The Effective Trail Runner’s Body

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Welcome to this month’s edition of “Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running!” That’s the name of both this column and the book Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell of iRunFar published in 2016. The book Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running is a how-to guide for trail running. We worked with publisher Human Kinetics to develop a book offering the information anyone needs to get started, stay safe, and feel inspired with their trail running. The book Where the Road Ends teaches you how to negotiate technical trails, read a map, build your own training plan, understand the basics of what to drink and eat when you run, and so much more.

This column aims to do the same by publishing sections from the book as well as encouraging conversation in the comments section of each article. We want you to feel inspired and confident as you take on your first few trail runs as well as connected to iRunFar’s community of trail runners!

In this article, we excerpt from Chapter 2 to discuss how to develop and effective trail runner’s body. In short, we feel there are four parts to a trail runner’s body that are a little different from other kinds of running: you pick up your feet a little higher, your cadence is sometimes faster, you run ready for whatever obstacles come, and you walk when you need to. Let’s look at these four ideas.

Picking Up Your Feet

One quick adjustment you can make as a new trail runner to save some unpleasant learning experiences is to pick up your feet a bit higher than you’d expect. The reason is obvious enough. Lifting your feet higher means you’re less likely to catch your foot on a rock or root. The extra height usually comes from lifting the knees, rather than kicking your lower leg forward or flexing your ankle to raise your toes.

As with the adjustments in mental awareness, you’ll find yourself gradually transitioning back toward a lower foot swing over time. This adaptation is natural and, from an efficiency standpoint, beneficial. Still, the most experienced trail runners switch to a higher foot swing when low lighting, poor visibility, or other obstructions limit their ability to see their footing.

Try the Pick-Up Game

Here’s a drill to help you attune to picking your feet up a little higher. Head to a yard or park and find half a dozen fallen logs or branches that stick up 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) when on the ground. Obstructions about 3 feet (1 m) long are ideal so you’ll have some width to cross the log or branch, but the item should be light enough to give way easily should you catch your foot. Drop these logs parallel to one another at approximately both arms’ length (5 to 6 feet [1.5 to 2 m]) apart on a soft, even surface (grass is perfect). Some variation in distance between the logs is helpful.

Now, go run the length of this branch-strewn path, crossing the branches. Run it a few times at an easy effort. Run it a few more times, varying your pace and starting point, such that you have to clear the logs at different points in your stride. If you’re catching your feet on the branches, adjust your stride by lifting your feet a bit more.

The Pick-Up Game. Photo: Human Kinetics/Kirsten Kortebein

Picking Up Your Cadence

In addition to picking up your feet, you’ll improve your trail running by picking up your cadence, at least occasionally, without necessarily picking up your pace. With a long, loping stride, you’re more committed to your path and less able to react to the obstacles that might be in it. With a shorter, quicker stride, you have many more chances to push off the ground to alter your body’s path. Physical therapist and trail running coach Joe Uhan notes that a quick stride also enhances energy conservation: “A quick stride rate allows for instantaneous energy transfer from the ground into the leg, then back to the ground. This quick energy reversal creates a plyometric effect wherein the muscle stores the energy only for an instant before releasing: like a bouncing ball.”

You don’t need to feel like a hummingbird out there, but modestly picking up your stride rate from 160 strides per minute to 180 strides per minute or more will make you more nimble. Likewise, a runner whose cadence is normally 180 strides per minute will be more agile at 200 strides per minute. This faster cadence is beneficial in a variety of situations, such as when the trail is strewn with obstacles or when obstacles come at you more quickly while running downhill.

According to Uhan, on most flat terrain, 180 strides per minute is ideal: “This allows for maximal energy storage (through a long, strong, hip-driven stride) yet is quick enough to pop off the ground. Any slower and that energy is absorbed by the muscles; too fast and the legs don’t achieve maximal range of motion.”

Uhan, however, advises a quicker stride rate on climbs and descents: “Upwards of 240 steps per minute might be ideal on the steepest, most technical terrain.”

Besides enabling you to pick your way through nature’s obstacle course, a quicker turnover is safer and more effective when the running surface becomes loose, uncertain, or slippery. In such circumstances, the smaller you can make your incremental changes in direction and speed, the better off you’ll be.

Naturally, you can resume your normal stride rate after the reason for picking it up has passed.

Try the Hot Feet Drill

Here’s another drill that’ll help you think about your cadence. Grab your shoes, a friend, and a stopwatch and step outside. You can complete this drill without outside assistance if you have a countdown timer with an alarm so that you can focus on counting rather than watching the timer.

Find an open, flat, obstacle-free area where you can easily run up to 200 yards without distraction. Start running at a comfortable pace. After you’re up to speed, have your friend say, “Go” as he or she hits start on the stopwatch. When your friend says go, continue running as you were, but start counting every time either your right or left foot hits the ground. Have your friend yell, “Stop” after 30 seconds. Multiply the number you counted by four to get your number of strides per minute.

