By Sarah Berry
The running event season is officially here. There is the Nike Melbourne Marathon festival, the Sydney and Melbourne trail running series, the Sydney Harbour 10km and Run Melbourne. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you might throw in a hill race like the Balmoral Burn or an ultra-marathon like Ultra-trail Australia or Red Bull Defiance.
The surface and incline you’re running on provide different benefits and require different techniques.
Whether you’re training for an event or want to improve your running generally, here is what you need to know to become an all-terrain vehicle.
There are two main benefits to off-road running: lower impact on our bodies and the mental health perks of being in nature.
The unstable surfaces strengthen our muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments too.
Beware training on the road for trail events though because the unprepared small muscles that are activated during off-road running can get over-excited, explains running coach Matt Abel: “That’s where we get what we call excitement-induced cramping. It’s important we train the body to run on that type of terrain.”
If you can’t get out in the bush, Abel suggests investing in a skipping rope to improve the neural pathways to our feet. This can help with manoeuvring over ever-changing terrain out on the trail.
And while technique can be ad-hoc on the trails, opt for a flatter foot strike when running on sand.
Along with less stress on the joints, running on sand gives extra bang for our workout buck, says Ben Lucas, personal trainer and co-founder of Sydney’s Flow Athletic.
“You’re not getting as much rebound from the surface, so you’re working a lot harder, so you burn more calories to cover the same distance,” Lucas says. “It’s more intense and there’s much more muscle engagement of the finer muscles that control your joint stability around your ankles, knees and hips.”
Grass running is also low impact, though we want to run on the mid or forefoot.
Athlete Bethany Halmy uses the softer surface to her advantage. Training on grass that is “generally not well mowed” improves her running, she says: “I am forced to exaggerate my running and lift my knees extra high.”
A harder surface means more impact on the joints, but it also helps build strong bones, is weight-bearing, and great for cardiovascular fitness, says Lucas.
“It’s important to get a mix [of on and off-road running] for your physical and mental health, but also so you don’t get overuse injuries,” says Lucas, who opts for Hoka shoes on the road and Saucony on trails.
A couple of strength sessions each week also helps injury prevention, regardless of the running surface, says Abel: “You don’t need to run all the time – get two strength sessions and three or four runs.”
He adds that cadence is important, but 180 steps a minute “has gone out the window”.
“It is a good guide but if you’re taller, you’re going to be doing fewer steps, if you’re shorter, you’re going to be doing more steps,” says Abel, who uses Salomon shoes for trails, Hoka for longer runs and Nikes for the road.
Excellent for leg strength and to take the load off, hill running is as much a mental game as it is one that challenges your glutes and hamstrings.
Looking six-to-eight metres in front improves both posture and attitude. “If you’re looking down you’re likely to roll your shoulders forward,” says Abel. “Looking down is also a mental state. It’s like saying you’re done. Always look forward.”
A mid-to-forefoot strike is helpful for leverage as is leaning from the hips and driving the arms.
Halmy, who has twice won the female elite race in the 420-metre Balmoral Burn and equalled the female race record, says hill running is a test of our lactic tolerance.
To increase hers, Halmy does hill sprint repeats: “This is a great way to work on your technique at speed – staying on your toes, powering through your calves and lifting your knees.” Halmy opts for moderate length strides over a short stride which takes “double the steps to get the same distance.”
She also incorporates hills into slower, longer training runs. “I run at a comfortable pace until I get to a hill where I sprint up it as fast as I can … [Then] continue running and teach your body to manage running through the lactic pain.”
An exercise in core and quadriceps strength, the benefits of downhill running should not be underestimated, says Abel.
“Where most people go wrong is they focus on the uphills and not the downhills. You get two things when you run downhill: you eccentric load your quads and you also get neural fatigue. A lot of people fatigue from the downhills,” he says.
Heel striking is more likely when we’re going downhill, but slightly squeezing our glutes can help with the braking mechanism.
“Lean forward at the hips, but don’t look at your toes,” suggests Lucas, who adds that stride length will be longer: “You have to use your core and keep your feet nice and light, like you’re running on hot coals to try to control the length of time foot is on the ground.”
Halmy adds that walking back down the hill is an important part of hill sprint sessions: “If you’ve run up the hill fast enough you’ll find your quads are shaking like crazy, and it’s an extra challenge to control your legs walking back to the start.”
Make the most of your health, relationships, fitness and nutrition with our Live Well newsletter. Get it in your inbox every Monday.