trail running form

Practice Trail Running Series – Part 1

You have decided to step off the road and onto the trails for your next race. We can tell you that you are in for a real treat, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Proper trail running form requires you to use more muscle groups throughout your body to remain quick and agile. Planning for a trail race has to be more thought out ahead of time so that you can respond to the terrain and weather on race day. Also, the gear you use, the hydration plan you follow, and the pace you run will all most likely be altered just by exchanging the hard road for the soft trails. All of this combined requires you to practice trail running before race day.

In Part 1 of our series on ‘Practice Trail Running,’ we discuss general trail running form, and tips for improving your ability to run up and downhill.

Coach Andrew Taylor at the 2015 Raccoon Pond Rush. Photo credit to Brian Fancher Photography (

Trail Running Form

From loose gravel, dirt, sand, mud, roots, streams, and to rocks a trail race can put you on your toes. The unstable terrain requires you to use more lateral movements and an overall shorter stride to maintain your speed. This shorter stride can improve strength in your hips and ankles while reducing the impact on your joints. At the same time, though, a shorter stride can make you run even slower on the trails. That is if you do not have the necessary leg speed to remain efficient while dodging obstacles. A good trail runner has both foot speed and trail speed. As you prepare for your trail race, work on developing both types of speed through these various workouts.

Leg speed or leg turnover will improve by getting out on the track, not the road or the trail. Track workouts allow you to improve your ability to maintain a pace, understand your anaerobic threshold, and increase stride efficiency. All three of these are critical to a successful trail race. Not having a good sense of pace and threshold will result in you putting out too much or too little effort when the terrain gets challenging. By the time you realize the mistake in speed during, you will be out of energy or the race will be over.

Trail speed, naturally, is your ability to run at full race pace over almost any type of terrain. To develop trail speed, find a trail that is not too rugged. Complete a 30 to 45-minute Fartlek run. A “Fartlek” is a Swedish word that means speed-play. Run for shorter a duration at harder efforts, then allow your body to recover just slightly before running hard again. Run hard from tree to tree, run hard up or down a hill. There are no specific rules to fartlek workouts. Vary the duration of hard efforts and push yourself!

Long climbs like this one at the TRT100 can make even the strongest runners walk.

Uphill Running

Study the course profile before race day so that you know the length and steepness of the hills on the trail. The general rule we like to use is, if you cannot see the top of a climb from the bottom, it is probably smarter to significantly slow your running pace. Even if that means power-hiking the climb. It is never fun making it half way up a climb and realizing that you went to hard or that the climb all of a sudden gets even steeper. Measure your effort over each climb in comparison to how long the race is in total distance. Too much energy expended on the first climb of the day can spell disaster later.

Make sure to stand tall and try to maintain as flat a back as possible. Leaning too far forward at the hips and looking to close to the ground in front of you can restrict air flow. Poor posture will also reduce oxygen getting to your muscles. Minimize the length of your stride. Even just focusing on one foot right in front of the other will help you maintain a more upright position.

If the climb is too steep and you must lean forward, maintain a flat back position, and keep your eyes looking uphill.  Put your hands on your thighs just above the knees. Push off evenly with arms and legs on the same side of the body with each stride. For example, left arm pushes through left leg as it pushes off the ground. Using your arms to push your legs will help to conserve energy and maintain a smoother pace as you climb.

Downhill Running

What comes up, must come down. As runners, we typically don’t focus as much on how we are descending. For the sake of our joints and muscles, taking proper care to practice downhill running is more important than the uphill practice. Aerobically, we might feel okay when we descend. Therefore, we tend to push the pace harder, putting more impact on our quads and lower legs.


Descents with obstacles at the Chattanooga Stage Race make for a physical and mental challenge.

As you descend, work to stay on the balls of your feet, not on your heels. For foot running on a descent will allow you to carry more speed, remain responsive to obstacles, and reduce the impact on your joints. Focusing your gaze 10 to 15 meters in front of you on the trail will help you pick the best line. Thus, avoiding obstacles as well as maintaining a more upright running position. Just like when running uphill, shortening your stride and quickening your cadence will allow you to keep a slight forward lean, engage more core muscles, and improve your balance.

On the downhills don’t be afraid to let those arms move a little more freely out to the side. When you balance on one foot, putting your arms out to the side can help keep you from falling. The same applies when trying to move quickly downhill. Let your arms respond to the terrain just like your feet and legs respond to each push off the uneven surface.

Practice makes perfect! Find a gradual long downhill stretch that features relatively smooth terrain. Then, progress to steep and technical descents. If your upcoming race features a lot of short steep or long gradual downhills, then spend most your downhill practice training your body to respond to the type of descents.

With these basic tips to trail running form, you are well on your way to a successful first trail race!

Other Areas of Discussion on Practice for Trail Running:


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