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Tips to Improve Your Trail Running Technique

Group of people trail running on a ridge

Proper trail running technique can have a huge effect on how efficiently you can get up and down the most technical terrain.

HOKA ONE ONE-sponsored ultrarunner Sage Canaday says covering distance on trails takes longer than running the same distance on the road simply because the trail throws more obstacles at you.

“If you’re new to trail running, you’ll find that it takes a lot longer to cover a certain distance because the terrain is a lot more technical, there are a lot more hills and your overall pace is going to be a lot slower,” Canaday says.

Elevation changes, obstacles like rocks and roots, and the general technicality of off-road running forces any runner to slow down. But if you have properly prepared for a trail run, there’s no reason your form should slow you down.

Here’s how to improve your trail running technique.

How to Improve Your Uphill Running

Running uphill takes more work than running on flat ground because you’re fighting gravity with each step.

But besides just getting stronger, you can improve your efficiency by improving your form.

Good uphill trail running technique starts with a slight forward lean, says Canaday. Put your weight over the balls of your feet, so you land on your forefoot. That will help you maintain forward momentum by shifting your center of gravity over your toes.

Running uphill isn’t just about your legs, though. Your arms also play a big role in generating power to propel yourself upward.

“You also have to run with a more powerful and exaggerated arm swing because there’s a higher work output when you’re running uphill,” Canaday says. The strong arm swing helps you maintain your balance and momentum.

Even though you need to watch where your feet are landing to make sure you don’t twist your ankle, it’s important to keep your chin up while you run. Keeping your chin high opens up your airways to let you breathe easier, and easier breathing means more oxygen can get to your muscles.

How to Improve Your Downhill Running

Running downhill can feel like you’re losing control of your body. Your speed combined with gravity pulling you down can make running downhill exhilarating (and scary).

First, you want to make sure you can see where you’re going. Nothing will end your run faster than stepping awkwardly on a rock and turning your ankle or eating dirt.

“You want to make sure you’re scanning the ground ahead of you for obstacles,” Canaday says. “I try to keep my gaze at least 10 or 15 feet in front of me so I know how to pick my line as I go down the trail.”

Once you know where you’re going, take light, short steps to get there.

Keeping your turnover quick and light makes running downhill more efficient and safer. An elongated stride means you’re in the air for longer, so each step hits the ground harder and you have less time to react to changes in the trail; a short stride reduces impact forces and gives you more time to dodge obstacles.

Like running uphill, you want to position your body over your toes—not your heels. Leaning backward adds additional braking forces and impact to your stride, and it puts too much stress on your quadriceps.

Instead, lean slightly forward or keep your body straight up relative to the trail to make yourself more efficient.

Slow Down

Whether you’re running uphill or downhill on a trail, one thing is certain: You’ll have to slow down.

Compared to running on flat ground, your speed should slow on the uphill to save your legs and stay easy on downhills to maintain proper form and safety (especially for people who are new to trail running).

“You’ll find that the biggest thing that’s going to change is your overall pace,” Canaday says. “You’re usually going to have to slow down quite a bit to conserve energy in more technical terrain, and you also have to pay attention a lot more.”

Once you hit that flat, smooth single track, though, you can open up your stride and get back some of the time you gave up on the climbs and descents.

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