A beginner’s guide to negotiating variable trail surfaces.
Just as running uphill and downhill have significant impacts on our trail running experience, so does the surface—or tread—of the trail. When we say tread, we mean the parts of the trail that contact our shoes as we run. Above treeline in the European Alps, think hardpacked dirt and large rocks. In the forests of the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest, we might be talking about spongy pine needles, gooky mud, intricate root systems, and moss-covered rocks. In the Sahara Desert or along parts of any coastline, think sand. The surfaces upon which we trail run are infinitely variable. Chances are, on any given trail run, you’ll encounter more than one kind of tread. And you will quickly learn that each kind of tread behaves a little (or a lot!) differently underfoot.
This article is intended for new and intermediate trail runners. Here we discuss some of the most common trail surfaces you’ll encounter as you make your way into the sport—and the most effective techniques for dealing with them. Mastering these techniques will not only improve your efficiency when running over varied trail surfaces, but it will also help you stay upright while running even the most technical sections of trail.
Staying balanced is the most essential part of trail running efficiency. If you are balanced, you will expend less energy staying upright and be able to convert that energy into forward movement. Two major contributing factors to balance are upper-body position and underfoot agility:
Managing my upper-body position to maintain balance is the most commonly used technique in my arsenal. Moving your body over varying terrain means that your lower body is going to shift this way and that, adjusting to those variances. Maintaining balance means that we must constantly alter the position of our upper bodies to counteract the motion of our lower bodies and keep the bulk of our body’s mass over our center of gravity. Upper-body position becomes even more relevant to efficiency when traveling uphill and downhill.
If you are coming to trail running from a sport like soccer or rugby, you are used to swinging your arms around in every direction to help you stay balanced in darting around the field. If you enter trail running from road running, where we learn that maximum efficiency is in part derived from controlled forward-and-backward arm swing while keeping your arms close to your torso, you might need a little mental and physical coercion to let those arms go on the trail.
Your cadence is the number of times your foot touches down on the ground over a particular span of time. Most the time, it is measured using ‘rotations per minute’ (RPM). The world’s best road marathoners average about 90 RPMs, meaning that each of their feet touches down about 90 times each minute. Each of us has a sweet spot where it feels most natural, for most runners I have seen it is somewhere between 80 and 95 RPMs. On the trail, however, feeling comfortable with varying your cadence from 60 RPMs–walking cadence–to 100 RPMs–sprinting cadence – will maximize efficiency when traveling over varied terrain. Get a feel for this by heading out for an easy run, and noting your natural cadence. Then play with intentionally increasing and decreasing it. Here are a couple examples of why we might want to increase or decrease our cadence in trail running:
- Use an increased cadence any time you come to a portion of trail with frequent obstacles. An increased cadence will give you more agility by allowing you to stay lightfooted as you move among them. Increase the cadence when agility is more important than distance traveled.
- Decreasing cadence will generally force you to travel more slowly. Decrease the cadence when forward progress of some kind is more important than agility. An extreme slowed cadence–powerhiking or walking – will be the most efficient technique when the cardiovascular system can’t keep up with the workload being asked of it when running. An example of this would be when traveling steeply uphill.
Our bodies have a natural foot-landing pattern when we run, which generally involves our forefoot and midfoot landing simultaneously. The heel then drops, makes contact with the ground, and becomes the first part of the foot to lift again before the midfoot and forefoot immediately follow. But in trail running, it is important to learn how to utilize all parts of your foot to maximize power and efficiency depending on underfoot conditions. Altering your foot’s placement as it contacts the ground will also alter your balance and agility, so learning to shift in and out of these techniques will not only increase your efficiency in changing treat conditions but also help prevent falling.
