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Tips for 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.

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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Things I wish I knew when I started trail running

It’s not long ago that I was new to trail running.  Here are some tips that I think would have helped me to keep things in perspective.  There’s no shortage of beginner tips out there already, so this is my unique perspective on it.

Keep it simple

You don’t need any special gear to get started. Standard running shoes will do just fine.  There’s no need to fork out hundreds of dollars on trail running shoes just yet.  You don’t need waterproof, highly breathable shoes with special flaps to attach your gaiters.  Likewise, you don’t need an expensive hydration vest just so you look like a trail runner.  Just running on trails will do that.

Shoes with grip are great

I know I just told you to keep things simple, but shoes with a bit of grip will make all the difference to your confidence on tricky terrain.  Just don’t rush into the purchase.  Standard shoes will do the job just fine while you get started.  If you’re aiming to do a race, maybe don’t bother buying your first pair of trail shoes until you’ve signed up for your first race.  Just make sure you have a few weeks to wear them in before the event.

You don’t need as much water as people tell you

When I first started trail running I would take a hydration pack on every run, stash water bottles along the trail and drink from streams I found along the way.  Actually, that last part isn’t true.  I’m from Australia.  We don’t have streams over here.  Not the kind that you would consider drinking from anyway.  All that water weighed me down, sloshed around on my back, and I didn’t even drink most of it.  Now I don’t bother taking water with me unless it’s very hot or I’m running more than about 20km.

You need more water than you think

Running out of water on a run when you’re a long way from anywhere because you read my previous tip is just plain silly.  What were you thinking?  If you’re venturing away from civilisation, just take a bit of extra water with you.  You spent hundreds of dollars on that expensive hydration vest I said you didn’t need, so fill it up before you head out.

You will develop a deep appreciation for watermelon

I have always loved watermelon, but since I started doing long distance trail running, I have and even deeper appreciation for it’s sweet, watery goodness.  There is nothing more refreshing and satisfying after a long, hot trail running event than to gorge yourself on a whole watermelon.

Run up hills

Hill training will make you stronger, faster and more attractive.  OK, maybe not the last one.  The point is, don’t take the easy option and walk up every hill.  Challenge yourself with hill workouts and I promise you will see improvements.  Not just with your physical performance, but also your general outlook on life.

Walk up hills

Obviously, running up every hill is not going to work.  Be comfortable in walking up hills.  Sometimes it makes sense to conserve energy and sometimes it makes sense to enjoy a walk up a hill.  Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing.  Sometimes walking up a hill is the most energy efficient way to get up.  Once it’s steeper than a certain angle, running is less efficient than walking. 

Strength training is important

If I say it enough times, I might do the strength training I know I should.  Seriously though, strength training is important for injury prevention, optimal performance and improvement.  Also, it doesn’t have to be complicated or take a lot of time.  30 minutes to an hour per week is adequate for the average recreational trail runner, and a small number of exercises will strengthen all the important muscles.  Keep it simple and you’ll be able to stick with it.

Keep things in perspective

Don’t complain. Running for recreation is an extreme privilege.  I have access to everything I need and I choose a physical challenge for recreation.

So, what have you learnt that you wish you knew when you started? Let me know in the comments.

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The benefits of running at night and how to do it safely

Running at night is sometimes necessitated by life filling up the daylight hours.  It can also be a lot of fun, either with others or by yourself (if the silence and darkness don’t freak you out).  Here are some of the benefits and challenges of running at night.

Benefits

Here are some of the benefits of running at night.

The heat

Especially in the Australian summer, running during the heat of the day can be foolhardy.  Unless you’re training for the Badwater 135, of course.  Running after sunset, the atmosphere is cooler and more relaxed.  If you’re running on roads, there’s generally less traffic, and if you’re running on trails, the wildlife emerge from their hidey holes and begin their nocturnal activities.

Your health

It’s often assumed that working out or running at night causes the release of endorphins and other stimulants which prevent the body from feeling sleepy. However, research suggests that people who engage in physical activity before bedtime, achieve better sleep[1][2].

