The popularity of off-road adventure is soaring, so it’s no surprise that running kit specialists, like Saucony, are bringing out new trail runner ranges – but what skills do you need to run the wilderness?
As I run up a steep, rock-studded trail, the inky black ribbon of Wast Water unfolds at the foot of the hillside, and I can almost sense the imposing heft of Scafell Pike’s and Great Gable’s peaks punching up into the sky at my back. England’s Lake District is an awe-inspiring place to go running...
Whether it’s to avoid the injury-inviting toll of road running miles, or to be able to access a taste of adventure just by tying your shoelaces, more and more people are looking to trail running to scratch their outdoors itch.
While humans evolved to run on uneven, natural surfaces, we’ve adapted to the flat, hard streets of our towns and cities, so there’s a period of adjustment when you switch to off-road terrain. RISING asked outdoor running expert and Saucony tech Nicky Hardy to give us a trial running technique masterclass, in order to help you transition to adventure on two feet…
Take shorter steps and increase cadence uphill to put your glutes in their optimal range
1. Position Yourself For Success As I come to the top of the steep climb I’m feeling pretty whacked already and I’m wondering why my legs feel so underpowered, compared to a tarmac climb. ‘It’s even more important to stay nice and tall and upright on the trails,’ says Hardy. ‘If you lean forwards going uphill, you’ll be overstriding, reaching ahead of the body with your legs and you start to have the braking effect going on.’ I realise I’ve been digging in because of the terrain, and leaning forwards meant I was bringing my knees up too high, making it hard for my glutes to fire properly because they are stretched out. ‘By taking shorter steps and increasing your cadence going uphill, that’s where you’ll actually be putting the muscle in its optimal range,’ says Hardy.
2. Take Your Time Putting the advice into play certainly seems to help me achieve more of a flow uphill – overstriding was short-circuiting my momentum. But as the going gets steeper, with head-sized boulders to thread between, I find myself slowing down and eventually power walking because it seems the only way to keep a consistent (albeit slow) pace. I fully expect to be pulled up for this, but it seems trail runners are less ‘Hectic Hare' and more ‘Tactical Tortoise’.
‘Actually, there’s no shame to power walking up a climb if it’s too steep to run efficiently,’ says Hardy. ‘In a trail running environment there’s so much less pressure in time. Even if you lose five seconds up a hill by power walking, but feel so much fresher at the top, you soon make up 10 seconds down the other side because your quads are in a lot better condition – you haven’t hit that dreaded lactic-acid burn.’
3. Pick Out Your Line As we run up into the rocky cleft between two hillsides the ground starts to level out. The recent heavy rains have soaked into the boggy soil and the path becomes a combination of rocky slabs and puddles of dark water. I’m enjoying splashing through the mud when my left leg suddenly drops away underneath me, almost to my knee, into sloppy mud. I guess jumping into puddles isn’t the ‘pro line’!
So, I adapt to the unpredictable terrain and seek firmer ground, and I’m soon picking up pace as the trail heads down. My mind switches into mountain biking mode as I pick a line down through the rocks, trying to look ahead and anticipate upcoming obstacles, so I can stay smooth. ‘It’s all about having the feel for the ground, and when you are connected to the ground being nice and balanced,’ says Hardy.
It’s all about confidence, so take it slowly to begin with and build it up
5. Choose Your Weapon You can usually tell a trail shoe from a glance – burlier, with a visibly tougher outsole. Today RISING is testing the new Saucony KOA ST trail runner. As well as muck-ready features such as the mud-shedding toe box and ‘drawstring’ laces, the KOA ST has a tread with 8mm, widely spaced lugs, like carbon-rubber spikes. The lugs are proving deep enough to cut through the mud to terra firma below, while being wide enough to shed the slop afterwards. In RISING’s experience trail running shoes tend to be biased to ‘rocky and dry’ so it’s nice to see a brand taking ‘muddy like a swamp’ conditions seriously, given that the whole point of adventure running is to access places where roads cannot go. (Saucony’s new KOA TR shoe with 3.5mm lugs is specifically designed for the harder-packed stuff). As Hardy says, picking the right shoe for the job lets you focus on the actual running. ‘It’s all about confidence, so take things slowly to begin with and build it up.’
6. Remember To Look Around Once you tune into the terrain you can really feel your confidence build. I catch Hardy and we’re soon so wrapped in building up speed and picking our lines down a water-streaked, rocky cut in the surrounding greenery, that we totally fail to realise there’s perfectly good path next to us. ‘Er, I think we’re pretty much running down a steam here!’ I laugh. Looking up I see this tunnel vision also meant I was missing out on the most amazing view of a Lakeland pool of water, nestled between the slopes. The simplest of wooden-piling bridges lies ahead, half flooded by water, like a scene from centuries past. There’s no sign of human civilisation at any point of the compass and I realise with a start that we’ve literally run into a wilderness. It’s a timely reminder of the potential of simply lacing up your shoes and heading off the over-beaten track…
WHAT NEXT? OK, so you may not have immediate access to an off-road trail but if you want to have a crack at running one, then do yourself a favour and do some lower-body strength and conditioning exercises indoors, to prepare the ground. Hardy says he sees a lot of runners with plantar fasciitis problems, and that even though these are foot injuries, the cause often lies further up the leg. ‘It’s potentially due to calf problems and how they are striking the ground.’ So do some single-leg exercises like calf raises and single-legged squats to prevent injuries later on.
For more on Saucony’s new trail running shoe range head here and follow @sauconyuk #runyourworld
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.