Gnarly Running Trail? 4 Stay-Upright Tips for Technical Terrain

Got a gnarly running trail on your mind?
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You know, one of those trails with...

  • Rocks and roots
  • Narrow single track
  • Huge climbs + wicked downhills
  • Mud, bogs, sand, and everything else..

How are you going to make it through a gnarly running trail without a crash-and-burn disaster?
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These 4 tips for technical terrain will help you stay on your feet, avoid falls, and enjoy the adventure.

🏃‍♀️Road running vs. Running trails

Trail running and road running might as well be different sports.
.
Road running

  • Running on the road is all about smooth, swift speed. 
  • Without obstacles in the way, runners can funnel all their effort into striding out at full steam. 
  • Many road races even feature so few environmental challenges, like elevation gain or winding courses, that the real test comes down to maintaining high intensity output from start to finish. 

Running trails

  • On trail, however, obstacles are more common than not. 
  • Trees, boulders, switchbacks, grueling climbs, and crumbling descents aren’t just an occasional nuisance—they’re woven right into the endeavor. 
  • The challenge becomes one of combining speed with agility to move as quickly as possible…without eating (too much) shit. 

🏃‍♂️Gnarly terrain: Not all running trails are created equal

Sometimes a rolling dirt road hits the spot.
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You know...it's more engaging than your typical sidewalk, but not so much as to interrupt your train of thought.
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But there’s a difference between choosing the more mindless trail and limiting yourself to it, though.
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Technical terrain doesn’t have to be intimidating. 

  • No, it won’t ever be as inherently safe as sticking to asphalt. 
  • No amount of practice can eliminate all the risk. 
  • But the right skillset and mindset makes running trails on technical terrain feel more thrilling than terrifying. 

You just can’t find that kind of exhilaration on concrete. And besides, even pavement purists can stand to learn something from technical trails.
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Nothing like a little off-road bobbing and weaving to put picking up the pace on the flats in perspective! Ten bucks says your turnover will only get faster for it.
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Ready for some gnarly running trails?
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Take these FOUR tips for running on technical terrain with you to the trailhead. No matter what running goals you have in mind, improving your confidence and agility on the trails can play a part. 

1. Loosen up.

🤙1. Loosen up

Runners tend to tense up the second terrain under their feet gets unstable. It’s an instinctual response as the body fights for a sense of security. Muscle contractions are its way of trying to keep you safe.
.
But too much tightness actually makes matters worse. 

  • Rigid strides make it hard to adapt to the obstacles in your way. 
  • You can’t move as fluidly that way, and suffer from slower reaction times. 
  • Tension also sends a distress signal to your brain. 
  • Running in such a high-strung state imparts some serious stress on your body and mind. Some stress is necessary for training adaptations. 
  • Too much, though, saps your energy stores and attacks your nervous system. Technical trails are hard enough; fatigue makes them unnecessarily so. 

Though it might seem counterintuitive, the key to running well on technical terrain is loosening up. 
.
Here's how...

  • Let your body flow with whatever surprises the trail presents, not fight against them. 
  • Contract your muscles as they hit the ground to absorb the forces under your feet, then allow them to soften as your foot lifts back up.
  • Treat the air time between strides as an opportunity to shake out the tension. 
  • The more slack in the system, the more amenable you become to whatever crops up in your path.

Remember: That rock isn’t going anywhere. It’s up to you to get out of its way or face the consequences. Give your body the chance to change course in time.

2. Quicken your cadence

⚡2. Quicken your cadence

A more relaxed approach also makes it easier to stay nimble on your feet.
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Slow steps won’t do your performance on technical trail any favors.
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Ever tried stomping on a tree stump? 

  • The tree is going to win every time while your leg takes the beating. 
  • That’s exactly what you get with a heavy, clunky stride.

Quicken your cadence to decrease the forces reverberating through your body. 

  • Short, fast strides ensure that you’ll never land too hard in the wrong place at the wrong time. 
  • Quick steps also speed up your responses. 
  • You’ll be better able to dart around, hop over, or narrowly avoid potential stumbling blocks if each stride spans a smaller distance. 
  • Save space on your steps to put extra inches between you and upcoming obstacles. 
  • And if you do happen to land poorly, you’ll already be well on your way to the next step. 

Practice this by thinking of technical trail running as an extended game of hopscotch.

  • Bounce from one landing to the next and make only brief contact with the ground. 
  • Careful not to overstride...less time on the ground doesn’t equate to more time in the air. 
  • It just means making each foot strike as fleeting as possible. The second you touch down in one square, it’s off to the next.
3. Move side to side

↔️3. Move side to side

Technical trail running involves almost as much lateral movement as longitudinal. 

  • Yes, covering the distance ahead remains the ultimate goal. We’re not trying to turn the trail into a four-lane highway either. 
  • But freeing yourself up to move slightly side to side facilitates the forward motion you’re looking for. 

Anything to keep up the momentum...

  •  Dodging a rock cropping or straddling a rut in the trail is more likely to end with you upright than by forcing your way directly through.
  • The time you save not dusting yourself off from a tumble is worth the side quest.

Lateral movement also assists with balance.

  • Expanding the width of your steps (even as the length gets shorter, as per the previous tip) stabilizes your core. 
  • It’s like shaping your body into a pyramid instead of a narrow plank. Widen your foundation to steady your stride.
4. Use your arms

🙋‍♀️4. Use your arms

Another way to boost your balance on unsteady terrain is to recruit your upper body. 

  • Running, especially on technical trails, requires more than just lower limb activation. 
  • Even fast road runners rely on their arms to generate momentum. 
  • Engaging your shoulders, biceps, and triceps takes some of the onus off your legs.

But in this case, we’re talking about more than just pumping your arms back and forth. 

  • Spread ‘em wide like the wings of an airplane. 
  • Technical trail running is just as much of a balancing act as walking a tightrope. 
  • Spreading your arms out to the side allows them to act like rudders steering you over the trail. 
  • They help counterbalance your movements so that precarious landings don’t send you plummeting into the dirt. 

Use 'Airplane Arms'
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Professional runner and two-time World Mountain Running Champion Grayson Murphy has made “airplane arms” her trademark move.
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The stance keeps her on her feet and adaptable to her surroundings. 
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“Don’t worry about looking silly,” she laughs. “It’ll make you faster!” 
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And in the end, whatever keeps you from face-planting is a fair trade for silliness anyway. 

👉How do you handle gnarly running trails?

Share your tips, advice or lessons learned in the comments.

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Lucie Hanes
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Eagle, CO
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Ultrarunner, rock climber, occasional artist, fond of good wordplay. Small human on big adventures with big goals and big fee...

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