Landing with the whole foot underneath the body maximizes the amount of surface area with which you contact the ground. The only trick to flat-foot landings is intention: you simply have to command that your heel to land at the same time as the rest of your foot. Maximizing your ground-contact surface area is helpful when you encounter a trail tread where slipping or sinking into the tread are issues. Compare landing with the whole foot to using a pair of snowshoes: when you wear snowshoes you spread your body weight over a greater surface area, which allows you to stay on top of the snow rather than sinking into it as much as you would if you were walking in regular shoes. Also, when slipping is an issue, applying your whole foot to the ground at once maximizes the amount of friction your feet can create with the trail’s tread. Combine this technique with upper-body position for balance and cadence for agility depending on the actual surface.
Here are some examples of trail surfaces where using a flatfoot landing might be helpful:
- Sand: Heel or toe striking in sand reduces your surface area and causes you to sink into and displace more of the sand upon landing. Maximizing your foot’s surface area when landing on this surface will help keep you on top of the sand rather than sinking down with each step and fighting to get back up and out.
- Mud: Similar to sand, landing with a flat foot can help keep you on the top of mud. This technique also helps prevent a banana-peel slipping effect at impact by forcing all of your shoe’s outsole to make contact with the mud and creating the most friction you can with the trail’s surface.
- Snow: Depending on the water content of the snow, this technique becomes more or less relevant. It is most important in heavy, wet snow as you will want to stay on the surface. Sinking in and trying to lift your legs out of heavy snow is a max-exertion effort! This technique becomes less relevant in lightweight ‘champagne powder’ as picking your feet up out of it or simply pushing through is fairly easy.
- Pebbles/Gravel: Small rocks and gravel are some of the most devil-ish trail tread out there! They may appear benign, but because they are small and round, they can slide around under your feet, like ball bearings. A flatfoot landing is helpful for what should be an obvious reason at this point: more surface area means more friction means less chance of falling!
- Scree Fields: On beginner and intermediate trail runs, you will rarely encounter scree fields, but as you advance into the backcountry, you will undoubtedly run across them. These fields full of brick-sized rocks wiggle and move around under the foot during impact and can be unnerving. Using this technique in will maximize surface area, reducing underfoot movement.
A forefoot-landing technique is used to maximize agility. When your foot lands, do so with only the ball of your foot. You will find this to be a challenging technique to maintain for more than a few minutes because it requires significant lower-leg and foot strength. This technique minimizes the amount of foot surface area that touches the trail tread, which is most helpful in places where there is not very much space on which to land. It is in these areas that it is important to stay agile and minimize the amount of time that you feet spend on the ground, reducing the amount of time there is to lose balance. In order to stay agile, this technique can be paired with both an increase in cadence–which generally will also mean a decrease in stride length–and lots of upper-body movement.
Forefoot landings are especially applicable on rocky terrain. Use forefoot landings on rocky terrain where foot-sized to textbook-sized rocks are the primary landing surface. Search for a good landing face, close to the top of the rock or perhaps angling ahead on the trail. The face only needs to be a few inches wide and long, just big enough for your forefoot. Think of the face of the rock as a foot hold, similar to a hand hold in rock climbing. Use care, though, until you know how the rocks through which you are running behave underfoot, as rocks can be slippery even when dry.
When you are losing power due to the slipperiness of certain kinds of tread in the toe-off or drive phase of your running stride, consider updating your stride mechanics to reduce gluteal- and calf-muscles engagement as your foot leaves the ground. In the drive phase of your stride, the glutes (butt muscles) are responsible for the leg moving from under you to behind you and then the calf muscles activate to lift the heel into toe-off phase. On certain surfaces, however, this movement can be hindered due to slip-out. To prevent this from happening, you will want to reduce the glute and calf activation by lifting the entire foot at the same time. This will slow your cadence and pace due to reduced muscle engagement, but is effective in helping you get through slippery terrain with the rubber side still down. Minimizing toe-off is particularly important on the following surfaces:
- Sand: Use this technique when the sand underneath your feet starts to give way in the toe-off phase.
- Unpacked Snow: Similar to sand, use this when you get that sinking feeling during toe-off.
- Ice: Use this technique to ensure you have full ground contact with one foot nearly all the time. Coupled with a flatfooted landing, you should drastically reduce the risk of slipping on ice.