Many folks come in at around 160 strides per minute. If you naturally hit 180 strides per minute, you’re in a sweet spot for trail running. If you’re much over 200 strides per minute, that’s quicker than needed for all but the steepest or most technical terrain.

No matter what your baseline stride rate was, try the drill again with a somewhat faster stride rate but with what feels like the same pace. Note what that feels like. Be ready to make a similar adjustment when a trail becomes more treacherous.

If you have difficulty adjusting to a faster turnover, download a metronome app on your phone and run in time to the beat.

The Hot Feet Drill. Photo: Human Kinetics/Kirsten Kortebein

Be Ready

If you’ve played a ball sport such as baseball, softball, or tennis, you may remember being told to stand in the ready position. In this position, you were up on your toes, engaging your leg and core muscles, and putting yourself in a position to move as quickly as possible in any direction. Similarly, trail running requires that you be ready to react in any direction, and you’ll need to do so while you’re already moving. So how do you get into a ready position for trail running?

First you need to engage your core. To help get a feel for this, imagine that you’re surrounded by friends who are going to surprise you at random with pushes at shoulder height. Your goal in this exercise would be to keep standing as upright as possible. What happens? Your entire midsection firms up. It’s strong, stable, and able to respond to movement in any direction, just as you want to be able to do while trail running. If this mental exercise has you conjuring up yourself as an immovable mountain, relax, literally. You’ll want to be fluid and limber, not rigid, while trail running, but you will use all those muscles that you would use to brace yourself.

How exactly do you engage the core? The simple act of drawing the belly button in helps you get there. If you draw your belly button back toward your spine muscularly, not with your breath, you will be using one of the deeper abdominal muscles, the transversus abdominis. The transversus abdominis, along with a couple other deeper abdominal muscles, when engaged, will hold the pelvis and vertebrae in their natural positions.

In the imaginary bracing exercise discussed earlier, you may have also noticed that many of the muscles in your legs activate as well. These weren’t just the major propulsive muscles—the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. You may have noticed the front and side of your hips engaging. Likewise, the outside of both thighs energize. Each of the muscles in that muscular quiver is ready to fire in whichever direction your feet demand.

Your feet are your interface with the uneven, ever-changing ground around you. In running on an undulating surface, you’ll constantly have to ask different parts of your feet to do different things. For example, say you land on a small rock on your outer forefoot. The outer toes will need to relax and spread out around those rocks, whereas the big toe may need to engage more heavily than usual to support the body’s weight.

Now, take a step back. When you put the length of your body—your feet through your head—into action, think of standing upright in a straight, unbroken line. Now, take that straight line and bend forward a few degrees from your ankles. That stance is the general body position you’ll want to return to as you’re trail running.

As you negotiate obstacles and oscillations, your legs will go this way and that, while your arms and torso instinctively react as counterbalances. Afterward, bring yourself back into the active, ready position as soon as you can so that you’re ready for the next adjustment.

Trail runners are always ready for the next challenge on trails’ variable terrain. Photo: Human Kinetics/Kirsten Kortebein

Walk the Walk

It’s okay to walk. Yes, you read that correctly. Here’s a running guide that gives you permission to walk. If something feels too steep or rocky or muddy or whatever to run, walk it out. Sometimes slowing yourself down is the most efficient, not to mention most prudent, means of covering a given stretch of ground.

Although walking is all good, so is testing your limits, whether you’re out on one of your first trail runs or three decades into hitting the dirt. You’ll often find that what you once thought was unrunnable has become a new running playground. This transformation is one of the gifts of trail running.

Excerpted from Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, by Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell. Human Kinetics © 2016.

Call for Comments

  • If you have switched to trail running from road running, what are some of the differences you’ve noticed about running on the trails?
  • What do you think are the key parts of an effective trail runner’s body?

There are 12 comments

  1. Paul

    I need to do the quick feet drills, my feet are too slow. How often should I do them, and how long will it take to see a difference?

    I try moving my feet quickly on technical downhills, but they just don’t seem to move that fast.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I’d recommend trying a run-through of the drills once per week for a couple weeks to start. Try 3 ‘sets’ in one outing while walking back to your starting point in between to ‘recover’ between each effort. As your body adapts, you can do the drills twice a week. With any drill, do make sure you’re warmed up first–these would work well to do at the end of an easy run. I expect that with four or five weeks of doing drills, you should start to see improvement in your turnover.

      Downhill technical trail running is difficult, maybe the hardest part of trail running! Chapter 4 in ‘Where the Road Ends’ covers some more skills and mindset development for this kind of running. We’ll be excerpting from Chapter 4 in a couple months here on iRunFar.

      I hope this helps and good luck!

