I have made a trail resolution. Run nothing but hills this training season. Two exceptions being, a day for speed work and a day when I push my son in his jogging stroller. Other than that it’s all vertical baby!
With that in mind, I’m working to refine and focus my points for downhill and uphill running which has brought me to the question of gaze. Where is the optimum place to focus your eyes coming down a trail. Roger Bannister said he focused his gaze about fifteen feet into the distance. Gazing so far forward, he felt, helped propel him along the track. But that was a track. Try that on technical and you’re going to end up fifteen feet out on your face. At the same time when I start looking down too close to my own feet everything slows and my footwork gets ridiculously tentative. So where is the visual sweet-spot? Unfortunately like so much of this stuff there is no magic formula, it’s a trial and error game. But here’s a simple cue to get closer to that happy place of smooth, effortless downhilling.
Trust your brain to do what it does best. Every split second our brains are calculating how to respond to our surroundings. The brain does this naturally but when you look down and start thinking about foot placement the process is circumvented and not for the better. You can’t think your way down the trail, we simply don’t think that fast. But our brains do react that fast. Try casting your gaze out in front of you five to seven feet (sure that’s a lot less than 1000 inches) or far enough so that the rocks and ground directly in front of you appear as in the periphery, slightly out of focus. It feels super-uncomfortable but it develops a level of trust between the runner and his/her brain. And it works. Your feet will find there placements and your mind will have the chance to calculate where your feet should go next and respond with ample time. Our minds are quick but they still need time to respond. And trying to run down the trail without placing your gaze out in front of you is like trying to hit the eight ball by only looking at the cueball.
This is a followup to my recent post Five Points for Downhill Running. Running up Mt. Sanitas today it occurred to me that uphill running has its own degree of complexity and is rarely an easy art to master. So here are another five points, this time to get into your climbing groove!
Fancy Feet: Good thing that as trail runners we don’t really care what we look like out there because you can forget the sexy bound right now. The bound has its place but for the most part that part is out on the road doing speed work. You my friend need ballerina feet, dainty, pivoting, light and fluid ballerina feet. If this is just too much for my testosterone driven trail brethren then think Legolas. Sure, he’s an elf but a legitimate bad-ass in his own right. Remember the scene in Lord of the Rings…the company is climbing a snowy mountain. While the men, dwarf, and hobbit slog through chest deep snow, Legolas nimbly crosses over the drifts of snow. Think like an elf, go light up the trail. Gravity is pulling at you and you are doing everything you can to push through its shackles and get to the top of the mountain where all that potential energy can be released and you can fly down the mountain. To fly down you have to fly up first.
The 90° Rule: This follows directly from fancy feet. Out on the trail and especially in an ultra we all have to decide when to run and when to hike. Of course when you’re trying to PR or do hill repeats or are off on a fartlek you’re going to be running as much as possible. That said, in an ultra and even in a trail marathon, at times we have to conserve energy. So we all have to make the choice of when to run and when to power-hike. A useful trick to determine when exactly you should do one or the other is to pay attention to the rise of your knee. If your knee is coming up close to 90° as you move up the trail, more than likely, you should be hiking and not trying to run. The amount of energy it takes for you to raise your leg and push off while trying to maintain leg-speed is immense. A further issue is for all ultrarunners out there. We have to develop the “power” in power-hike and that is only going to come through doing some fast hiking. Numerous times I have passed runners while on a power-hike up a steep section of trail. Running does not always equate to going fast. The 90° rule can keep you efficient and fast on the uphill. Just make sure you still keep your ballerina feet on!
Loose the Foot-wobble: I tend to think that my ankles are pretty strong but running up a technical trail can cause an uncomfortable rolling sensation when your foot lands on thin or unstable pieces of rock. One can obviously work at choosing a route that avoids the more technical spots but you can only do this so often and this can also throw off your rhythm. The main problem is that when you try to launch yourself off unstable footing you may falter or even slip. Overreach is the primary culprit here. loosing track of those dancing feet and overstriding on the ups. The more foot strikes you have, just as on downhill, the faster you can recover from footfalls that throw your balance. Another culprit is overexertion. If you destroyed yourself at the beginning of the climb, then your footwork is inevitably going to get sloppy. It’s the same principle as when you do all-out speed-work, form gets harder and harder to maintain. Of course doing balance drills and ankle strengthening exercises can help but nothing does the trick like practice.
Bound: I know…I already slammed bounding a bit on point #1. And frankly, I hate bounding up trails. After a few short periods of bounding I want to crawl off the trail and die. Still, this exercise is ridiculously good for developing explosive power, which you need to have the necessary spring in the legs to carry you swiftly uphill. For those who do not run with any Nordic skiers or have not seen this technique performed it’s basically akin to performing an uphill sprint. Forget all that dainty footwork stuff and start charging, and I mean charging, up the trail. Knees launching like muscled rockets in front of you and arms swinging strong. Trail too technical? Great! In that case you can really bound, springing from rock to rock. Look forward to a few rolled ankles and maybe even a fall while going uphill for a change.
Hill Repeats and/or Uphill Farlek: This one is entirely straightforward. If you want to get faster at running what do you do? Speed-work. Same principle goes for hill work. If you want to get faster at running hills then you have to start running them faster. I’m fabulous at not doing this and I definitely ere towards the fartlek side of things. Regardless of what intervals you choose or whether you go with the fartlek make sure you work your technique on a variety of trails so you can handle going up fast on smooth single-track, rocky technical stuff, boulder hopping, and especially the dreaded stairs.
