Off-road Running Skills

You need a different set of skills to run off-road. Here’s how to hone your technique, says Kerry McCarthy.

“Running across varying terrain is completely different from road-running,” says pro trail runner Emmanuel Gault. “With the constantly changing terrain, direction and elevation, you use more muscles and change speed more often than on a standard tarmac run, so you need to know how to handle all the different scenarios.”

Here are Gault’s top tips on keeping good form when you leave the roads behind.

How to Run uphill

  • Lean forward slightly into the gradient with your whole body – make sure you don’t bend at your waist.
  • Reduce your stride length and take smaller, more frequent steps, making sure you get up on your toes.
  • Pump your arms to propel you uphill. Keep them bent at 90 degrees at the elbow.

How to run downhill

  • Don’t lean back and land heavily on your heels to put the brakes on as this puts a lot of strain on your hamstrings.
  • On gentle slopes, lengthen your stride – don’t fight gravity.
  • If the slope is of a medium gradient, lean forward slightly, keep your knees soft, land on your heels and roll through to your toes. Also, keep your arms out wide to stabilise yourself.
  • If you’re tackling a really steep slope, run down in a wide zigzag to lessen the gradient. If you start to lose control then jump straight up in the air to halt your momentum. Sounds like a recipe for face-planting, but it slams your brakes on.

When to walk uphill

  • Don’t let your ego stop you walking – sometimes it’s actually quicker to walk up a steep slope than to attempt to run up it. Walking also means you’ll conserve energy.
  • Take big exaggerated strides.
  • Keep your hands on your thighs, just above your knees, and use them to push off on each step. This generates momentum and saves energy going uphill.

When to slide downhill

  • Identify descents that can’t be run – they might be on snow, on slippery, mushy, leafy ground for example.
  • Crouch slightly and lean back so your bottom is touching the ground, and then start to half slide, half run. Let your heels skid along the floor and occasionally pedal your feet and run a few steps to increase speed.
  • Don’t head straight down. Traverse in zigzags, as if you were skiing.
  • Keep your hands on the ground slightly behind you to act as rudders.

How to keep your footing

  • Spot hidden obstacles and uneven ground early by keeping your eyes focused four or five metres in front of you.
  • Look for footprints, tracks or flattened patches of ground where other runners have been before and follow those.
  • If there are no tracks you can follow, always look for the largest and most solid object to land on.
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