I was out trail running with a group of experienced trail running friends the other day. We often go out as a group and it regularly involves 7-8 miles with decent elevation (or vomit inducing climb as I like to call it). I always feel like the slow one at the back but someone has to be at the back right? Most of them are guys (I am a girl so it’s allowed right?) As we were nearing the finish, we bumped into a couple of our fellow club members who were walking up the hill (shhh. we said we wouldn’t tell). They seemed embarrassed to have been caught by us walking the hills but trust me, they should have seen me on the last climb. They referred to us as hardcore which got me to thinking; I am by no means an elite, I have just practised, worked hard, ran lots of miles, up hill and down and somehow become a stronger trail runner.
But how have I got to this stage where I don’t die and stop at the top of a hill, unless I am chasing others up it? What is involved in getting better at trail running and how can we all do it? Essentially it comes down to practise, hard work and a bit of technique as well as a desire to run trails.
Running the Hills Becomes a Little More Comfortable
It was shortly after our Thursday night encounter, while on a Sunday long run, that I realised I was running all of the hills – usually I will walk many of them, especially while training for an ultra where the chances are we will walk the hills. At 13-14 miles, I was running up a climb to a trig – you know a trig involves elevation so it’s definitely a decent climb. Suddenly I realised I was running, I was comfortable, I wasn’t breathing out of my a**e and I wasn’t feeling the need to stop. I carried on right up to that trig and felt quite pleased with myself. This got me to thinking how I had got here. What had I done that had made me become a stronger trail runner? It’s no secret so here we go:
Core Training for Runners
I love a bit of BEAST bootcamp with local PT company, Work Outside the Box. I love the outdoor nature of it (I am typing this one hour before this week’s session and it’s raining currently so we will see how long that lasts). It’s hard, it’s tough and it’s an hour a week. That’s all the cross training I do (apart from the odd cycle) but boy can I notice the difference. The first week it was about 3 days before I could properly move again but since then I have really started to notice my core stability has improved. I turn up, do as I am told, give it everything and then repeat. I have managed to hold a plank for two minutes and can do press ups without wanting to cry.
Core training is key for runners. It helps improve balance and core stability, a critical factor when running up and down hills and over undulating trails and rocky paths. It is easy to do, you don’t need lots of fancy equipment, just room to move.
Running the Hills to Become a Stronger Trail Runner
While training for our last ultra, we walked the hills. We trained as we would run the race. This meant eating instead of running when we were climbing. We wanted to get to the end of that ultra in one piece. The trouble is, while my endurance was great, my strength on hills didn’t really improve. After the ultra, we kept the mileage low but we started really giving it some on the hills.
I go out with a bunch of guys on a Thursday and they really take some keeping up with. It’s do or die. If I don’t want to be left behind, I have to run the hills and run them well. It hurts but it’s doing me the world of good. I also do hill reps. A variation of them in fact. Short hill reps, continuous hill reps. You can discover our recommended sessions here. The key is, if you want to get better at something, you have to practise it.
Improve Your Hill Running Technique
If you give it all you’ve got on the first climb of your run, I guarantee you are going to blow up and suffer later on. Equally setting out at your normal pace on a climb will be hard to maintain. When approaching a hill, it is important to take it down a gear or two, just like you would with a car. Find the right gear, approach the hill sensibly and keep it steady. Don’t race up the hill. It’s very likely that the person you see going racing off ahead is either really much faster and stronger than you or is going to pay dearly for it later.
Use your arms to get you up the hill. Shorten your stride, take smaller steps and use your arms. Keep your shoulders nice and relaxed, stand tall with good posture and use your arms to drive up the hill. Your legs will follow. There are other techniques you can use when it gets tough. I always count trees or similar. It’s like a distraction. You also need to breathe. I tend to forget about my breathing, pant and then end up feeling sick. Keep relaxed and don’t try to overthink the hill.
Eating the Right Food
I have started to focus on what I eat. I am not saying you have to suddenly completely change your diet and eat everything healthy to become a stronger trail runner. I run for cake for goodness sake. Where would the fun be if it was all veggies, pulses and lentils. No, I just make sure I increase my intake of healthy foods and I still eat what I want in moderation. I am not a big drinker so alcohol has never really been part of my weekly routine but I do love cake and chocolate and I am not about to give that up. I do however feel the benefit of increasing the amount of healthy food I eat. It’s like fuelling a car – put crap in and you won’t get the best out of it.
Trail Running Shoes and the Right Kit
I guess being comfortable is key for me. If my shorts aren’t comfortable or my shoes don’t provide the right grip, I don’t have the confidence on a run. I recently bought a pair of in0v-8 mud claw. Previously, I had been running in Roclites which are the best shoes in the world in summer but not so great when it’s wet and muddy. The Mudclaw changed running down hill for me. Suddenly I felt I was in control when descending and I could bomb down a hill at pretty impressive speeds. Invest in the right trail shoes if nothing else. You will notice the difference.
Trail running is hard, there is no doubt about it. Often, it can be tougher than running on the road, with more to focus on and more obstacles to contend with. It takes practise but like anything, the more you do it, the better you get. While you can do lots to improve and become a stronger trail runner, it is important to focus on enjoying it.
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