By Jeff Grant and Brad McLeod
In a day and age where many road races as short as 5KM hand out finisher medals and t-shirts to every participant, there stands a brutal trail running race—the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee—where in some years there’s not a single medal given, as there’s not a single finisher even 2+ days after the race starts.
Most runners who are either crazy enough or lucky enough to get a spot will not finish.
If you are one of the 40 runners accepted into this trail race, you receive a letter of condolences. The race involves 5 20+ mile loops through extremely rough, hilly terrain that requires runners to climb and descend more than 60K vertical feet. There are navigation challenges, razor-sharp briars, and more often than not, hopeless weather conditions.
This is trail running at its finest…err, most brutal, and it’s a great example of the potential for trail running to turn your training into pure adventure.
We train SGPT athletes to be ready for anything at anytime. Running on trails brings you an opportunity to test your general readiness for moving quickly through rough terrain, while also immersing you in the energy of nature. And that’s something you can get in 30 minutes on a trail in your local park, just in case the Barkley isn’t on your must-do list anytime soon.
Trail running requires cardiovascular fitness, agility, strength, power and a strong mental game. It also requires hyper-awareness, and a level of focus that quietens a busy mind and breaks you out of the daily stress cycle.
Check out these tips to help make your trail running experiences more enjoyable, while also increasing your performance.
Tip #1: Dial In Your Technique
A trial runner’s aim is to run over mountains, through forests, and across any other terrain in nature in a manner that is enjoyable and efficient, without getting injured in the process.
Running with good technique has a huge impact on all three. Read our article on Pose Running for a great primer on running technique.
Lower your center of gravity and bend your knees more when in technical terrain and while descending. This will allow you to be agile and light in your movements. This agility is what you’ll rely on to prevent ankle sprains and falls. Things move on trails (rocks, leaves, dirt, sand) and trails can be slippery.
Your aim is to use a body position that will flex and give with the changing terrain, allowing you to absorb the undulations and obstacles rather than succumb to them.
Tip #2: Look Ahead on the Trail and Don’t Watch Your Feet
Think of a line you are running, instead of thinking of each step you’ll take. Become cerebral and move with the terrain using your arms for balance.
- Keep your back straight and chest high
- Resist the urge to slouch as you tire
- Focus on a quick foot pull and springy landing
- Walk the uphills when it gets steep
In general, consider mixing hiking and running, based on the terrain. This is more efficient and an important technique for ultra runners, who will often train speed-hiking to become as fast and efficient as possible in mountainous terrain.
Remember, your goal isn’t to run every single step on any trail, but to move quickly and efficiently through terrain in nature. Run when it’s runnable, speed hike when it’s not. And if you’ve got a lake or river to cross, swim when you need to swim!
If you find yourself using a shallow breath, take a minute to slow down your breathing and breathe deep into the diaphragm (your belly).
Check out Coach Jeff’s book Hill Running: Survive & Thrive for more detailed insights on how to include hills of all sizes into your running practice.
Tip #3: Nail Your Hydration
Prepare your hydration and nutrition strategy in advance.
Drink early and often, especially in extreme weather.
It’s just as important to stay hydrated when it’s hot, as it is in very cold temps, when you’re the most likely to forget about hydration.
If you’re not sure you can get enough water while out on the trails, then bring enough with you for the entire run. If you’re relying on streams or lakes, bring something to purify the water, like a SteriPen or Iodine tablets.
And make 100% sure the water source is there during the season you’re running in! (Meaning: It may be there in fall, winter and spring, but dry up completely in mid-to-late summer.)
Another thing to consider is if you’re doing long runs in cold weather, you can also pack a lightweight very small thermos for hot tea or broth. Hot fluids can be a game-changer when running longer than a few hours
Tip #4 Nail Your Nutrition
Train yourself to eat while running, or in very short breaks.
Experiment with energy gels and other easily digestible foods. Learn what works for you in its simplest form as well. Dates work very well for many trail runners, as well as bananas.