Bonus Point! Work the bod. A strong upper body and core (abs, obliques, lower back) will give you power. It’s your propulsion system that can keep upward momentum strong when your legs start to feel spent.
My Uncle and I have an ongoing dialogue about falling on the trails. Not just how to avoid falling. The sensation of falling. The thrill of falling. The inevitability of falling. As a mountain runner I spend a good deal of my time on the trails trying to figure out how to run more efficiently and therefore more quickly downhill (and avoid falling). Plenty of us think about falling, although hopefully not while we’re running, and most of us have opinions on the subject of effective downhilling. Some say that we actively choose lines of descent as we run. Some say that it is best to throw yourself down the mountain and move instinctually. Regardless of where you come down on the best approach to avoiding the fall here are some thoughts on the matter. Then check out a followup: Five Points for Uphill Running.
Body Memory vs. Head-game There is a lot to be said for body memory on the trails. That is, most of us get faster at running the trails we run regularly. I think the head-game is the key factor, specifically, confidence. However, there is a degree of experiential body memory that still finds its way into this. Running hills develops balance and proprioception making you more agile and adept at navigating obstacles and consequently you become more confident. But your body also develops a learned response to particular terrain so that it can instinctually respond to trail conditions similar to your most traveled routes. Body memory does not seem to explain crazy fools like my good friend Will, who will barely run a mile and then barrel down a steep section of highly technical downhill without a moments hesitation. That is confidence. This year of running has taught me that the most important line you find is the one you eventually cross over in order to throw your body down the mountain. There is a sense of confidence and trust in your feet that has to be cajoled into your psyche. For better or worse that process has involved quite a few crash and burns and a ridiculous amount of near miss disasters.
The Opinion Mill I asked several fast downhill runners this year how they approach swift descending and a number of them talk about finding a line and following it but there are also a number of running form elements that they consider. Runners are almost as obsessive about form and efficiency as they are about diet. Key points that come up are 1) fast feet 2) keeping your feet under your center of gravity 3) staying high 4) taking the straightest line 5) go zen (quit thinking).
1) Fast Feet. The more foot turnover the more likely you will recover from a near crash. On a lot of fast descents especially on runs lasting more than two hours on technical terrain it’s highly likely that I will catch a toe several times and come close to rolling an ankle an equal number of times. Fast footwork means that these potential catastrophes turn into casual occurrences that don’t send that tremor of fear up the spine. Instead those instances just get factually checked off as attention grabbers “get your legs working”, “take some nutrition”, etc. Most importantly…”Run fast. Fall less.” 2) Feet Under Center. This is an expansion of fast feet. We’ve all seen those images of beautiful models or professional runners bounding over rocks, their legs practically in a forward split. That works for sure, when you have a bomb proof rock or section of trail to land on. Otherwise that’s a recipe for disaster. The downhill lunge as it might be called means you are committing your full weight to the extended leg for your landing. If that foot gives way on landing you do not have a swift recovery available. However, when your feet stay under your center of gravity and you spring from point to point you can allow one foot to land on some seriously sketchy spots including loose gravel, loose rock, slick rock, even ice. Why? Because even if you slip your next footfall is landing only a fraction of a second later. 3) Stay High. Believe it or not running over the tops of rocks even somewhat knife-edged ones can be a better choice than running through a rivet between rocks on the trail. It allows a higher perspective that helps the subconscious mind process the trail ahead. It also gives you more options laterally. If you get stuck in a rivet on the trail the only way is forward or to climb back up on top of surrounding rocks. Both these options slow you down. Granted, if you fall when high it is likely to be considerably more inconvenient. 4) Take the Straightest Line. The fastest way between two points is a straight line. On the trail this can mean taking on some more hazardous footing. That said, an argument for this approach is that it necessitates total commitment and that builds confidence. It also has the advantage of simplicity, you can get out of your head more because you’re not thinking about finding a best way through a particular section of trail. Rather, you simply commit to the most direct route even if it seems more risky. Taking the straightest line is not always advisable but it definitely builds confidence when it comes off successfully. 5) Go Zen. Read…”Think less.” Any thought is your enemy. Most of my slips and near misses happen when I simply see another person on the trail and my brain focuses on them more than on what I am doing. That’s a momentary distraction big enough to cause a good tumble at high speed. If you starting thinking about something like death or serious bodily injury…forget about it, game over. The trail is a great place for going minimal. Most of all go minimal inside your head. The more thought you can annex the better you will run. My downhill experimentation continues in 2015. Plenty of room for improvement. And I know full well that, when it comes to the trail, Learning is often accompanied by his assistants, Accident and Injury. That said I’ve tried all these approaches to downhill running and have found them immensely effective. Early in 2014 I would regularly roll ankles and catch toes but since employing these five points such incidents occur much less frequently. They seem effective ways to help avoid the dreaded fail on the trail. Final word: for those that can’t get enough of this topic check out this interview with Jason Bryant on Ultrarunner Podcast. It is pure trail wisdom. And…here’s a stellar bit of downhill running by the mountain running phenom of our day Kilian Jornet.