Hands up if you’ve ever been out for a run and have been passed by a runner who looks good – in fact, they look great.
And it’s about more than the trail running shoes they are wearing! There’s something about the way they hold themselves, their posture, their stride length, the way they seem to effortlessly, and silently, glide along the ground. Blazing a trail behind them.
Every time I see one of these people I think ‘wow’ and then, as a coach, I remember the ‘how’. Because, for many, effortless running doesn’t come easy. Not initially anyway.
When I came to running in 2009, no-one shared the principles of good running technique with me. I didn’t even understand what it meant.
I’m here to share what I know. Because having an efficient running technique – whether for trail or road – is a mix of understanding the basics and maintaining consistent practice.
So, are you ready to add some wow factor to your running?
How to improve your trail running technique
Many people spend most of their days in a sitting position, which can lead to hip flexor strain and under activation of the glute (bum) muscles.
But when we run, we want to encourage the opposite; a relaxing of the flexors and a good bum workout. Relaxed hip flexors will allow your leg to flow backwards and your glutes to activate.
So, before you start running, take a moment to think about posture. Head should be looking forward, shoulders back and down and the chest open.
Encourage the hips forward as this will in turn relax and activate the muscles above. This feeling of height is what we want to remember when running.
Check in with yourself every few minutes; what adjustments can you make to stay tall?
Think backwards flow
Consciously think about your legs flowing backwards behind you. The power in your running strides comes when your foot is pushing off the ground behind you, propelling you forward.
You want to minimize pulling the leg forward by bringing the knees up in front of you. You are not riding a bike! Hips forward, legs flowing behind = powerful thrust.
Your arm swing counters the motion in your hips to preserve your balance. You should aim to keep your arms close to your sides while maintaining a 90-degree angle (if drawing a line from shoulder to elbow to wrist).
Also, try and keep your shoulders relaxed. Often, as trail runners, we naturally want to allow more space between our arms and bodies to balance ourselves – especially going downhill – and that’s okay.
But always seek to bring it back to the above. I would also encourage you to keep your arms parallel to each other as they swing back and forth.
When running, there isn’t a perfect foot strike (where you place your foot when you land); some people run on their toes, some heel strike.
But, when it comes to maintaining balance across trails, you want to aim for a foot strike that helps you maintain your center of gravity and balance. For me, that’s landing flat-footed.
You should aim for your foot to land under the mid-line of your hips. A great way to practice this is to relax your feet and ankles and take short strides that fall under your center of gravity.
Trails are a great place to try this as, while practicing, shorter strides can help you adapt better to the underfoot conditions and adjust your weight accordingly, thus minimizing overstriding which can lead to slips and falls.
Softly does it
Take time to think about how heavy you are landing when your foot hits the ground. Does it sound like pitter-patter or a drumbeat? You should be aiming for the former to be as efficient as possible.
Play a game with it when out on your next run. How quietly can you land? How soft can you make that impact? I repeat the mantra ‘I am light’ as I run as it really translates to the physical movement.
How many times does your foot hit the ground in one minute? For elite athletes, it’s approximately 180 times. For amateur athletes, it’s probably somewhere between 160 and 180.
Faster foot strides allow you to distribute your load more evenly over the course of a run and, in trail running especially, that’s what we want. I aim for between 170 and 180 SPM (strides per minute).
Want to know yours? On a run, count how many times your right foot touches the ground in 30 seconds. And then times that by four for your stride rate.
keep your head up
Remember to look up and ahead of you. I know this can feel scary at first because, especially on trails, there is a tendency to look down at the ground immediately in front of you.
But, if you keep your eyes up, you will be able to better anticipate where your feet are going to land and pre-plan for obstacles further on. Keeping your head up will also have impact on posture and balance too.
Now, I don’t advocate trying this all at once. I use the phrase ‘small steps, big change’ a lot because it’s true.
A series of small changes, made consistently, will make you a stronger, more efficient trail runner so just pick one, or a couple of technique tips, and practice them for a section of your next run.