Mountain running is one of the most strenuous, but most fulfilling workouts around. It offers a type of endurance challenge that's hard to find elsewhere while providing those able willing to take it on with unforgettable experiences in stunning natural spots.
As I've been getting into mountain running in Colorado over the past few years, here are a few pieces of advice that I've found apply to this style of running:
1. Save your soles
Mountain trails can mean a lot of rocks jabbing through the sole of your shoe and into the bottom of your foot. Because of this, it can be helpful to wear shoes with some sort of rock guard. I'll mention Altra trail shoes twice in this article, because I've found this brand to be the best fit for me on Colorado's trails so far. One reason this is a brand I recommend is because several models either come with or are compatible with a rock guard that offers additional foot protection on rugged terrain.
2. Prepare your hips, knees, and ankles
In my opinion, mountain running seems to be much more physical than road running or track running. Typically taking place on a trail that features no shortage of bumps, turns, and hills, runners are forced to be adaptive, adjusting their technique with every step as the terrain changes.
Because of this, mountain running works a lot of different muscles in a very dynamic way. All of this movement makes maintaining hip, knee, ankle, and foot health crucial.
I've found that the development of additional muscle in these areas seems to be the best solution, but it also takes a lot of time and training to get these muscles to grow. With how straining mountain running can be on the body, take it easy and move at a pace that's safe for your ability level. Allow yourself to progress over time.
3. Let your toes move naturally
One aspect of mountain running that can really cause problems is how much more pressure is put on the foot with steep descents down potentially loose and rugged terrain. While a sidewalk or road is generally limited in grade and consistent in footing, a mountain trail might mean a much faster drop with roots, rocks, and trees in the way.
One move that's seemed to help my body cope with this aspect of mountain running is opting for a shoe with a wider toe box. The wider toe box allows the toes to expand with the descent as they get pushed to the front of the shoe opposed to being smashed into a narrow toe. This is another reason why I opt for Altra trail runners – the wide toe box is one thing the brand is known for.
4. Roll with the hills
Mountain running often means a lot of ups and downs. It's important to work on skills related to each style of running.
In general, short steps seem to offer the best control when starting out, both in limiting the uphill strain and when it comes to offering more control when headed downhill. As a runner gains more experience with maintaining and adjusting to each type of running, bigger strides can start to offer more speed.
Piecing together a creative and flowing line down a trail is one reason why trail running is so fun, but with additional speed comes additional risk.
5. Don't underestimate elevation
If you're running in the mountains, you're running above sea level. That means you might feel the effects of the elevation in varying degrees.
As air becomes less dense with higher elevation, the body won't get as much oxygen. This can make the body tired and it can also make it easy to miss signs of hunger and thirst. Watch for signs of altitude sickness, including exhaustion and nausea, and if symptoms are noticed, return to a lower elevation immediately and stop heavy exertion.
Elevation tends to affect people in a wide range of ways. Those planning to run in the mountains should have a good understanding of their body's health and ability, also able to monitor their own status.
While a few hundred feet of elevation probably won't make a difference, someone coming from sea level to Denver at 5,280-feet above sea level will probably notice a big impact during a run. An adjustment period can help, but some people are also naturally more sensitive to the effects of elevation.
6. Sunshine doesn't mean a sunny day
When running in the mountains, it's crucial to be prepared for changing weather conditions. Always pay close attention to the forecast and have a plan for what to do when weather conditions offer a surprise.
7. Get tread you can trust
Maintaining grip on varied terrain is crucial to a safe and successful trail run. Because of this, picking shoes with the right type of traction is crucial.
A lot of options exist, but many trail shoes will have lugs oriented to grip for the uphill grind on the front and lugs oriented to help brake during a downhill stretch on the back.
Getting a shoe with the right type of grip is important to prevent slips that might cause injuries, as well as for additional speed and confidence.
8. Quit worrying about pace
With how varied mountain trails are, it's pretty impossible to really stick to a specific pace. Instead of focusing on trying to run a mile in a certain time, plan workouts around overall time spent on the trail or hitting a certain distance.
One app that can be great for tracking progress in trail running is Strava, which allows users to track their many efforts on the same trail over time. Those used to tracking their pace and basing their evaluation of a run on that should use an app like this on the trail.
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