- Decomposing Organic Matter: This surface is most common in dense forested areas without a lot of sunlight. The organic matter can take on a snotty texture when it becomes wet, especially in places with already high humidity. Pair this with a flatfooted landing to prevent feeling like you are running on banana peels.
When things get too steep or large to use your legs alone, it is time to get your arms involved. There are three ways in which I involve my arms when I am trail running:
When going up and over a rock, something knee high or taller, it may be appropriate to get the arms involved. I often use the technique of pushing down on my thigh with my hand or hands as I step up onto a boulder that is too large to hop up onto, but still small enough that I can step up onto and over it. Pressing a hand into your thigh can help you get the leverage you need to get up onto the rock and then transition right back into running over the other side.
When the rock is too big to step up or down, you may need to get all four limbs involved. In this situation, rocks may be half your height or taller. Ascending the rock may look similar to rock climbing or getting onto a bunk bed. Place your hands on the top of the rock and then get your legs up to your hands by using a variety of methods. Descending the rock can look a bit like crabwalking or getting out of a bunk bed. Place your hands on the rock and then drop the legs to the ground. For taller rocks, you may choose to sit on the rock and slide your butt off the edge or hop down to the bottom, depending on what the landing surface is like.
When approaching a surface where there is a big variation in height between the ground and the obstacles on the ground–like gnarly root system or rocks a foot tall or more–I prefer to try and stay on the top of the obstacles rather than place my feet between them. By running and hopping from one high spot to the next, I lower the chances of me dropping low and then catching my toe on something as I attempt to step up and over it. Some situations when this is particularly revelant include:
When the surface area between the rocks is equal or lesser than the surface area of the rocks, I prefer to stay on top of the rocks. Conversely, when there is more surface area around the rocks than the rocks consume, I will use the ground between the rocks to land. Keep in mind, this may change back and forth over the course of even the shortest rock gardens. It may be appropriate to take three or four steps on top and then two steps between before hopping back up on the rocks for five more steps. Again, use care when you first try stepping on rocks—even dry ones can be slippery!
Large trees may obstruct your path. Rather than trying to hurdle the tree, step up onto it with one foot and then come down on the other side with the other foot. This technique resembles the water jump in a steeplechase race rather than a hurdle. Often trees can have moss or lichen on them, which is slippery, so err on the side of caution here, too.
Just as important as knowing where to put your feet is knowing that you can put them down with confidence. So often, technical sections of trail become much more doable when you believe in yourself and that you can pass through them efficiently and safely. Mental focus, then, becomes as important and even more important in some cases, than your physical skill set in negotiating challenging trail treads.
Picking a Line
This is the process of visually choosing the places where you will put your feet prior to actually placing them there. In the beginning and on challenging surfaces, in order to stay in control and safe, you may only be able plan a couple steps at a time and you might need to pause or slow briefly between to regroup and plan the upcoming steps. Once this skill becomes more honed and you feel more comfortable stringing together and combining the techniques above, this mental technique will become more fluid.
Exercise is so wonderful because it provides an opportunity for a shift in mental focus. When trail running, the shift needs to be toward more presence. Navigating rocky fields and challenging terrain forces us to think and intuit our travel, and that is only possible if we are in the present moment and witnessing the ground as we approach it. Bringing presence to your trail running and being in tune with your body as well as your surroundings may be the single most important part of efficiency. Next time you go out, try leaving the rest of your life behind before you start your run. Take a minute to mentally leave your challenges and pressures at the trail head. I would bet that the experience would be just as efficient for problem solving and may be more cleansing and rejuvenating than the runs during which we spend ruminating. Leave it all behind and allow yourself the opportunity to be present during your run.
You can do it! As cliché as it sounds, this is an important part of your mental focus. Just believing that you can go on that run with 3,000 vertical feet of gain and loss is a big part of actually making it happen. After falling or stumbling through a technical patch, it is easy to let the negative self-talk creep in and with that, confidence may falter. Instead, tell yourself you have the skills and the confidence to do it and chances are, you do.
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