Mindful Movement: Trail Running Is Like Running, But Fun
When I first got into running, it was almost all on the road. I’d spent the majority of my life playing basketball and football, but after knee surgery, I was looking to get my body moving again and running was the safest, easiest way to get outside and sweat. I was in my mid-twenties and it was the first time I’d truly understood the appeal of running. Discovering this age-old sport, at a time in my life when I’d already been exercising for years, felt like an epiphany. As I got faster and ran further it became a richer experience. Doing track workouts, tempo runs and even sprinting up hills became fun. Well, a unique type of fun.
However, it wasn’t until a friend dragged me out to an 11km trail race that I really unlocked what “fun” running could be. Immersed in nature, scrambling over rocks and splashing through creeks, exploring forests and mountains, my lungs filled with fresh air – I was hooked. It’s been five or six years since that initial race and now I try to get into the mountains as much as I can, body and time permitting. While I’ve been dealing with a recent, smaller injury, I’ve dreamt of moving freely on top of a mountain more than any other activity.
Whether you’re setting out for a 2km run or stepping into the ultramarathon range of 50km-plus, here are some essential tips that can help to conserve energy and run efficiently, while increasing speed and preventing injury.
01. Running downhill
While running downhill can be less gruelling than uphill, it requires more practice and comes with its own unique set of challenges. The action of descent involves a unique mix of muscular contractions, while the gravitational assistance means you’ll be running faster, which means you’ll need to be extra careful on uneven terrain.
Because of this risk, many people feel uncomfortable running downhill, so they hold back, which can actually make things worse. By restraining your natural running action, you may actually be increasing the likelihood of getting an injury.
You should lean forwards, keeping your centre of gravity just ahead of your body, allowing your legs to naturally carry you, using gravity to assist. Stay on the balls of your feet. Landing on your heels will create an unhealthy shock through your knees, hips and back that may result in chronic injuries over time, so stay on the forefoot and absorb resistance with your whole legs as you go down.
To practise this technique, lift your arms out sideways and allow yourself to fall forwards and then catch this momentum as you start the downhill. Keep your hands and arms wide, almost like you’re flying. Use your arms to guide you downhill. This helps to maintain balance and makes it easier to move laterally, which is crucial in finding your best footing as you descend.
If the terrain is steep and technical, run with short, choppy strides, raising your knee rather than kicking back powerfully. This technique will lead to a soft, high-cadence stride that lessens impact while reducing the risk of tripping.
02. Running uphill
There aren’t a lot of people who love going uphill. However, it’s part of the reality of trail running and if you can begin to enjoy it, your adventures will take on a whole new experience. Easier said than done, I know, but instead of focusing on the hell of burning lactic acid in your legs, the lack of oxygen and no end in sight, try to keep in mind the beauty of your surroundings, enjoy the sunshine and the cool breeze, and be grateful that your body can carry you up the hill.
Having said that, there are ways to ensure you make it to the top of the hill as efficiently as possible. Keep pushing off the forefoot, leaning forwards slightly to keep your centre of gravity just in front of your feet. Pumping with your arms will help to maintain momentum as you push towards the summit. When going uphill, it’s important to focus on keeping your strides shorter. This prevents over-exertion.
Lean forwards and look down at the ground in front of you. This is vital at all times on a trail, since footing is changing with each step. Then, tilt your centre of gravity forwards. The steeper the gradient, the further forwards you should lean. In this position, your legs should be acting like powerful pistons, pushing you upwards with each step. Focus on maintaining momentum at all times.
This technique takes practice, but staying too upright is the biggest mistake people make going uphill. You want to pump your arms as well, which helps to engage your whole body to generate energy instead of relying entirely on your lower half.
And finally, when things get steep, there’s no shame in hiking. If you don’t have poles to rely on, you can use your hands on your quads, just above your knees. Leaning even further forwards can help spread the load from your legs to your arms as you make your way up the mountain.
03. Running with poles: alternating
Running with poles is a great way of adding extra balance and stability, while relieving strain on your leg muscles. This can prove crucial on tough uphill or downhill segments. The alternating technique involves planting one pole into the ground at a time, with your poles a mirror image of your strides: as you take a step with your right foot, plant your left pole in the ground, and vice versa.
I suggest getting the hang of the alternating pole technique by walking first, so that you can find the rhythm and timing that suits your stride. You want to follow your natural rhythm with this style and speed it up as you speed up. This is especially helpful when going uphill, but it can also help on flats or going downhill to stabilise and take some of the load off your legs.
This technique is great for longer distances or maintaining a cadence at medium paces. You might be surprised at how much you feel it in your arms and shoulders, but that just means you’re taking that burden off your legs, which can use all the help possible on long mountain runs.
04. Running with poles: double pole plant
If you’re moving at a quicker pace, then you might want to use the double pole plant. This is best used on flatter sections as the alternating style is best on steep trails. Approximately every three steps you will bring both arms forwards, plant the poles and propel your whole body forwards. Again you want to keep the same rhythm with this technique and use it to add a little boost every few steps.
You can also use this style to propel yourself over rocks and holes going up or downhill. The extra power can increase your speed and efficiency on inclines and flat sections, but also when going downhill you can use this style to stabilise your speed, take pressure off your legs and slow down more easily.
When you’re not using your poles there are several ways you can carry them. For short sections, you can run with them in your hands. If you don’t need them for an extended period of time, attaching them to your bag or belt will be more comfortable and efficient while also allowing you the use of your hands for balance.