Trail running can be a meditative workout: It’s just you and the trees, you’re in a flow state, contemplating nature, your breath, life itself … And then suddenly you trip over a random tree root, and the magic is gone.
While hitting the trails is an amazing way to make a run more pleasant and less monotonous than running on roads, there are some perilous elements. But pro trail ultrarunners Brian Tolbert and Sarah Cotton offer some advice to keep you in that flow state for your entire run.
PRO TIP #1: TRUST YOURSELF
Road runners are used to running in a simple, straight line. Let your body move more naturally to get around and over obstacles instead.
This is Cotton’s number 1 tip — and while it sounds simple, it’s not that easy to find that feeling of self-belief when you’re on technical terrain. “Sometimes, the more cautious you are, the more likely you are to fall or twist an ankle,” she says. “I’m not saying you should close your eyes or anything … Obviously watch where you’re going, but you have to learn to let go of your tension and fear and just let out your inner mountain goat. This was very hard for me at first and still is.”
PRO TIP #2: USE YOUR ARMS
“Don’t be afraid to flail,” says Under Armour-sponsored runner Brian Tolbert. “Use your arms for balance. The fastest technical runners in the world look like they are flapping their arms like they are trying to fly.” It might take a while to develop this skill since runners are conditioned to keep our arms pumping steadily at our sides.
Another way to imagine it is to channel Audrey Hepburn trying to walk while balancing a book on her head: Her arms were out to her sides for balance.
PRO TIP #3: TRADE YOUR RACING FLATS FOR TRAIL RUNNERS
A good trail shoe has better grips on the sole that are designed to help you navigate terrain like roots and rocks, while a road shoe makes you a lot more inclined to slip and slide.
The biggest mistake Cotton sees new trail runners make is thinking the same shoes you would wear on the roads will work on the trails. “I wore road shoes for the first several months of trail-heavy training, and while I never got [a doctor’s opinion], I’m fairly certain I broke my foot,” she says.
PRO TIP #4: THINK QUICK TURNOVER
Unlike the road where long, smooth strides help you reach the finish line faster, Tolbert recommends shortening your stride and opting for a higher cadence instead. “Think fast feet: Shorten your stride and increase your cadence,” he says. “This will give you increased contact with the ground and less chance of slipping and falling.”
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PRO TIP #5: CHILL OUT
When the terrain gets gross — with spring thaw coming, it’s bound to be a muddy and rainy couple of months — Cotton warns runners to stay calm. “Don’t get irritated. Especially after coming from doing a majority of my running on the track and roads, I would always get really irritated at first when the muddy and wet terrain slowed me down,” she says. “It’s going to slow you down; you just have to muscle through it and try to stay as relaxed as possible.”
PRO TIP #6: STAY HYDRATED — BUT WAIT FOR THE RIGHT MOMENT
A lot of crashes in trail running are caused by inopportune grabs for water bottles, gels or your phone to take a photo. Save distractions for when you hit a flat, calm section of trail, says Cotton. Or, if you’re on an extremely technical trail, stop for a moment and take a sip and a selfie.
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