There have been many talks lately about the technical trail run in the runner’s community. We see them mentioned more than ever, from improving training results to participating in specialized races. However, you may wonder, what’s a technical trail run, and what makes these runs unique?
A technical trail run is any race or training program set against challenging natural terrain. Muddy trails, rocky ground, and sharp inclines or declines are just a few examples. On a technical trail run, you may be dodging roots, climbing with your upper body, or wading water.
If you’re interested in challenging yourself with one of these unique and incredible runs, read on. I’ll tell you all about what technical trail running is, what kind of terrain it covers, and what to expect. I’ll also offer tips to help you see success on a technical trail run.
Definition of Technical Trail Running
When signing up for a race, you might come across the term “technical.” This is an indication that you’ll be technical trail running.
Technical trail running is like other trail running, but it has more obstacles and challenging spots that will put your body to the test. Generally, any race or training program done on natural terrain with challenges associated with the region can be considered a technical trail run.
Technical trails will have dirt roads or hiking trails, mud, rocky ground, or bodies of water. Sometimes you’ll have to navigate narrow passages. There may be intense inclines or steep declines. You may even have to climb or use your upper body to pull yourself through certain spots.
Any combination of these elements might be present. The weather could also provide additional difficulties, either with extreme cold or heat. Training to meet these harsh conditions is critical in finishing the race while staying safe and uninjured.
Most runners new to technical races won’t start on this type of terrain right away. Instead, they begin by learning the in’s and out’s of trail running and work their way up. Learning to be fast and steady takes time and effort, but it’s worth it to participate in these incredible races.
When training for a technical trail run, most people start with flatter trail runs and work their way up to tackling trails with steep inclines, boulders and streams to traverse.
On almost any technical trail run, you’ll have to overcome some muddy patches. Running on muddy terrain isn’t easy. Mud can slow you down because the ground is softer and thicker, sometimes causing your feet to stick. It’s also slippery, which presents a hazard and requires extra care to protect yourself from falling or sliding.
A slip while running can lead to the runner coming down too hard or at an awkward angle on the down step. Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself while still keeping a good pace. I’ll cover that a little later on.
Rocky terrain is tricky, and it’s probably the most challenging thing you’ll encounter on a technical trail run. When you’re moving quickly, uneven ground can be hard to gauge.
Sometimes the rocks will be stuck in place, while other spots may be loose, making it easier to trip. It might even hurt here and there.
When wet, rocks are also slippery, especially in humid regions with significant moss growth. So, you’ll have to adjust your speed and work with precise steps on rocky terrain. The good news is that running on this terrain is simple– it just takes practice.
Many technical races occur in wooded areas or on trails where trees are common. Trees fight soil erosion, so their roots often expand onto trails to keep the walking and running areas level. However, these roots, which protect the path, can grow out of the ground and get in the way, creating bumps and pockets that are difficult to traverse at high speeds.
Different runners choose to tackle rooted paths differently. Some people aim to run on top of the roots with their feet hitting them directly. Others may dodge roots and use them to stabilize their steps.
You must pay attention every time you run a trail. Be ready to change direction or avoid roots at a moment’s notice.
Preparing for extreme weather can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Wearing moisture-wicking fabrics helps with rain, snow, or sweat, and these garments make an excellent base layer for running in any climate.
From there, it depends on what climate you’re facing:
- Wear layers, starting with the moisture-wicking fabric on the bottom.
- Cover the fingers, ears, and nose.
- Avoid snow or patches of ice.
- Remain hydrated, just like in hot weather.
- Dry and warm yourself as soon after your run as possible.
- Wear moisture-wicking, light fabrics.
- Wear sunscreen.
- Hydrate constantly.
- Start slower to avoid burnout.
7 Tips for Improving Your Technical Trail Running
1. Strengthen Your Lower Body
The stronger your lower body is, the more prepared you’ll be to properly push yourself through the varying terrains technical trail running demands.
More muscle also means more protection for the joints, which reduces the risk of injury. While this is the cardinal rule for most running, it’s even more crucial when running on challenging terrain.
Add lower body strength training to your exercise routine to prep for a technical trail run. Start incorporating squats and weight lifting. You’ll notice a huge difference the moment your calves and glutes start to tone. Just be careful not to overdo it on your running days.
2. Have the Right Footwear
Not all running shoes are created equal. When adding mud or water to the mix, you’re significantly more prone to falls, twisting your ankle, and otherwise hurting yourself. So it’s best to get a pair with good traction, anti-slip soles, and good ankle and arch support. If they’re flexible, it’s a bonus.
Having a good pair of socks can help a lot. Mud tends to be cold, even if the weather is temperate. You want a material that stays dry to keep your feet toasty. Many runners recommend neoprene socks for this purpose. If you know that the terrain will be very rocky, make sure the soles of your shoes have a built in rock plate to keep sharp stones from impacting your foot.
3. Take Short, Quick Steps
The wider your stride when you run on a road, the more speed and control you can maintain. The opposite is true in mud, on wet trails, or while running over rocks. Trying to keep your usual gait when it’s wet and slippery is a recipe for disaster.
Keep your stride to about a half (or less) when on unusual terrain. Compensate by keeping those steps quick and sharp, doubling the number of steps per minute you run. Adjusting your stride will keep you moving quickly, while it also allows you plenty of time to overcome the next obstacle.
4. Use the Right Running Posture
Probably ninety percent of what you need to remember when on a technical trail run is your body’s posture and stride. You want to keep your posture nice and straight, never bending at the waist. Use your arms, making that swing nice and wide to improve balance and propel your body forward. Match your shoulders to your hips in a direct line, and keep your steps short and quick.
5. Practice Runs
Mud comes and goes, but rocky terrain stays. If you know what trails you’ll be racing, practice there or in similar areas. The more you practice, the more natural it’ll feel when the time comes. That way, you won’t have to think about changing your stride or posture on the fly.
6. Expect Your Time To Increase
No one likes to lose time in a race, but losing your footing is worse. When planning your technical trail run, give yourself as much time as you need for each part of the terrain. In practice runs, calculate how many minutes are spent in certain areas and try to compensate for any place that requires more care.
Remember, taking a fall will cost you time in the long run, so be careful and try to adjust your pace to the terrain as you go.
7. Work on Your Balance
Having a good balance is an excellent way to see better performance on technical trails. If you need to work on your balance, exercises like yoga can help. With these posture-based exercise routines, you can develop balance while increasing your core and lower body strength. Both will be invaluable when you start testing other terrains, giving you an edge in your races.
You may also want to try tai chi or other martial arts if yoga isn’t your thing.
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Erick is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. Growing up in Nairobi Kenya and now calling Glasgow, United Kingdom home. Sipping on homemade spiced swahili tea and enjoying a good book is his idea of bliss.