Taking your runs to the trail is a good way to lessen the pounding of road miles and keep things interesting (and more challenging) by adding varied terrain.
Gravel trail and dirt path cruising are rather dreamy and not much different from road running. But as the terrain gets more technical with the addition of rocks and roots and hills to run up and down, a few key techniques will be useful. We connected with Salomon trail runners Max King and Cat Bradley to get their insights about running uphill, the importance of power hiking and running downhill. King won the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships, while Bradley was the winner of the 2017 Western States 100, so they clearly both know a thing or two about trail running.
King says efficiency and maintaining a sustainable pace are essential when going up a hill.
The best ways for most runners to do this are to:
-Take shorter strides (it may feel choppy at first)
-Avoid getting your foot out in front of you, land on your forefoot
-Keep in mind what your stride feels like on the uphill, then transfer it to the flats
“You’re trying to find a sustainable pace for hills,” King says. “The goal is to run at a pace you can continue once you get to the top. This helps runners dial in their stride and pace for overall running improvement.”
However, every hill isn’t runnable, which is where power hiking comes into play.
“Hiking is part of trail running,” King says. “Hiking efficiently can save you time if you do it well.”
By “well” King means not strolling along, especially if you’re in a race. He suggests runners should “hike with purpose,” to boost efficiency, go faster, and keep their heart rate up. He recommends three different styles of hiking based upon the terrain.
Use this for more mellow inclines that are just steep enough to make hiking more efficient than running. Swing your arms to help propel you forward, instead of having them on your knees. The goal is to take relatively big steps to cover as much ground as possible. You can even walk with a heel-striking gait to help propel you through your stride.
This style is for a little bit steeper grade. Hike with your hands on your knees—they’ll be active and help pump your legs as you get going. The goal is still to eat up as much ground as you can with each step.
When a trail becomes so steep that you can’t get your foot out in front of you, stepping is your fallback. Step up the hill, getting up on your forefoot and use your upper body to help get you up the hill. Place your hands on your quads for support or, if it’s really steep, look for branches, roots and rocks to grab on to as you go.
Successful downhill running is largely based upon practice and confidence. Plus, you have to “accept the downhill” and embrace the slope with a strong, purposeful gait, Bradley says.
“People fall when they are hesitant because their natural reaction is to break or land on their heels,” says Bradley, adding that heel-striking on the downhill sets runners up for a greater chance of ankle sprains and strains. “It’s all a learning curve. The more you do it, the more confidence you build, and the better you’ll be able to run downhills.”
Bradley recommends running on your forefoot with short steps and a high cadence, to act both as a natural breaking mechanism and make it easier to react to obstacles. Your center of gravity should be slightly forward, and Bradley suggests running with your arms out for balance. Also remember to plan your next steps by looking about three steps ahead, so you know where you’re landing.