Trail running does come with challenges, but once you master the techniques, you will experience the joy and exhilaration only found when your heart is pounding and you are inhaling fresh air, hearing nothing but the crunch of trail under your swiftly moving feet, and feeling alive.
UNDERSTANDING THE TRAIL
Pounding the pavement is the first experience most runners have with the sport. The road is typically a calm, relatively flat surface with few variations to watch for, making it easy to concentrate on form and speed.
The trail is obviously different: its surface is uneven and challenges us mentally and physically. But those differences offer tremendous advantages. We must think, plan ahead, control our pace, and develop muscles that stabilize us. These things don’t just distract us from the mundane task of forward motion; they build stronger support for our running future.
The best physical advantage to trail running is the softer surface. I’ve been a runner for 33 years, and I’ve spent roughly half those years running exclusively on trails. I rarely experience injuries and I believe it’s due to the variations and softer surfaces of the trails. (Of course, I do sport a few battle wounds from falling down while trail running. I wear mine with pride, and you should, too!)
As you prepare to race your chosen Leadville Race Series run event — whether it’s the Leadville Trail Marathon, the Heavy Half, the Silver Rush 50 Run, the 10K, or the full Leadville Trail 100 — master the trail with these tips for climbing and descending, maintaining control, and increasing your endurance.
THE UPS AND DOWNS
Whether you’re headed up or down, never fight a hill — the hill will always win. Take what the hill gives you, and savor your ability to make the climb or the float down by adapting your form, footfalls and aerobic endurance. Proper form will vary depending on whether you are climbing or descending. Footfalls are determined by the incline and surfaces. Your aerobic endurance will improve with practice.
Going Up: Proper Form
Proper form when climbing will prevent injury to your lower back and overuse of the quad, or front leg muscles. Stand upright and avoid bending at the waist. Some runners place their hands just above their hips to remind them to keep their form, especially when they are tired or it’s a particularly long hill. Your steps will be shorter. Land more towards the front or ball of the foot to allow a good push-off. Your hamstrings should be the major muscle group to use on the uphills. You should feel the push-off in your upper glutes and hamstring muscles. Practice this form while walking uphill, trying not to over stride or reach too far with your forward leg.
Going Down: Proper Form
Proper form on the downhill will prevent strain to the quads, hips and lower back, even though these are the major muscle groups used. Again, stand upright, lean slightly forward at the ankles — never at the hips. Feel gravity gently pull you forward. Avoid leaning back or braking. This puts undo stress on your quads and lower back. Land more on your whole foot as opposed to your heels. Your steps will be longer, not from reaching with the forward leg but from staying in the air longer and gliding down. Keep your knees soft and slightly bent. Arms are bent at 90 degrees to your body, with your elbows slightly pointed out, acting as a ballast or like the wings of an airplane, stabilizing the body. Avoid crossing your arms in front of your body. Relax and feel the float. Practice this on a groomed dirt trail with increasing descents.
RUNNING WITH CONTROL
Comfortable, fun trail running is all about balance and control. But what about hitting the unmanicured, rocky singletrack that we love so much? How do you get comfortable and feel safe, preventing the “fall”?
This is where footfalls enter the equation. My cardinal rule when trail running is the ten-foot rule. Your eyes shoud be focused 10 feet in front of you. Your body will follow where your eyes tell it to go. Avoid looking directly down or in front of you. Keeping your gaze ten feet ahead will help you plan your next step so that your landing is safe and stable. When you run with control, you increase your ability to avoid hazards such as loose rocks or dirt, roots, or the ever-sly snake. Don’t feel you have to run in the center of the trail. Use the sides, especially if the center is narrow or full of loose rocks or mud that can be slick. Bounce off a smooth, canted side to keep control.
BEING READY FOR THE LONG HAUL
One of the major differences between trail racing and road racing is that the trail distances typically take longer, which means you will be stressing your body more and longer. It’s important to increase your aerobic endurance when training, and to train your body to use its fat stores for fuel.
But another, very important part of training for a specific trail race is acquiring as much information about your race as possible — from terrain to logistics — so that you can be prepared to go the distance.
Look up past finishers in your age group to estimate the time required to complete your race. Know the cutoff times. Practice running in the same conditions you will face in your race. Be sure to check elevation gain and loss, along with incline percentages when possible. Know that in races with lots of climbing, it’s acceptable — and in fact, best practices — to walk the ups and run the flats and downs. All trail runners use this tactic — even the most elite runners. With our limited supply of glucose to burn, going anaerobic on the first hill leads to premature loss of endurance and speed.
Master the Ups and Downs with These Drills
Always warm up and cool down sufficiently. Do uphill and downhill drills on different days. These drills will give you a good perspective on the percentage grade on a hill, so that in a race you’ll know if you need to walk or are capable of running. They also increase you aerobic endurance, as you will stay mostly in heart rate training zone 3/Aerobic Target (if you’re new to heart rate/zone training, you can tell you’re in zone 3 when you’re breathing hard and you can only speak short phrases).
Pick a trail with a hill that is at least 6% grade, 1/2 to 1-mile in length. Climb in zone 3/AT and practice good form. Walk if necessary. Recover by taking it easy on the downhill run, practicing good form. Start with 3 repetitions of the hill, working up to 5. By the time you are doing 5 repetitions, you should be able to run some or all of the hill while staying in zone 3/AT. If training for a Leadville Race Series run (with the exception of the 10K), use a hill that is at least 1-mile long. After working up to 5 repetitions, find a hill with a greater incline; look for an increase of approximately 2%, aiming ultimately for a 10% grade, and always returning to 3 repetitions with each new increase in incline.
Use the same hills as uphill drill. This time concentrate on good form running down increasing your speed each time. Practice the ten-foot rule. Start with 3 reps, increasing to 5. Increase descent grade accordingly.
Kathy Pidcock is a running coach and the Run Club Coordinator for Life Time Fitness Parker Aurora, CO.