One Dirty Magazine

How To Run Faster On Technical Trails

By focusing on form and skills, you can excel on technical trails.

David Roche May 11th, 2020

How To Run Faster On Technical Trails

As I was running along a technical trail in the rocky foothills near Boulder, Colorado, I found myself thinking of someone for the first time in almost two decades. That person: the former all-star baseball player Chuck Knoblauch. The brain is strange.

Knoblauch was a reliable fielder at second base until 1999, when he started having trouble with the short throw to first base. In 2000, he made three throwing errors in one game, with the last one flying into the stands and hitting a sportscaster’s mom in the head. Knoblauch left the field, walked out of the stadium in street clothes mid-game, and almost never played second base again.

He had a case of what the sports world calls “the yips,” when an athlete gets a mental block and something that was routine becomes unnatural. Another interesting case happened in 1989, when catcher Mackey Sasser lost the ability to consistently throw the ball back to the pitcher with any accuracy. A promising professional career was derailed for something that many six-year-olds do effortlessly.

So why did I think of Knoblauch and the yips? As I was running across the rocks, the thought crossed my mind: “If I think too much about what I’m doing right now, I am going to fall on my face.”

I twisted my ankle a second later.

Fortunately, that ankle is a permanent lumpy beach ball, so I was able to keep going and get back in the moment. Thoughts of Chuck and Mackey faded away, replaced by thoughts of rocks and switchbacks and pancakes (a background presence in all of my thoughts). The remainder of the run was such a joyous adventure.

The article starts with that anecdote so I can tee up the contradiction at the heart of this advice. The form and training tips I want you to think about are all designed so that you can run on technical terrain without thinking much at all. Essentially, we’re trying to reverse engineer that flow state from a case of the chronic yips that many trail runners feel on technical terrain, whether from a past injury or fear or lack of practice.

Disclaimer: before doing anything with inherent risks like technical trail running or trying to park at Whole Foods, consult a doctor, coach, biomechanical specialist, life insurance agent and member of the clergy, as needed.

But there is amazing news! Based on my coaching experience, I think any runner can become a beast on technical trails by applying six rules. Disclaimer: before doing anything with inherent risks like technical trail running or trying to park at Whole Foods, consult a doctor, coach, biomechanical specialist, life insurance agent and member of the clergy, as needed.

 

1. Think light, quick strides

The hardest thing to internalize about technical running is how the feet can move so fast without missteps. And here’s what you need to remember: technical running is not done one step at a time, it’s done five steps at a time.

I really learned the lesson last summer descending off a big mountain peak with the two-time Golden Trail Series finalist Meg Mackenzie. It’s not that she had an innate ability to avoid missteps. It’s that by the time one foot misstepped, she’d already be moving onto the other foot. Her center of gravity stayed balanced and centered by not “sitting down” in her stride or putting too much emphasis on any footfall.

From a distance, her light, quick strides looked almost as if she was running over smooth ground. Up close, she saved dozens of stumbles without consciously processing it.

From a distance, her light, quick strides looked almost as if she was running over smooth ground. Up close, she saved dozens of stumbles without consciously processing it. Meg’s whole body was not running fast that day (so she wouldn’t drop my sorry butt), but her feet were moving fast the whole time.

Michelle Merlis, a superstar trail runner who teaches clinics on the subject, uses an analogy to help people learn the technique.

“I like to think of it as a dance with the rocks and roots,” Michelle says. “You learn to know which rocks and roots can be stepped on and which you need to go around or jump over. And kind of like a highly experienced dancer, you don’t dwell on a misstep or stumble, you’re immediately on to the next, so much so that an outside observer would never even know a mistake had been made.”

My dancing is one big mistake, so I’m taking copious notes.

Careful, heavy footfalls require each step to be perfect. Quick, light steps ensure that you aren’t penalized for inevitable imperfection.

 

2. Focus on lifting foot up with knee drive to keep center of gravity aligned

On a non-technical downhill, the kick-back part of the running form can be astounding. But change the picture to a technical downhill, and form has to change a bit. Why is that? 

The big reason is that it’s impossible to use light and quick strides with that form. In addition, it’s way easier to kick rocks or roots. 

Emphasizing the process of lifting the foot forward from your knees with your hips forward lets you keep your center of gravity directly over your landing zone while moving rapidly from step to step. In practice, it might not look much different, but it’s a good cue to get proper balance. With practice, you can mix the two styles for technical and non-technical portions of trail.

 

3. Don’t look straight down

Because technical running is done five steps at a time, you don’t want to be staring at the ground for each footfall. So keep your eyes down and ahead, just not at your shoelaces. I imagine that’s self explanatory, but through coaching, I HAVE SEEN SOME THINGS.

