, or chopping around a downhill turn, your legs need to be strong. On the ups, choosing the shortest line often means choosing the steepest line. On downs, your quads absorb any deceleration.
Both require legs that are strong like bull and sturdy like grand piano. Do a mix of front, rear and side lunges, followed by step-ups. (Check out our five-minute strength routine to get mountain-approved, switchback-ready legs.)
3. Practice urgency
Finally, there is no substitute for actually doing race simulations on twisty trails. When you are descending during your long runs (and some workouts if it fits in your plan), focus on technique at high speeds.
I advise my athletes to go for their fastest times on 3-to-10-minute twisty descent segments, as that helps them learn just how much every turn counts. Do the same on ups so that it becomes instinct to run the shortest lines on race day.
With these tools, you can become a pro at attacking switchbacks. When people are shocked at your switchback skill, just don’t give your free-speed secrets away. Tell them, “I guess I was just born with it.” Then put in your headphones and turn on your Bee Gees and Barry White mix so they stop asking questions.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.