  2. Tim Jordan

    Very good article with a lot of good useful information.
    Just a couple of points.
    You don’t need a metronome.
    If you count “one thou sand, two thou sand, where each syllable is a beat and where a foot strikes on each syllable, the foot landing on the “number” will alternate. Given that intonating “one thou sand” takes about a second you will make 3 x 60 footfalls per minute i.e. 180 (or 90 foot cycles) per minute. Counting can also be like a mantra which is good for your mindfulness at times.
    Also, information you get from your feet depends on two things.
    What shoes are you wearing and how mobile your feet are, not just at the ankle but within the small articulations of the feet themselves.
    Thinner shoes give you better feel so more information. Working on your foot “mobility” can enhance the foots speed and capacity of response to changing conditions underfoot. This is another reason why heel striking if so inadvisable. All the initial information with heel striking comes through the ankle which has a limited range of movement compared to the fore/mid foot. If you are a heel striker you will need to transition. If you feet are rigid due to having been shod in shoes that take away that contact between you feet and the ground you will have to mobilise them by using a variety of physical therapy and training techniques.

  3. Ahsan Riaz

    Great article. In addition to the physical aspects of trail running, I’ve found that going into a run with the right mindset helps a lot too. Embrace the solitude and use it as a way of disconnecting with worldly pursuits while reconnecting with nature.

  4. Michael Hall

    Thank you for the article. You keep on giving and it’s a refreshing change from the selfish take, take, take world we seem to live in. Even though I live 2/3 of the country away from you guys, I feel like you’re my friendly neighbors. Have a great day.

  5. Leslie Champion

    Thanks for sharing this article. I’m now curious about your book. I’ve run trails for five years and found most of this particular article to be intuitive (60yo female). But I have friends who fall often. I have to assume it is not intuitive to them or they struggle more to lift their feet or take baby steps over technical areas. But is it that simple? I know my next fall will happen some day, but it pains me greatly to see the same friends with bloody knees, hands, and forearms frequently after our trail races. What would you advise frequent fallers in particular?

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Hi Leslie,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I find some irony in the fact that I write you with scrapes and bruises on my hands, elbow, hip, and knee from a big fall last weekend. I did a very long run and somewhere around two thirds of the way through, while on an almost-flat dirt road with just a few rocks sticking out and while looking up at a waterfall above the road, I hit something with my toe and superwoman-ed. It was the nastiest fall I’d taken in a long time, and I’m guessing it happened from a combination of not looking at the ground/being distracted as well as accumulating muscular and/or neuromuscular fatigue from running long.

      I offer this story because I think it’s a good example of how falling while trail running likely happens for several reasons. In addition to the distraction and fatigue factors that were probably at hand for me last weekend, I think people also fall because they don’t (yet) have either the muscular strength or neuromuscular coordination to navigate the terrain they are on and because they don’t (yet) have the experience to know what kinds of movements certain conditions require.

      However, both the skills and strength we need to stay upright on technical terrain (almost all of the time) can be trained! So how does a person get better at technical trail running and thus not falling? Here are a few ideas (and we talk about these and others in the book ‘Where the Road Ends’):

      1. Practice short bouts of focused running on technical terrain so that your body can develop the muscular strength and neuromuscular coordination needed.
      2. Off technical terrain/in a safer location, do drills that can help you develop the fast cadence and lifted feet you need to navigate on technical terrain. Drills, including the 2 in this article, help you develop that strength and coordination in a low-risk set-up.
      3. When on technical terrain, practice looking for your path through rather than the obstacles in your way.
      4. When in doubt, slow down. This gives your mind and body a little bit more time to process what you’re approaching.
      5. Work with a mentor. Follow someone who is good at technical trail running for a short distance to watch and model the way they move.
      6. Have confidence in yourself! There is just something to the idea of believing that you will in fact successfully navigate challenging terrain.

      I hope that helps a little bit and thanks again for commenting.

  6. Cary Stephens

    Great article. I find I use many of the techniques discussed. Meghan’s recent fall matches my experience. I rarely fall on very technical terrain, probably because I concentrate hard on my footing. My falls almost always happen on less technical trails/roads when I am less focused or look away at my watch or the scenery. I have noticed that I am falling a bit more recently. I think this might be due to my vision getting worse. I have always had near perfect vision, but at age 50 my eyes are just now starting to fade. A trip to the eye doctor is on my agenda, so I will see if that helps.

  7. George Johnson

    Uhan recommends increasing strides during severe uphill? What am I missing here? 180 on flat 240 on severe uphill.

    Confused in Idaho

    1. Cary Stephens

      George, I can’t tell if you are confused by stride length or stride number. I think Joe is saying increasing your cadence (stride number) on steep uphills. That makes sense if you are taking very short steps. Killian is the master of this style. However, at a certain pitch, I switch to hiking. When hiking, I alternate between a longer stride with a slight trunk forward lean and hands on knees (on very steep terrain) to a more upright shortened stride with arms swinging or hands on hips or very upper thighs (on pretty steep terrain). In my opinion, the key is to experiment on what feels easier and how fast you are moving at a given effort–ie. efficiency.

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