Steep Trail Running

Steep Trail Running: Not All Hills Are The Same

Before we get into strategies for steep trail running, it’s crucial to figure out which type of hill you are running. For a longer trail race or run, not all of the hills are going to be runnable.

You may be physically able to run the tough hill, but on a long course, you will pay for that later on in the run.

And not all hills are the same. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of hills we might encounter.


The Runnable Hill

The first hill is the runnable hill. It’s not overly long, and while it might be tough to do so, we will run up it.

For the runnable hill, keep your stride short and compact. Maintain a steady pace as you work your way up.

Avoid over-exerting on this hill. Keep a smooth pace and a short stride to preserve energy.

The Partially Runnable Hill

Depending on the distance of the run you are and how steep the hill is, you may need to combine running and hiking.

Run a few steps, and then hike a few steps, and steadily alternate until you reach the top.

For Hikers-Only Hill

The last type of hill is too steep to run in the middle of a longer course. For this hill, I say just hike it.

While it may feel weird to walk during a race if you are racing, your body will thank you in the long run for recognizing the necessity to walk.

Steep Trail Running: Common Mistakes

Position of the Foot

The first common trail hill running mistake is to keep the weight on the toes. While it may feel more powerful to attack the hill on your toes, you need to save your calves for the rest of the race.

In order to avoid burning out those calves, your heels need to touch the ground.

This may feel more difficult than usual because running uphill requires more dorsal flexion in the foot.

Run/Walk Divide

The next two mistakes fall into the same category: choosing when to run and when to walk.

The first common mistake here is to run too long. It can be a tough thing to allow yourself to walk, especially if it’s early in the trail race.

The second common mistake is to let yourself walk for too long. Be tough on yourself here. Walk only when you know you need to do, and start running as soon as you can after that.

You can always return to walking if you got going too soon, but the goal should always be to get back to running as soon as possible.

Steep Trail Running: Don’t Forget the Downhill

When we’re running on steep trails, the downhill is not our rest period. Use the flat portions for that.

Also, from a competitive standpoint – the downhills are often what separate the top finishers.

Make those decisions at the beginning of your descent so that you know what you’re up against.

Use Your Eyes

This seems like an obvious downhill tip, but look ahead! Try to focus on what lies ahead so that you can adequately prepare for it.

This will help avoid “careless” downhill errors that could be costly.

It can be tempting going downhill to take an easy pace. For most downhills, this is doing you a disservice.

First, it’s putting a lot of pressure on your quads, a muscle group you will desperately need on the next uphill portion of the race.

Keep Your Center of Gravity Forward

Our bodies’ natural tendency when going downhill is to lean back. This actually increases the likelihood that we will slip.

With less weight directly over our feet, they are more likely to slip forward out from under us.

Instead, keep your bodyweight forward. The more forward you are, the less likely you are to slip.

Practice Your Downhill

It’s important not to descend beyond your ability. This means that while the tips above are certainly going to improve your downhill running, you don’t want the first time you try them to be on race day.

The more familiar you are with the hills, the higher you can safely keep your cadence, and the less afraid you will be to keep your body weight forward.

Practicing downhills is the only way to ensure your safety come race day.

The fix here, as stated above, is to practice. Practice your uphills and downhills in different weather conditions so that you are prepared for anything on race day.

The more you practice, the more educated your decisions will be about when to run, walk, speed up, and slow down.

This will also help you avoid injuries. Check out this article on what can you do to prevent running injuries for more tips on that.
With that said, happy trail running!

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