In part one of this series, we started with a home-based strength and coordination program to lay the platform for a stronger and more capable runner. In part two, we incorporated outdoor movements and drills to further refine the process. Part three pulls all of these components together and moves them to become efficient and economical trail running.
Note: If you missed Part 1, here’s a synopsis. If you have a reason to work on running mechanics (history, injuries or pain), fall and winter are a good time to do so because your training volume is typically lower, relative to spring and summer. Because you are further out from your goal events, your training at this time can be more generalized, too. Together, this means you can focus on running mechanics now without taking away from event-oriented training.
If you missed Part 2, we recommended three simple drills – power skips, high knees and strides. You can add these to the end of any run two to three times per week.
Now that winter is giving way to spring, more and more runners are upping their volume and hitting the trails. If you have followed the progression outlines in parts one and two of this series, this puts you in a good position to now translate these gains in a real world setting.
Start Simple – Head Position and Vision
As with the home-based strength program and outdoor drills, starting with a simple approach to retool your mechanics is the best approach. Naturally, a good way to start is from the top, your head and eyes. Particularly on more technical trails, vision is key to see what is about to come under your feet. But even on benign trails, proper head position and gaze will naturally lead to a stronger more efficient runner.
Head and Shoulder Position
Ignored by even the most seasoned of runners, your head position is one of the critical things to control while out on the trails. Your vision will follow where your head is positioned, and you will follow where your vision takes you. To properly position your head, start standing. Your chin should be up and not tucked down toward your chest, as we tend to do. Your shoulders should be back with your chest slightly opened up – similar to if you were at your desk, sitting up as straight up as possible.
Your gaze should be 10-20 feet in front of you, not directly at your feet. Why 10-20 feet in front of you? To give yourself enough reaction time. If you are running a 9-minute mile, that translates to about 10 feet every second. So, if you are looking 10-20 feet in front of you, you have 1-2 seconds to visually process the information and respond. A major problem most people have on technical trails is staring too close to their feet and not giving themselves enough time to react to the terrain in front of them.
For the next run you have on non-technical terrain, take 10 minutes sometime in the middle of that run and consciously scan the road or trail 10-20 feet in front of you. If you have no concept of what 10-20 feet look like, bring a tape measure. Stop, lay the tape measure out and mark the 10 and 20-foot marks with a rock, your water bottle or something else you happen to be carrying. Now, run and take that concept in motion, scanning the area 10-20 feet in front of you (don’t forget your tape measure). While it sounds like a simple exercise, (and it is) the point is to ingrain the concept of scanning the trail in front of you at the right distance. By doing this on the road or non-technical trail, you are able to build these habits in a safe environment. After you have done this several times, it will be time to move to the trails where you can repeat the same exercise. At our camps, we take athletes out on a technical trail about 100 feet in length and place pin flags about every 10-20 feet. We have the athletes run down the trail at a normal speed and try to keep three flags in their line of sight at all times. This ensures that they are actively scanning the trail in front of them, not simply staring at their feet. This is another exercise you can easily do at home on your local trails.
Next Steps – Fast and Quiet Feet
Chances are if you are reading this article you are not trying to win a Skyrunning race. If you are trying to win a Skyrunning race, then you can skip this section in its entirety. Contrary to what you will see in the sexy Salomon videos, downhill running for ultramarathons is all about damage control, not about flying downhill at break neck speeds. You are simply trying to move as efficiently as possible and minimize the damage done to your quads in the process. The best way to go about this is to first listen, then adapt. Recent studies(1) have suggested that simply running more quietly reduces ground reaction forces and vertical loading rates. Translation: quiet running is easier on your joints and muscles, and this is imperative for ultrarunners. The way you can translate this to the trails is try and run as quietly as possible and to move as little earth as you can on technical trails. If you are flailing around, kicking rocks and shoving debris down the trail with your feet, then the solution is simple—slow down. Flailing downhill might get you down the mountain a smidge faster, but you will use extra energy and place unnecessary wear and tear on your body in the process. Listen to how you are running and adapt your stride to simply be quieter.
The next thing you can do, particularly on technical trails, is to move your feet faster with a shorter stride length. Sure it’s fun, and maybe easier for a short segment to leap and bound over the rocks and roots that are underfoot. But as mentioned above, ultramarathon running is a game of damage control. And to mitigate that damage, you are better off taking frequent, shorter steps when facing technical downhills. Take a routine and somewhat downhill section that you do on a daily basis. Now, run down that section at a normal speed and count the number of times one foot lands on the ground. Run back up the hill, and repeat that section, trying to take more steps. Chances are, just by consciously focusing on ‘fast feet’ you will increase the number of steps you take for that section, and it will take you about the same amount of time.
You now have three phases to work with to improve your running biomechanics. Start with some basic strength and coordination work that will lay the physical platform for better running. Then, move to run specific drills to further improve your strength and power. Finally, take these skills to the trails and focus on your posture, eyesight and fast feet.
- J Sports Sci. 2017 Aug;35(16):1636-1642. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1227466. Epub 2016 Sep 3