What is technical trail running?

Technical trail running is characterised by the terrain being quite difficult to traverse.  This may include obstacles such as rocks, loose surfaces, roots, mud, water, steep climbs and steep descents.  Some technical sections may also require the use of the upper body in order to negotiate.  Technical trail running is usually significantly slower than running on smooth surfaces, and there is a higher risk of injury.

Each of the terrains and obstacle types requires special skill and experience.  If you are planning to run a trail race that has technical sections, you should devote a significant amount of time practising running on those surfaces.

Obstacles

These are some of the most common obstacles you will encounter, and some tips for negotiating them successfully.

Rocks

Rocks come in all shapes and sizes and each one requires a slightly different approach.  Small rocks or pebbles can create a slippery surface or find their way into your shoes, making running uncomfortable.  Larger rocks can result in twisted ankles or stubbed toes.  The trick is to keep focused on foot position and plan your line.

Here’s a great guide to running on various rock types.

Loose surfaces

Loose surfaces such as gravel or slippy mud can be challenging, especially when combined with a slope.  Grippy shoes may help to retain traction, but in some cases, you may just have to slow down and take it easy.

Roots

Roots pose a similar risk to rocks, and come in many shapes and sizes, but tend to protrude higher from the trail surface and trap the foot a bit more.  They also have the added benefit of being slippery and can result in a foot unexpectedly loosing grip.  Because they differ based on the type of vegetation growing in a area, it pays to train in the area you’ll be racing in.

Mud

Mud can be some of the trickiest terrain to overcome, particularly the sticky, slippery kind.  If it’s really bad, it can coat the bottom of your shoes, adding unwelcome weight and providing a slick surface with no traction at all.  Sometimes there’s no alternative than to grab a stick and try to scrape the mud off.

Water

Usually, water crossings just mean that you’re going to get wet feet.  Fortunately, most trail shoes are pretty good at directing excess moisture away from the foot, and you’ll be reasonably dry in no time.

Steep terrain

Steep terrain is one of the most common things you’ll encounter while trail running.  To complicate matters, you’ll probably also encounter one or more other types of obstacle at the same time.

Refer to this article on downhill running for advice and tips.

Tips for technical trail running

Time and effort

If you worry too much about how fast you’re going and how much distance you’re covering on technical terrain, you run the risk of becoming disheartened.  Instead, focus on the effort you’re putting in and the time you’re investing.  If you find it challenging, the chances are that others will find it challenging too.  If you put in maximum effort, you can’t go wrong.

Balance

Balance is critically important on technical trails.  Try to incorporate balance (single-leg exercises) and plyometrics (split and squat jumps) into your training.  Refer to this training plan for examples.

Shorter stride

It’s important to reduce ground contact time and “float” over the surface.  This makes it easier to deal with unexpected changes in terrain.  Avoid stop and go movements, which will slow you down, waste energy and can make the terrain harder to negotiate.

Footwear

Good trail shoes make a big difference on technical terrain and will give you a lot more confidence.  The lugs on trail shoes help grip the surface as you climb hills, rocks and muddy slopes. They also help you stop when you need to on steep descents. A good tread pattern will help to clear mud as you run.  You will find shoes designed specifically for particular terrain types.  However, to get started, general trail shoes with good grip should do just fine.

Find your line

Keep your eyes about 2-4m (5-10ft) ahead and look for the best path.  Try to plan your next few steps ahead of time.

Stay alert

Terrain and the obstacles you need to deal with will be constantly changing. You need to be constantly aware of those changes and plan accordingly.  This will take conscious effort to begin with but will become second nature as you become more experienced.

Aim to finish

Don’t take unnecessary risks.  Technical trail running takes time.  In a race situation, focus on finishing, not your position.  In training, challenge your limits gradually to improve your skills.  Run the same familiar trails at progressively faster paces.  Each time, you’ll make improvements in foot placement and you’ll become progressively more confident.

I hope you found this useful.  Do you have any tips or advice for technical trail running? Please leave a comment below to let me know.

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