Mud can sap strength efficiency, and without sound technique, confidence. Running through mud need not be something to fear, and with practice, conquering a particularly muddy piece of trail is both confidence building and extremely fun.
When we run in muddy conditions, our feet will flow like water - that is, they will slide to the lowest point in the trail. Therefore, usually, the most efficient way to navigate mud is to get to the lowest point on the trail. You may slide around, but if you are at the lowest point, you won’t slide far, or when it does slide, it will slide in place. If you tiptoe around, you will only end up sliding down further.
Generally, when we run in mud, we gain traction by pushing backwards with our feet, which propels us forwards and loads up our calves. This is an inefficient means of movement. Our propulsion needs to come from lifting our foot using our hamstrings, utilizing the forward motion of this movement. Think of it as rather than pushing your foot backwards with your calves you are lifting your foot upwards with your hamstrings. Using this method will allow you to run more efficiently in muddy conditions.
Stride Length and Centre of Gravity
In order to maintain efficiency maintain a high leg turnover, short stride length and high cadence. Consider someone running through mud with a low cadence and long stride length, they appear unbalanced and laboured. Attacking a muddy section with a high leg turnover and cadence and a short choppy stride puts our centre of gravity underneath us, right where we need it to be to add stability. Our ability to move forward efficiently further enhances our stability and we progress through the muddy section in a quicker and more efficient manner. Remember- the less time our foot spends on the ground, the less time it has to slide around.
This is a personal choice, however I will always suggest that our shoes should be as close to the ground as we can handle, as flexible as we can handle, and shaped as much like a foot as possible. Our feet are essential to enhancing our experience. I would suggest that shutting our feet in impenetrable prisons which deaden our vestibular and proprioceptive systems are less than ideal. Lugs and a sole that will enhance traction are essential to increasing your enjoyment of running through inclement conditions. As I said before, there are many schools of thought on running shoes, and personal choice is king, however I would strongly advocate that you look to a shoe that is grippy, flexible and as low to the ground as is comfortable for you.
When The Going Gets Really Rough
Sometimes, in addition to mud, we may have other trail furniture to content with, or incredibly slippery surfaces, such as rocks, fallen trees, or pinch climbs to consider. In circumstances where the terrain turns from merely muddy to very technical, you need to approach each piece of trail like a problem to solve. Keep your head up and your eyes forward, look where you want to go, not where you don’t. Slow down if you need to and when the going gets very technical get even lower as you constantly move forward. You may find yourself almost at a bear crawl at times. That is totally fine, hands are useful and in very technical, muddy situations will come into play often. At times you will see runners with fingerless bike gloves at trail runs. These can be useful to protect your hands and give you increased confidence when you put your hands down. Use the path of least resistance. Look for the line through the mud and technical terrain that means you are using the least resistance. Less resistance is energy saved.
Above all else, remember that you have chosen to be outside in that moment and that running through mud is an integral part of trail running. Smile, enjoy the moment and revel in the fun. Being outside and playing in the mud is after all an enjoyable and worthwhile thing to do.