Also, make sure your vision is optimized. Some of the athletes that think they can’t do technical trails just can’t shift focus due to vision issues.

 

4. Don’t look around

Do not glance up at a passing hiker even if you think they may be making sexy eyes at you. Do not look at that tree even if it has some sexy bark. In fact, all sexiness will have to wait until you stop or get off technical trails.

Here is something that happens constantly. I am just going to describe it via sound. You may even be able to imagine it.

“Hi!”

CRACK

“[F word]!”

You can say hi, just don’t make eye contact. 

 

5. Relax and flow

OK, we have the form cues down. Quick strides, light feet, knees leading, eyes down and ahead. Now comes the hard part. Frankie Goes to Hollywood said it … relax. I would argue the reasoning in that song is somewhat related to the topic of this article if you really think about it.

Imagine a mountain bike and a road bike. The stiff road bike can fly, but put it on rocks and it’ll be in the bushes quickly. The mountain bike’s shock absorbers allow it to eat the rocks alive. Your feet and legs need to work the same way. Too much tension will make your ankles into your shock absorbers, rather than your entire lower body.

The same goes for the upper body. Let go of as much tension as you can in your arms, neck and face. I like athletes to use an adopted mindfulness strategy, thinking about just one part of their body at a time as they learn how to release.

Your body is a river flowing over the rocks. Let go. 

Yes, it’s 6 p.m. and I’m a half a glass deep on the cheapest merlot.

 

6. Practice purposeful lightness

Let’s end with our old friend Chuck Knoblauch. Here’s what is so fascinating about his story: after losing the ability to consistently make the short throw from second base, he moved to left field, where the throws are much longer and harder and subject to double entendres. In left field, he was fine.

When we are trying to exert control, our brains have a strange way of forgetting the simplest actions. The same goes for writing, public speaking, running, all other sports, sex. Our conscious brain is brilliant at problem solving, and also problem creating.

Flow state describes when that part of the brain leaves the group chat. Technical running—like rock climbing—can spur that transcendent flow because it forces presence in the moment. That is so freaking cool.

But it can also be daunting if you are mid-run and find yourself thinking of baseball and psychology and beach-ball ankles. There is no set answer about how to achieve lightness out there, but I like athletes to try three steps.

First, keep recentering your thoughts on the trail. Your mind will wander, just bring it back gently if you can.

Second, think of it as adventurous play. If you don’t actively look forward to technical running, your brain will undercut you eventually. Technical running is when we stop being adults with taxes and performance reviews and start being kids. Embrace the play element—including the falls. Like a kid, you can cry, but if you’re not falling sometimes at recess, your recess game needs work.

Third, move faster. It’s so easy to hit technical trails and think that it’ll be easier if you’re more careful. But like Chuck Knoblauch at second base, giving yourself too much time to think about a simple task is the worst thing for your brain.

So let go and move quickly. You might not always find flow. You might fall sometimes. And ankle turns are guaranteed.

But along the way, I promise you’ll find lots more life.

 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.

 

 

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Kyle RogersDan C.Peter BrewerAnne LevyMark Recent comment authors
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Clare Gallagher
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Clare Gallagher

This is so useful. Thanks, David! Let it flow!

David Roche
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David Roche

Thank you Clare for teaching me so much about this topic!

Simon
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Simon

“he moved to left field, where the throws are much longer and harder and subject to double entendres” haha

Stephanie
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Stephanie

Great article and fun to read! Definitely chuckled at the sexy bark part 🙂

Dave F
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Dave F

Some good advice about mental focus, tempo, and knee lift. But falling isn’t play or adventure. It hurts and can ruin more than just your day. I know more than one person with a permanent injury from a trip and fall on the trail. Not one of my scars is a good story or cool memory.

David Roche
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David Roche

Thanks for the great feedback Dave! The idea is that being preoccupied about falling can lead to more falls, or at least take an athlete out of the moment. Like other complex actions in life, thinking about worst case scenarios can get in the way for some people. Or it could be really important for others, like you described! I should have explained that more, and I appreciate you taking the time to point it out!

Alan M
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Alan M

Mackey not Mickey.

David Roche
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David Roche

Agh you are right, thank you Alan! Will ask for correction! I appreciate this so much.

Alan M
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Alan M

I know this only because when he played with the Mets he fouled a pitch off, hit the banister in front of me. Happened so fast I didn’t even know it almost crushed my hand. This took me back…
Good article!

peter
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peter

Great advice! What drew me, years ago, off the roads to trail running, especially technical trail running, is that it requires complete attention, focus. But now that I’m an old goat, that quick, light mountain goat approach just doesn’t seem to work as well – the reflexes don’t get the feet into the right place quite in time, sometimes. So it’s SPLAT or SLOW DOWN.

