If you’ve Googled “how to get better at trail running”, that is probably how you have ended up here. The short answer would be to say that you need to practise and that the more you do the better you will become. That’s not going to give you much of an insight into all of the things you could to become a stronger, quicker and more confident trail runner though so we thought we would dig a little deeper and offer you some more practical help and advice.

To give some context to this piece, let’s start with an example of how various elements are key when it comes to how to get better at trail running:

I often go out running with one of the faster guys in our club – his recovery is my tempo and he lives close by so we often run together. He prefers the road (I don’t judge him for that) and I prefer the trails. Anyway, I managed to sneak in a couple of miles of trail into one of our recent runs which involved a steep grass descent. Now, I love a good descent and will quite confidently throw myself down a hill without fear. As I reached the bottom of this particular hill, I turned around and my fellow running companion was still only half way down rather tentatively and cautiously descending. This surprised me – he’s over an hour faster than me over a marathon distance for a start.

When we discussed it post run, he correctly pointed out that he runs on the road and if he does any hill work, it is usually hill reps (where the focus is on going up), he doesn’t run on technical terrain and therefore hasn’t practised those skills. Along with that he has been plagued by injury and doesn’t want to risk another. I, however, have run off road every week, multiple times a week for a few years now. I have fallen over running down hill and tripped over all sorts of objects but I have become a stronger trail runner through practise, technique and confidence.

I can happily climb a hill and not feel like I am dying and fly down a descent without a care in the world. Mud, water, grass, rocks, more mud, wet feet, rain, hail, sun, wind, snow… you name it, it’s all part of the fun.

So in answer to the question “how to get better at trail running”, let’s take a look at our top tips:

Core Training for Runners

While running is the bit that you’re really going to need to practise, core strength training is important too. I love a bit of BEAST bootcamp with local PT company, Work Outside the Box. I love the outdoor nature of it. 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 I can honestly say 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 and you don’t need lots of fancy equipment, just room to move.

Even if you just do a few exercises at home when you can a couple of times a week, you will definitely notice how a strong core helps to improve your trail running.

low plank

Low plank

How to Get Better at Trail Running – Hills

A lot of trail running involves hills. if you want a decent view, you have to work for it. While training for an ultra a couple of years ago, we walked/hiked 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. Anything less than 15 miles meant we ran the hills – even the big, big ones that go on for ever.

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. Want to be better at hills – run up them more! Running hills often is key when it comes to how to get better at trail running.

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. It’s funny – I recently ran an undulating half. Now my road pace isn’t anything spectacular but being able to handle the hills meant I was overtaking plenty of runners who were walking.

Use your arms to get you up the hill. Shorten your stride, take smaller steps and drive the arms. Keep your shoulders nice and relaxed, stand tall with good posture and let your arms do the majority of the work. 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. Set yourself mini goals to achieve the big one. 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. Another good point to mention here is if you can walk it faster than you can run it, then do exactly that.

Gaining Confidence on the Downhill

While we all want to be able to gain ground on the climb, we can also gain an advantage over our fellow runners on the descent. This comes in really handy if you are racing and need to make up some time. A good descent comes with confidence and a little technique. Balance is key so a strong core will help, not leaning forward, keeping your arms out to the side and not looking directly at the ground below you. How to become a better trail runner – confidence is key.

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

Being comfortable is key too. If my shorts aren’t comfortable or my shoes don’t have the right grip for the terrain, I don’t have the confidence on a run. 

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.

Let’s hear your top tips on how to get better at trail running. Just leave your comments below.

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