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7 Tips For Trail Running

Posted by: on August, 30 2013

Found on MensHealth and written by Brian Metzler

Pretend you’re in a slasher flick, being chased through the woods by a chain saw-wielding madman. Twigs are snapping, and you’re stumbling over rocks and ducking under tree limbs until, inevitably, you trip on a root.

Crack goes your ankle, whap goes your body on the hard dirt.

The madman catches up, the camera pans up to the full moon, and the screen fades to black.

That would never happen to Dave Mackey. As the 2003 U.S. 50-mile trail-running champion and a four-time winner of the grueling Breckenridge Crest Trail Marathon in Colorado, Mackey runs on rocks like sprinters run on rubber tracks. He would have used short, compact strides to elude his pursuer. He would have spotted the root yards in advance. He would have ultimately left the freak doubled over and sucking wind.

If you want to run in the jungle, there’s a steep price of admission, payable through either preparation or E.R. visits. That’s why we chased Mackey through the woods near Boulder, Colorado, in search of seven ways to get dirt-worthy faster.

1. Don’t Rush Into Anything
Your first time trail-running is like your first time in the sack with a woman: It’ll probably end sooner than you hoped. And if things go wrong, there might be first aid involved. That’s okay, says Mackey. It takes time to get comfortable, to know when to accelerate and when to coast. On your virgin run, aim for 75 percent of your normal pace, paying attention to landmarks (sharp left after the walnut tree, watch out for jagged boulder). As you transition from the roads to dirt, you can work your way up to 100 percent effort; it takes time to learn the technical side of trail running. You’ll be surprised at how much speed you can pick up once you know what’s coming.

2. Keep Your Back Straight
Big hills leave even the best trail runners sucking wind. Your natural reaction is to hunch forward like Quasimodo, but that’s a great way to keep your lungs from getting a full tank of gas. So do like Mackey and let your ankles adjust to the incline, keeping your back erect and using powerful, compact arm swings to propel yourself up the trail. “I shorten my stride by a third or more but maintain the same cadence,” says Mackey. Since you’re moving more slowly, you won’t need to look as far down the trail. But resist the temptation to watch your feet as you climb. Feet really aren’t that interesting.

3. Snap a Mental Picture
You’ll move faster down hills, so you need to be more aware of the terrain ahead. Mackey looks three or four paces beyond his feet, letting his brain place his footsteps based on that mental snapshot. Keep your weight back slightly—as if you’re quick-stepping down the hill on your heels–and swing your arms with bent elbows up high, near your chest. Hold your arms out just far enough from your sides to ensure good balance. “Animals use their tails to shift weight,” Mackey explains. “You’re doing the same thing with your arms.” On scree, or loose gravel, drop your arms to lower your center of gravity, and take shorter, gentler steps.

4. Stay Low
The taller your kicks, the harder you’ll fall. So go with your favorite running shoes on anything but the nastiest turf. They’re lower to the ground than trail shoes, which have added cushioning that reduces stability and accentuates any rock-induced roll. The human body was designed to run off-road anyway, so unless your feet are particularly dainty, you’ll be fine.

5. Take the High Road
Hill workouts are a great way to strengthen your legs, shorten your stride, and build up your stamina for longer runs. Try running hills that take at least 1 minute to ascend. If you’re running intervals, shoot for 3- to 4-minute climbs; anything longer and you’ll become too tired to get a quality workout.

6. Add Trail Mix to Your Training
Just like on-road prep, trail training requires a mix of short runs (between 20 minutes and an hour, two or more times a week) and LSD, or long, slow distance runs (an hour or so, once a week). But you’ll also need to work in some hills and fartlek (Swedish for “speed play”—a random mix of easy runs and bursts of speed) to make it through a serious trail race, says Mackey. In one of Mackey’s typical fartlek workouts, he alternates between moderate- and fast-paced spurts that last between 3 and 8 minutes.

7. Light Up
Once you’ve honed your trail intuition to spot obstacles on autopilot, hit the course at night. It’ll train you to respond to even fewer visual cues, making your running style more natural. A powerful but lightweight running headlamp (we like Black Diamond’s 4.9-ounce Zenix, $45, bdel.com) should give you all the light you need. Headlamps also help you squeeze in afterwork runs in the fall and winter.