Dave Mount
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Dave Mount

Thanks, David! Great advice as always. Here’s my two cents: run your own pace, especially downhill. My worst fall ever (on volcanic rocks in the Columbia Gorge – ouch!) happened because I was trying to catch up with someone who was a much faster downhill runner than me. As a result, I got a bone bruise on my knee that took months to heal and – here’s the scary part – was sentenced to water running by my PT. No, no, please, not water running! It’s death by boredom, am I right?

Jesse Cragwall
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Jesse Cragwall

Great article, David! You grabbed my attention immediately with the Chuck Knoblauch and Mackey Sasser stories. Baseball is my first love, so I appreciate the reference. I also empathize with the ankle twist (common occurrence for me).
Will put these principles into practice on my run tomorrow!
JC

Aldo
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Aldo

Maybe your best piece ever, Dave. I paced a buddy a couple of years ago at Grindstone…from the turnaround back to the previous aid station (think it was 14 or 17 miles). The descents were massively technical, but your advice is solid…he’s 20 years younger than I (not a typo….it is “I”, not “me”…but I digress), but I billy-goated myself down and dragging him along was really fun. At the end he said, “don’t ever do anything to me like that again.”

Chris A.
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Chris A.

What was that line from Born To Run? “If you’re wondering if you should take 1 or 2 steps, take 3.” That’s how I try to flow downhill: Short, quick steps.

Andy A
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Andy A

By the same token, minimal footwear (whatever your view on it) is very good for training technical trails. They are light, they don’t allow you to take big/heavy steps on rocks and roots, they give good haptic feedback which allows you to react to a misstep quicker, and they are lower to the ground so a misstep doesn’t torque your ankle quite so hard.

streaker
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streaker

As a flatlander who only gets to run trails on my one ultra a year, this advice is very helpful. I think in order to practice I will work on quick leg turnover workouts. I was crushing a technical downhill last year, really moving fast, when a girl passed me who appeared to be running slowly, she disappeared from sight pretty quickly. I think maybe she had received some of your coaching.

Tracy
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Tracy

David! Love your writing! My last technical trail run, one of my thoughts was i feel like a kid playing! Then i failed to knee lift, tripped on a tree root and skidded through dog poop someone failed to pick up! Awesome! BUT when i peeled myself off the ground and turned to go home was rewarded with a bald eagle flying to its nest to feed its eaglet! Flow, quick feet (old soccer expression) and most important play!!! Thank you!

Mickey Jones
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Mickey Jones

Trail running is a lot like other stuff, don’t over think the specifics look ahead and go. Yeah sometimes you will fly like superman, just before gravity finishes you off flat out on the ground. Same holds true for downhill skiing, too slow on steep reduces options. Have fun – great article

Ryan Montalvo
Guest

There is nothing better than bombing down a hill as fast as you possible can. Being light on your feet is super important to not losing your footing. if you feel the ground start to give, being able to take quick step can save you. Where to look and staying focused are crucial. 5 steps at a time is a great way to think about. Visualize those steps and part way through find the next 5. I will never forget the time I was screaming down a hill and almost lost my footing in a mud slick, I looked back… Read more »

Jennifer P
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Jennifer P

David…love your writing style, and needed this. After a fall on a trail, my brain keeps worrying when I’m out there. Letting go and being light will help a lot. I found myself doing this naturally, but you frame it so very well. Thanks!

Mark
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Mark

““Hi!”

CRACK

“[F word]!”

I don’t have to imagine that. I am still recovering from it! Nothing like laying at someone’s feet, looking up, and saying “How’s it going?”, while pretending that you are not in severe pain. Good thing skin grows back.

Anne Levy
Guest

Man, I loved this. As a somewhat newbie to trail running, this was perfect. I know I have run freely at times and it was exhilarating! Thanks for this.

Peter Brewer
Guest
Peter Brewer

so true about not losing focus when passing someone on a trail. I roll my ankle every now and then (and ok, I am working on the strengthening part finally!) mostly when passing people on the trail. yep – i look up or slightly over as I am moving over on the trail to and BAM! I am rolling on my ankle. I always say Hi to folks, but now I don’t look over. Especially on those rocky parts where I need focus – or scatter focus. thank for the article as always!

Dan C.
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Dan C.

Rothrock 18 mile trail race a few years ago a couple spectators appeared out of nowhere on the trail in front of me. I looked up, hit a rock or root and fell slicing my knee opened. After a few F bombs and about 10 minutes of limping, I was able to start running again.

Kyle Rogers
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Kyle Rogers

Love the sexy bark reference. That’s what Justin Timberlake brings to trail runs.

 

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