5 tips for mountain trail running
Photo: Chris Kendig

5 tips for mountain trail running

Posted by: Shauna Farnell

Take it in stride with words of wisdom from both trail running veterans and newbies

All athletes visiting the Rocky Mountains feel the impact of the altitude, but even seasoned trail runners often don’t know what they’re in for when they sign up for a trail race at the annual GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado — returning June 8-11, 2023.

Besides drinking plenty of hydrating beverages, which is what anyone should do regardless of their activities when they visit a place like Vail that sits at an elevation of 8,150 feet, there are some specific tips that trail runners should keep in mind when racing on steep, technical terrain at high elevation.

Pace yourself and avoid launching your heartrate

“You don’t want to go too hard,” said Mike Krieves of Grand Junction, who competed in the 2022 Adidas Terrex 10K Spring Runoff as well as the Aprés 5K and XC Mountain Bike race and says he has always been “a middle of the pack” contender at the Mountain Games. “The main things I try to do are to stay hydrated and pace myself. I notice my heart rate is definitely up compared to doing the same incline at lower elevation.”

Tom Trygstad and his teenage daughter, Cali Trygstad, traveled from Clive, Iowa, to compete in the 10K earlier this summer at the 20th annual GoPro Mountain Games. They stuck together and finished the arduous course that climbs nearly 1,500 feet in a respectable time of 1 minute, 26:38 seconds.

“Obviously, trail running in Iowa is a little bit different,” said Tom, who coaches Cali’s high school cross-country team. “I had to tell [Cali], just hang with me, otherwise she’d want to just shoot out of the start. A big tip is not going out too hard, finding the right times to walk the steep uphills or take advantage of flatter places and just go. If we crank our heart rate up, that will get the breathing going too fast, so not getting the heart rate too high is important.”

Walking or power hiking is sometimes best

Rather than trying to maintain a running stride on the steepest parts of the trail, many runners find that walking is far more efficient.

“I was going faster walking a lot of those sections,” said Sophie Bergland, who recently moved to Boulder, Colorado, from California. “Your heart rate is going to be up there even when you’re hiking it.”

Mountain trail runs and races typically begin with an extended climb. The Adidas Terrex 10K at the Mountain Games is no exception.

“The inclines, the ascent is real,” said Andreya Krieves of Grand Junction, who has done the Vail 10K many times. “It’s a lot different than doing a 5K or 10K on a road or on a trail that’s relatively level. You have to be ready for the climb and the technical, narrow spots where you’re rock-jumping and stuff.”

Keep an eye on the trail ahead

Another major difference in mountain running and road or dirt running elsewhere is that the terrain changes constantly. It could be smooth singletrack for a few dozen yards, then change to thick roots, big rocks or stream crossings.

“It’s tricky because it’s so pretty you want to be looking up, but really, you want to be looking down. Otherwise, you could lose some teeth,” Andreya Krieves said.

While many pavement runners are accustomed to keeping their heads up and zoning out, doing so could result in a faceplant on a technical mountain trail.

“It’s nice to get into a groove when you’re on a road and you get in a zone, but you can’t do that as much on a trail,” Bergland said. “You really have to focus.”

Shorten stride for downhill

The quadriceps take the brunt of the impact in trail running, especially on steep descents. While some pros (like reigning 10K champion Joe Gray or this year’s 20K winner Eli Hemming) take shockingly enormous strides when running downhill, most runners find that widening their stance, centering their weight and shortening their stride feels like the safest approach on the technical steeps.

“It’s hard to not just barrel down the downhill,” said Robyn Natherson, who recently moved to Boulder from Florida and is new to trail running. “It takes a lot of focus, especially on the steep downhills.”

Some runners refer to their downhill technique as “putting on the brakes.” Others describe it more colorfully.

“I’m a fan of the Sherpa steps,” Mike Krieves said. “It’s like short, wide, stutter steps. On a steep, narrow singletrack, I’m just trying to not fall. Instead of opening my stride, I’m taking small, fast, short steps.”

Study the course in advance

Even seasoned Mountain Games runners are humbled by the challenge presented by the trail running courses at every event.

“It humbles you quick because you start on the incline right away and it’s this relentless climb,” Andreya Krieves said. “A lot of folks might not take a 5K or 10K terribly seriously, but that gives you some grounding on how tough this one really is. You can’t compare it to a road race or a 5K or 10K in town.”

Some who had never done a Mountain Games trail race before this year’s competitions were literally staggered by its difficulty.

“It would have helped to look at the course beforehand,” said Natherson, who along with Bergland had never done a trail running race before the Mountain Games 10K, but still finished in the top 15 among the event’s 20- to 29-year-old women . “We perused the map, but weren’t really aware of what we were getting ourselves into. I didn’t realize there was a second brutal section of uphill.”

“That last uphill was really tough and unexpected,” Bergland agreed. “Right after we came through, the 20K winner came through and I couldn’t believe he ran that twice.”

Tough as it was, even the newcomers aren’t ready to cross Mountain Games’ racing off of their lists forever.

“I would definitely do this again,” Bergland said. “I would train a little bit more and do it again.”

In addition to trail running races, the GoPro Mountain Games features biking, kayaking, fishing, rafting, disc golf, climbing, stand-up paddleboarding and DockDogs competitions. Mark your calendars for the 2023 GoPro Mountain Games, returning June 8-11.

Share this Story:

Share this Story: