As I was running along a technical trail in the rocky foothills near Boulder, Colorado, I found myself thinking of someone for the first time in almost two decades. That person: the former all-star baseball player Chuck Knoblauch. The brain is strange.
Knoblauch was a reliable fielder at second base until 1999, when he started having trouble with the short throw to first base. In 2000, he made three throwing errors in one game, with the last one flying into the stands and hitting a sportscaster’s mom in the head. Knoblauch left the field, walked out of the stadium in street clothes mid-game, and almost never played second base again.
He had a case of what the sports world calls “the yips,” when an athlete gets a mental block and something that was routine becomes unnatural. Another interesting case happened in 1989, when catcher Mackey Sasser lost the ability to consistently throw the ball back to the pitcher with any accuracy. A promising professional career was derailed for something that many six-year-olds do effortlessly.
So why did I think of Knoblauch and the yips? As I was running across the rocks, the thought crossed my mind: “If I think too much about what I’m doing right now, I am going to fall on my face.”
I twisted my ankle a second later.
Fortunately, that ankle is a permanent lumpy beach ball, so I was able to keep going and get back in the moment. Thoughts of Chuck and Mackey faded away, replaced by thoughts of rocks and switchbacks and pancakes (a background presence in all of my thoughts). The remainder of the run was such a joyous adventure.
The article starts with that anecdote so I can tee up the contradiction at the heart of this advice. The form and training tips I want you to think about are all designed so that you can run on technical terrain without thinking much at all. Essentially, we’re trying to reverse engineer that flow state from a case of the chronic yips that many trail runners feel on technical terrain, whether from a past injury or fear or lack of practice.
Disclaimer: before doing anything with inherent risks like technical trail running or trying to park at Whole Foods, consult a doctor, coach, biomechanical specialist, life insurance agent and member of the clergy, as needed.
But there is amazing news! Based on my coaching experience, I think any runner can become a beast on technical trails by applying six rules. Disclaimer: before doing anything with inherent risks like technical trail running or trying to park at Whole Foods, consult a doctor, coach, biomechanical specialist, life insurance agent and member of the clergy, as needed.
1. Think light, quick strides
The hardest thing to internalize about technical running is how the feet can move so fast without missteps. And here’s what you need to remember: technical running is not done one step at a time, it’s done five steps at a time.
I really learned the lesson last summer descending off a big mountain peak with the two-time Golden Trail Series finalist Meg Mackenzie. It’s not that she had an innate ability to avoid missteps. It’s that by the time one foot misstepped, she’d already be moving onto the other foot. Her center of gravity stayed balanced and centered by not “sitting down” in her stride or putting too much emphasis on any footfall.
From a distance, her light, quick strides looked almost as if she was running over smooth ground. Up close, she saved dozens of stumbles without consciously processing it.
From a distance, her light, quick strides looked almost as if she was running over smooth ground. Up close, she saved dozens of stumbles without consciously processing it. Meg’s whole body was not running fast that day (so she wouldn’t drop my sorry butt), but her feet were moving fast the whole time.
Michelle Merlis, a superstar trail runner who teaches clinics on the subject, uses an analogy to help people learn the technique.
“I like to think of it as a dance with the rocks and roots,” Michelle says. “You learn to know which rocks and roots can be stepped on and which you need to go around or jump over. And kind of like a highly experienced dancer, you don’t dwell on a misstep or stumble, you’re immediately on to the next, so much so that an outside observer would never even know a mistake had been made.”
My dancing is one big mistake, so I’m taking copious notes.
Careful, heavy footfalls require each step to be perfect. Quick, light steps ensure that you aren’t penalized for inevitable imperfection.
2. Focus on lifting foot up with knee drive to keep center of gravity aligned
On a non-technical downhill, the kick-back part of the running form can be astounding. But change the picture to a technical downhill, and form has to change a bit. Why is that?
The big reason is that it’s impossible to use light and quick strides with that form. In addition, it’s way easier to kick rocks or roots.
Emphasizing the process of lifting the foot forward from your knees with your hips forward lets you keep your center of gravity directly over your landing zone while moving rapidly from step to step. In practice, it might not look much different, but it’s a good cue to get proper balance. With practice, you can mix the two styles for technical and non-technical portions of trail.
3. Don’t look straight down
Because technical running is done five steps at a time, you don’t want to be staring at the ground for each footfall. So keep your eyes down and ahead, just not at your shoelaces. I imagine that’s self explanatory, but through coaching, I HAVE SEEN SOME THINGS.
Also, make sure your vision is optimized. Some of the athletes that think they can’t do technical trails just can’t shift focus due to vision issues.
4. Don’t look around
Do not glance up at a passing hiker even if you think they may be making sexy eyes at you. Do not look at that tree even if it has some sexy bark. In fact, all sexiness will have to wait until you stop or get off technical trails.
Here is something that happens constantly. I am just going to describe it via sound. You may even be able to imagine it.
You can say hi, just don’t make eye contact.
5. Relax and flow
OK, we have the form cues down. Quick strides, light feet, knees leading, eyes down and ahead. Now comes the hard part. Frankie Goes to Hollywood said it … relax. I would argue the reasoning in that song is somewhat related to the topic of this article if you really think about it.
Imagine a mountain bike and a road bike. The stiff road bike can fly, but put it on rocks and it’ll be in the bushes quickly. The mountain bike’s shock absorbers allow it to eat the rocks alive. Your feet and legs need to work the same way. Too much tension will make your ankles into your shock absorbers, rather than your entire lower body.
The same goes for the upper body. Let go of as much tension as you can in your arms, neck and face. I like athletes to use an adopted mindfulness strategy, thinking about just one part of their body at a time as they learn how to release.
Your body is a river flowing over the rocks. Let go.
Yes, it’s 6 p.m. and I’m a half a glass deep on the cheapest merlot.
6. Practice purposeful lightness
Let’s end with our old friend Chuck Knoblauch. Here’s what is so fascinating about his story: after losing the ability to consistently make the short throw from second base, he moved to left field, where the throws are much longer and harder and subject to double entendres. In left field, he was fine.
When we are trying to exert control, our brains have a strange way of forgetting the simplest actions. The same goes for writing, public speaking, running, all other sports, sex. Our conscious brain is brilliant at problem solving, and also problem creating.
Flow state describes when that part of the brain leaves the group chat. Technical running—like rock climbing—can spur that transcendent flow because it forces presence in the moment. That is so freaking cool.
But it can also be daunting if you are mid-run and find yourself thinking of baseball and psychology and beach-ball ankles. There is no set answer about how to achieve lightness out there, but I like athletes to try three steps.
First, keep recentering your thoughts on the trail. Your mind will wander, just bring it back gently if you can.
Second, think of it as adventurous play. If you don’t actively look forward to technical running, your brain will undercut you eventually. Technical running is when we stop being adults with taxes and performance reviews and start being kids. Embrace the play element—including the falls. Like a kid, you can cry, but if you’re not falling sometimes at recess, your recess game needs work.
Third, move faster. It’s so easy to hit technical trails and think that it’ll be easier if you’re more careful. But like Chuck Knoblauch at second base, giving yourself too much time to think about a simple task is the worst thing for your brain.
So let go and move quickly. You might not always find flow. You might fall sometimes. And ankle turns are guaranteed.
But along the way, I promise you’ll find lots more life.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.