Kiwi Trail Runner Article
The fundamentals of running, and how they relate to trail.
There is contention about what is ideal running technique, especially on trail. I would suggest that when we see people running who are elegant and have great posture and cadence we notice that, whether they are running on trail or road, their form is the same. This points to the fact that there are fundamental factors of running that apply universally.
The idea is that someone should have a cadence that is as high as they can sustain. Common wisdom is approximately 170-190 steps a minute, however this should only be applicable if this is what someone can sustain. The implications of applying this to trail or slippery or changeable surfaces is that the faster the leg turns over the least amount of time that the foot is on the ground then the more time the foot is in the air. On a slippery or changeable surface there is therefore less chance of loading up the muscles and soft tissues. Additionally, the more time the foot spends on the ground the greater chance of injuring oneself via a sprain or fall. Momentum gives us stability.
If we were to consider someone running tentatively on trail we would expect to see someone with a lower leg turn over and harder foot fall. Their head would be forward at the ground with more of a hunched posture. In this way, this runner becomes a somewhat of a vicious circle. If someone’s foot is on the ground for a long period of time they will be more tentative with the way they run because they are worried about falling or injuring themselves. If we run in this manner, by virtue of our form, we increase our chance of falling, sprain or injury.
The goal is to foster a high leg turn over, which means with a constantly changing surface you can adjust accordingly and move quickly from one foot to another. Even if one foot is moving due to whatever is happening underneath we are off again very quickly due to the quickness of our stride. In keeping our turnover fast we also decrease the loading on the body as the foot is not spending much time on the ground.
Ideally, our cadence should remain the same if we are running up or down hill. In doing this we can maintain that turnover at a different intensity. Running up hill, our stride will be short with a high turnover. Running downhill our stride will be much longer however ideally with rapid turnover. A high leg turnover, if practiced, leads to more efficient running, which is ultimately helpful in terms of staving off fatigue. The less fatigue, the more efficiently we run, the more efficiently we run, the more we will see progression. In this way, the efficient runner has a feedback loop also, however it is inverse to that of our example of the inefficient runner.
Whatever happens with the upper body, the opposite or counter balance will happen with the lower body. It’s Newton’s Third Law - for example if the chest is forward when someone is running the lower body will be back. There is counter rotation also, by that we mean that when our left foot steps forward there is a counter rotation with our left shoulder to balance us stop us from toppling over.
Ideally when we run we want equal parts of power from heel lifting up and the knee driving forward before the foot drops back down under our centre of gravity. If the chest is forward when we run all that power gets pushed out the back. People running on the road may get away with that but when we are running on trail or slippery surfaces there is a tendency for all of of that power to get flicked out the back in a shower of sand, mud, or gravel. The goal is ideally to have the chest up tall and straight. When this happens the lower body is underneath the person and it’s easier to have power from the heel and the knee drive.
Use Your Head
The head is the heaviest part of our body. A simple way of controlling your centre of gravity is to control where your head is in space. If you head is forward and constantly looking at the ground your legs will be way back. If you can keep your head and chin up you are much more likely going to be able to keep your stride pattern underneath your centre of gravity. This can be difficult if you are running on technical or challenging terrain where you feel that you need to be looking at the ground directly beneath. I suggest that in training, and starting on easy terrain, that you begin to practice keeping your eyes up, only glancing down with your eyes and not the whole head. With enough practice this will transfer across onto trail, therefore when you need to look down you can do so with your eyes only, therefore keeping everything nicely in line and your centre of gravity underneath you.
Gently Does It
Keep your foot falls as light and soft as possible. A higher cadence will help to facilitate this. The thinking behind this is that a light, soft footfall will help to ease any loading of the muscles and make injury less likely than if you were to land smashing your feet into the ground.
Hopefully, you will see that applying these fundamentals of running will lead to a more efficient and enjoyable experience when you get amongst it, no matter where you run. I would suggest applying these fundamentals on road or easier terrain before transitioning to more challenging trail. Remember, this may take time to transition to a more efficient form, but I firmly believe that maximum growth happens on the cusp of support and challenge, and time spent mastering these techniques will be well worth the effort.