For longer runs, you can shift to more hiker-friendly food, such as trail mix with fatty oil nuts (walnuts, macadamia nuts) or energy bars. And for really long runs, you may even find that heavier foods, such as jerky and cheese, work the best for you.
From Coach Jeff:
I once did three days of 12-hour trail runs per day in the Alps, sleeping in little huts along the way. On the morning of the 3rd day, I spotted a village down in the valley, just across the border, in France. I ran down to it in hopes of buying some warm food, as 24+ hours of running left me with endless hunger. I found a small cafe selling crêpes.
I couldn’t afford to lose time and runner’s heat in my body by sitting down to eat, so I ordered two chocolate and banana-filled crepes and took off running with them, one in each hand.
I ran through this old village and back into the mountains chowing down on these crêpes like they were my first meal in a week. I didn’t miss a beat of running or of eating. That was the best running breakfast of my life and carried me over a mountain pass and into the home stretch of that adventure.
Tip #5: Use the Right Tools for the Job
Let’s start with footwear.
You need grip and that comes in the form of Vibram or similar lugged and sticky soles. Consider sizing up, but avoid getting shoes that are too bulky and heavy. Double tie your shoelaces to prevent them from loosening. We like to put one of those plastic cord pieces to keep laces from slipping. The Lock Laces work well.
For winter running in snow and ice, use ice spikes or running crampons.
We like the Kahtoola Microspikes, as they will stay on your shoes and have excellent grip. Lower quality spikes are designed only for walking down an icy driveway and will quickly get thrown off your shoes when you’re running trails.
Remember, there’s generally no such thing as bad weather on the trails—only bad clothing choices. Invest in quality gear and dress for the conditions.
For winter runs, wear a thin capilene top, weatherproof shell, hat, gloves, and tights. Also, carry an ultralight emergency space blanket with you. If you or another runner takes a bad fall and can’t walk out, a space blanket is a critical piece of gear to keep hypothermia away while you await rescue.
Layering is always the best way to stay war, and then if needed, cool off a bit.
Tip #6: Be Smart About Your Environment
This doesn’t just mean what’s mentioned above (shoes, outerwear), it also means think ahead to where you’ll be running, even if it’s on trails you might find within city limits.
Cold and/or wet environments are covered above, but you also need to consider sunshine, which can affect you in winter just as much as summer. Always wear sunscreen on exposed skin if you’re running in sunny areas.
If you can, run with a buddy. That way if something happens to one of you, someone can go for help.
Also: Know where you’re going and how you’re going to get back. Carry a compass, just in case. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s something a lot of people don’t think about, even if you’re on trails within city limits, such as in Los Angeles.
Additionally, carry a small first-aid kit in case you fall and become injured.
Tip #7: Master Your Mind
Use your mind to help you work through discomfort on the trails.
If you don’t mind, it don’t matter. If you fall down, get back up again. Trail running offers an excellent chance to train your mind by getting out of your comfort zone. Steep hills, stream crossings, and long routes—you can beat these in your mind, or lose to them in your mind. And where your mind goes, your body will go.
Some trails will break us, and that’s a good thing.
It offers a chance to persevere and rebuild. The more you go through this process of breaking and rebuilding, the better your body will adapt to it and be ready for even tougher challenges
Invite the trail to kick your ass. And when it does, take a breath and then take another step. If you bonk, refuel, refocus, and continue. If the trail seems impossibly long, focus on micro-goals. Just run to the next rock or next tree. And if you get overwhelmed with the challenge, just look around at nature, at how everything works together in a system.
Tap into that primal energy, savor that you’re in the middle of it, and then work with the system to move your body through it. Check out Jeff’s book Flow State Runner for tips about how to do this, including how to use what he calls “mind hacks” to use the trail difficulties to your advantage.
From Coach Jeff:
When I started training for marathons, I was under the mistaken belief that if a long run went off the rails (I bonked or started feeling an injury), that the run was over. It was during a 6-hour trail run that I learned that it’s entirely possible to have huge bonk on a trail run, recover, and continue.
