Let's begin by establishing that running on trails is a different beast in comparison to road running. Sure, the same general principles are in play, keep your easy days easy, short strides are most efficient, and your nutritional needs remain largely unchanged, yet there is a certain thrill you can achieve by trail running. If your technique is spot on, trail running becomes one of the most enjoyable experiences you can achieve as a runner.
What does it mean to say you're a "trail runner?" How do you become a performance-driven trail runner? And what's it like to transition from road to trails? These were just a few considerations and questions when I decided to begin the transition to off-road running.
I'm not a seasoned vet. I did not grow up running on trails, but I have an athletic background, and I thought I would be a reasonably decent, amateur trail runner. My first time on trails was on a smooth pea gravel course, leading to an overestimated sense of ability. My second time on trails was a race, and I rolled my ankle numerous times that day while wearing shoes a half size too small. Trail running isn't something you can casually jump into without consideration. I attempted to mirror my pace and stride on roads during the race, and if you're reading this and have a few trail miles under your belt, I'll picture you scolding me. Long strides with elbows pinned to your sides does not make for good trail running efficiency, so let's talk technique.
The Anatomy of Good Technique:
Short strides, springing off the ball of your foot.
When you're navigating trails, obstacles are always present. The old saying, "stay on your toes," can be a quick reminder that agility begins with an athletic stance. By running on the ball of your foot while using short, almost choppy, strides you increase your ability to react according to the terrain. This will help prevent you from reaching with your front leg swing, which propels you outside your center of gravity, increasing your fall risk.
Another good reminder is that "if you think you can make it in two steps, take three." It's not worth the wasted energy and fall risk to leap and bound down the trail. Efficiency is superior to power, and we want you to finish the run without mishaps.
Loose arm swing as if you're walking on a balance beam.
When you're sprinting the final 100 meters of a race, your arms are pinned to your side in an attempt to stay streamlined through the finish. This is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve when trail running.
The best practice is to let your arms float at your sides with the ability to hinge in all directions from your shoulder to help maintain balance throughout the trails. Your arms act like rudders, keeping you in line and on course, and there may be times you need to reach for a tree or limb to keep from falling.
Head neutral with eyes scanning the ground in front of you.
Your head should maintain midline as much as possible. This will help promote good upright posture through your trunk and core. Eyes should be focused on scanning the 10 - 15 feet of ground in front of you, so you're better able to react to roots, rocks, and down trees. We often allow our eyes to fix on a point off in the distance with road running, which may spell disaster on the trails.
Torso upright with an engaged core
There may be times on the trail in which you're hinged at the waist, powering hiking a steep climb. And this is perfectly acceptable and perhaps the most efficient way to work the hills, but the other times when you're running, that good upright posture is a must for performance. Practice running with an engaged core and "tall" by imagining a string is tied to the top of your head pulling you up.
Naturally, as you begin to tire, form and technique will suffer. This is not the time to give in to fatigue. If need be, slow your pace, and walk. Especially when running downhill, it can be easy to run without control. In other words, to let gravity take control. Falls happen when trail running, and I have yet to meet a trail runner that hasn't fallen more than once. If you fall, take a breath. Adrenaline or embarrassment tends to propel us to our feet before realizing if we've been hurt in the process. Our goal is to enjoy trail running, and you can't do this as an injured runner.