Technical Trail Running Tips

Photo: Daniel Holz/TandemStock

Run Any Trail: Master Technical Terrain With These 7 Tips

Not all trails are created equal. Some are smooth and mellow, with dirt or gravel or woodchip surfaces. These trails require minimal adjustment of your natural running stride, if any at all. Other trails, however, may be riddled with roots, rocks, ruts, and other natural obstacles. These technical trails require more adjustment to your technique to maintain speed and safety. Here’s how to boost comfort and confidence on technical trails.

The Basics  

On rugged trails, staying relaxed, shortening your stride, and widening your armswing (for balance) helps keep you agile and ready to navigate over or around obstacles. And scanning the trail ahead of you—anywhere between 3 to 10+ feet ahead—lets your brain register what’s coming and helps you choose what line you’re going to take. (Tip: Look where you want to go, not where you don’t.)

Stay Upright

It’s natural to lean back when running downhill, but try not to exaggerate the lean. Staying upright, with your spine stacked vertically on top of your tailbone instead of in a backwards angle, will help with balance and agility, especially on downhills riddled with rocks. Leaning way back on a downhill makes it harder to keep your legs moving quickly, so you’ll be slower to react to obstacles and take any recovery steps. But don’t lean too far forward either; that can lead to excessive, uncontrollable momentum.

Choose the Right Footwear 

Trail running shoes intended for technical terrain can make a big difference. Look for the following features.

Traction: Toothy outsoles grip better than low-profile tread on loose terrain, and sticky rubber gives you the best traction on rock slabs. 

Protection: Look for a reinforced upper. Rubber armor on the toe (called a “toe bumper”) and other overlays keep your feet from getting jabbed and poked by rocks and roots. They also improve durability. 

Cushion: Highly cushioned trail shoes absorb the impact of small rocks and roots and help you run right over them, while minimally cushioned trail shoes require more of an effort in picking around obstacles. However, minimalist shoes offer better “ground feel,” which some runners prefer.

Fit: Your shoes should fit well (not too big), so that your feet don’t slosh around laterally within the shoe. A sloppy fit leaves you disconnected from the shoe, and the trail; a secure fit gives you control of the shoe’s traction, which makes you more agile.

Lace Up for Stability

Improve security by utilizing the upper-most lace loop, which is often offset a touch to provide maximum lateral stability. Using this lace loop tightens the upper of the shoe snugly around the heel collar. This lacing strategy is highly recommended for off-camber terrain, where the trail might cut across a hillside and force your feet into awkward angles.

Lock Down Lace Loops

If your trail shoes feature one-pull laces that leave a loop at the top, tuck that lace loop into the small pocket (known as a “lace garage”) often placed on the tongue. If there’s no lace garage, look for a clip intended to tuck away the lace loop, or tuck the loop underneath the laces farther down the top of the shoe. Leaving the lace loop untucked risks snagging a branch or other obstacle and causing a fall.

Use Your Mind

If you find yourself tensing up on technical trails, even after heeding the above advice, remember that the mind has a lot of power over the body. Try taking a few slow, deep breaths to calm your nervous system, and imagine yourself flowing naturally over the rocks and roots, like water. Or, picture yourself as a ninja, hopping over or around obstacles with playfulness. The point is to embrace the rugged terrain and make it feel natural and fun.

Make it a Practice

The more you run technical terrain, the more comfortable you’ll become. With time, running through obstacles becomes second nature—your mind and body start working together. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.