On that one run, the wheels came off at the 2-hour mark. My energy was gone and my right knee was killing me. I was far enough from civilization though that my only retreat if I bagged the run, was to walk 3+ hours back to the start. I sat down on the trail, drank some hot tea I had stashed in my running rucksack, and just looked around at what was happening all around me. I saw ants hard at work. I saw a hawk soaring above hunting its breakfast. I heard a stream rushing downhill. I saw trees swaying in the wind. I was the only thing in this picture that was stuck—everything else was in motion.
I stood up, threw on my rucksack and started running, not fighting nature, but being part of it. I forgot about the pain and the bonk. Before I knew it, another 2 hours had passed, 2 of the best hours I’d ever experienced on a trail. I finished that run strong and proved to myself that there’s massive energy a runner can tap into on the trails.
Tip #8: Train, Train Train—Then Train Some More
Make yourself functionally strong. Build a body that is durable, powerful, and mobile. Vary your training.
• Include strength training in your program
Incorporate heavy barbell lifts, as well as core training. Runners are notorious for having a weak core, which wrecks durability and performance on trails. Your program should also include plank holds, box jumps, air squats, pistols, jumping squats, and walking lunges.
• Layer on top of that regular running workouts.
Power up your cardiovascular motor and build speed. Your running program should include intervals, tempo runs, and progressively longer runs on trails.
• Hill workouts are excellent for increasing your trail running fitness.
One of our favorite hill workouts is a simple series of 6-to-10 thirty-second hill sprints. At the end of each sprint, do 10 air squats. Then, walk or jog easy back down the hill and repeat. To take it up a notch, lunge walk back down to the start.
• Include agility training in your program.
Agility ladder drills and single leg hops are excellent for this. Another idea is to set up small, orange cones and create drills where you navigate around them while running.
Don’t just run forwards with quick steps, but train yourself to hop side-to-side and other quick direction changes. Stay light with quick, quiet foot pulls when agility training.
• Work on your mobility daily.
Make sure you focus especially hips and ankles. Stretch, but also simply work your joints through the full range of motion in your strength training, and especially warm-ups. Use mobility balls and foam roll.
Tip #9: Get Out and Race
Sign-up for a trail race. A 5K. Even a GORUCK or Spartan Race. Or simply create some friendly competition with some buddies.
It doesn’t have to be an ultra marathon to be an adventure, so just pick an intro distance (5-15KM) and go for it. Committing to a race gives a sense of mission and helps focus your training. You can also use it to get out of your comfort zone and experience something new.
Tip #10: Be Smart on the Trails
If you’re running solo, always remember to tell a friend where you’re going and when you will return.
If you’ll be off-the-grid for a while alone, you may want to take a spot tracker with you. Out on the trail, practice awareness by removing headphones and tuning fully into your surroundings.
This is a time and place for situational awareness, not entertainment. You’re more likely to spot animals this way, as well as notice any threats or cool features of nature worth checking out (streams, waterfalls, etc.).
Use trail runs to break monotony, reconnect with nature, and bring adventure into your training. See you out there!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Brad McLeod knows first hand about mental toughness. After passing Hell Week and Dive Pool Comp at BUD/S, he failed a math test and was kicked out of training. A year later, he returned, graduated, and served as an operator on the Navy SEAL Teams.
Today, he is one of the most sought after mental conditioning coaches in the world. SEALgrinderPT audios and ebooks have been downloaded in 20 different countries around the globe.
Check out SEALgrinderPT Coaching to help you step up and take hold of your dreams and realize your goals.
Jeff Grant’s passion is in coaching–in helping people unlock their potential and break through cycles of stress, overload, and inaction. Jeff is a specialist mind training and running coach and currently lives in Switzerland. He is constantly finding new ways to challenge himself—such as completing an event to honor D-Day and raise funds for the Navy SEAL Museum, where participants swam to France from 10KM offshore and rucked 25 miles inland.
You can find out more about Jeff at his website Hillseeker.