Then comes the two most intimidating parts of trail running: the uphills and downhills. While most people grunt about the uphill, downhill is equally (if not more) challenging in technical terrain.
Uphills, which can really make your calves burn, require a combination of power and cardio, but they don’t require much specialized technique. “Typically people will choose to use a shorter stride on the uphill,” says Sharman. “Your body will pick what feels optimal.”
Downhills, which use braking momentum and really work your quads, are a different story—they’re almost a mental game. If you’re new to running down steep slopes, your brain kicks up the caution. But if you keep your nose over your toes (don’t lean too far forward or backward), your balance should improve and your footing will likely feel more secure.
One tip that’s helped me move faster on the downhills: planning my foot plant before each step to stay balanced. If you’re looking directly at your feet, you’ll move awkwardly and overanalyze your movements. Instead, I scan the trail about 10 feet ahead to stay aware of upcoming obstacles.
“The more experience you get, the easier it is to navigate where your line is, balance-wise and kinesthetically. I probably look two to three steps ahead, maybe four,” says Hobbs. “Your focus should be ahead on the trail, but you also need to be cognizant of your foot placement.”
As with any skill-based sport, you will see a gradual progression. “The first time on a trail, you may feel hopelessly bad,” says Sharman. “On your second or third outing, you see immediate gains. Then, you can begin pushing yourself to the edge of what you currently do.”
9. Practice good trail etiquette.
“Trail runners, like all trail users, should practice ‘Leave No Trace’ principles,” Smith says. One of the most important ways to do this for runners: stay on the trail and don’t be tempted to shortcut switchbacks. Going off the trail causes erosion on steep slopes, damages the natural vegetation, and creates “social trails”—faint user-created trails that develop over time.
You also want to make sure that you take out all of your trash with you when you leave. And we mean all of it. When you’re on an all-day run without access to bathrooms, bring along a spare Ziploc to pack out your TP.
And if you want to leave your running trail nicer than you found it, you can pack out any litter you find. It’s called “plogging,” or “carrying a bag and picking up trash when you’re jogging,” says Hobbs.
While it’s essential to consider how your actions affect the area, you should also think about other trail users. “Don’t space out with AirPods in your ears; keep all of your senses attuned to the surroundings,” says Smith. “For example, you’ll need to hear if a mountain bike is approaching so you can step off the trail.” Blasting music on the trail is also poor form. (I love listening to music or podcasts when I run, so I’ll often use an AirPod in only one ear.)
And staying aware of your surroundings does more than just show good trail etiquette. You’ll avoid surprise encounters with wildlife when you’re tuned into your environment.
10. Let yourself enjoy the ride—er, run.
Trail running is an excellent form of exercise, but it’s also a fantastic way to spend time outdoors. You can get on the trails for the pure enjoyment of moving your body amid nature—it doesn’t necessarily need to be “training” or for competition.
“Stop as often as you want to. You don’t have to stop just to catch your breath,” says Warren. “If you see something that catches your eye, stop and take a picture or a mental image so you can share it with your loved ones.” As a runner, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the numbers—the pace you run, and how many miles you log, for instance. But by really allowing yourself to experience moving your body in a whole new (and peaceful) environment, you can bring a whole lot more fun into your sport.
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