Sunrise or sunset

For mo, seeing a sunrise or sunset never gets old.  Why not time your run to take in one of nature’s gorgeous displays?  Sunsets are awesome, but there’s something even more magical about getting out while it’s still dark and witnessing the beginning of a new day while most people are still asleep.

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Nocturnal animals

Particularly in Australia, a lot of our larger animals are nocturnal and they’re particularly active around dawn and dusk.  Encountering kangaroos and koalas is quite common, even near urban areas.  If you’re lucky, you can also see echidnas, emus, possums, owls, and many more.  In fact, the list could be an article by itself.

Safety

We’ve covered the fun stuff.  Now a few tips for staying safe while running at night.

Run toward traffic

If you’re running near roads, run toward oncoming traffic so you can see what the cars closest to you are doing.  Keep in mind that they might no be able to see you even though you can see them.

Lights and reflective clothing

If you’re running on trails, you’ll need some sort of light source.  The brighter, the better for avoiding obstacles.

If you’re running on roads, the streetlights are probably bright enough that you can see where you’re going but you need to ensure that you can be seen by other road users.  Reflective clothing should do the trick, but there’s no harm in taking a headlamp too.

Pull out the earbuds

People listen to music while trail running? Are you sure?

If you normally listen to music while running, give it a miss at night.  That’s just an accident waiting to happen.

Eye protection

You may not be able to see branches at head height.  A cap and clear glasses should avoid any foreign objects stabbing you in the eyeballs.

ID

In the event of something unfortunate happening, having some form of ID on you is going to be helpful.  Consider something like a Road ID.  If you wear it all the time, you won’t forget to bring it on your run.

References

[1] Sherrill DL, Kotchou K, Quan SF. Association of Physical Activity and Human Sleep Disorders. Arch Intern Med. 1998;158(17):1894–1898. doi:10.1001/archinte.158.17.1894

[2] Kredlow, M.A., Capozzoli, M.C., Hearon, B.A. et al. J Behav Med (2015) 38: 427. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-015-9617-6

Do you run at night?  Do you have any tips to add? Let me know in the comments.

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Tips for downhill running

One of the most exhilarating parts of trail running is the rush of the downhill sections, especially the technical single-track. Being able to tackle them with confidence is a trick that takes a bit of practice and some testing of your boundaries. Use these simple tips and you’ll be smashing the downhills in no-time.

Go faster than you think you should

You can actually go faster than your brain wants to let you. Start by increasing your speed and then stopping after 10 seconds or so. Getting comfortable with pulling up quickly will allow you to go faster with more confidence.

Lean forward

Lean forward from the hips, rather than the shoulders. Gravity will pull you downhill. Avoid leaning back and try to focus on keeping your body perpendicular to the ground. As you increase your speed, move your centre of gravity forward. Find your balance. Too far back and you’ll feel like each step is like putting the brakes on. Too far forward and you’ll feel like you’re about to land on your face.

Use your arms for balance

Since gravity is taking care of your general motion (roughly downward), it’s the sideways control you need to worry about. Professional trail runners fail their arms all over the place in order to maintain precise control on fast descents. You can start by lifting your arms out to the side. Once your arms are up, the balancing will come naturally. As you run faster, you’ll flail with greater confidence.

Reduce your stride length

You don’t need as much power on the downhills, but you need control. Reducing your stride length gives you the ability to react faster to changing conditions. Start by cutting your normal stride length in half, and see how it feels.

Look ahead

Despite what your brain keeps telling you, don’t look at your feet. It will take a bit of practice getting comfortable with this. Depending on the terrain, aim to focus about 5m (about 15 feet) in front of you. You’ll see all the same obstacles but you’ll have more time to plan your line.

Reduce ground contact time

Keep ground contact time as short as possible and make the contact as light as possible. As one foot comes down you should already be thinking about the next step. I find this particularly useful on technical descents when you may need to recalculate things at a moment’s notice.

Putting it all together

You can layer all of these steps together to incrementally improve your downhill running technique. Start by going faster, then add the forward lean, for example. Get confident with each layer before moving on to the next. Once you’ve layered all the steps together you’ll find yourself belting down those technical sections like a pro.

Let my know in the comments if you find these tips useful.  If you run at night, do you have any advice that I haven’t mentioned here? Let me know in the comments.