While there are absolutely elements of strength, power, and aerobic endurance to be trained, running hills and trails also requires an element of SKILL.
There are a lot of instant-adjustments in form and awareness that can be made to create instant-improvement in your hill and trail running prowess! Here's a short list of quick tips for each:
1. Form and posture are top priority.
See the video in the link provided for an instant comparison in common/poor uphill form vs. proper/efficient uphill form for both running and walking.
The most common mistakes I see in uphill form are looking down at the feet and short-changing the back of the stride. Both make it HARDER to get up the hill!
Looking at your feet collapses your chest (more difficult breathing) and rounds your posture. While a shortened stride prevents the full activation of both glutes and hamstrings - your powerhouse muscles!
Instead, focus on looking forward, IN to the hill, to keep posture strong and aligned. Then, pay attention to fully extending your leg at the back of your stride for a full-power push off!
In the video, I only adjusted my form and posture, while maintaining the same speed. But, I NEEDED to increase the speed. As soon as I adjusted the form, the current speed was instantly too slow, and I was actually pushing the belt underneath me.
2. Use your arms!
On uphills, especially when walking/hiking, keep your hands up and pump your arms - this creates better form and momentum!
On downhills, unpin your arms from your sides - use them to help you balance and stabilize! Think "airplane mode", throwing your elbows and hands out wide to shift your center of gravity as the ground changes beneath you. (Bonus points if you make airplane noises while sailing downhill!)
3. Maintain your cadence, that is, the rate at which your feet strike the ground. Too often we focus on the changes in PACE and effort - pace drops at the same time effort increases. That's how it's SUPPOSED to be, but it can be disheartening. Focus instead on maintaining the same metronome in your feet between flats, ups, and downs. This keeps your brain and your body in consistency-mode, instead of the panic or stress of changing effort, terrain, or pace.
1. Look up!
Ok, not at the sky - BUT, you want to focus your gaze at the ground that's 6-10 feet in front of you, rather than immediately beneath you - YES, even (especially) on technical trail.
It is common to feel unsteady or uncertain on technical terrain, and look directly down to carefully place our feet. BUT, your brain doesn't quite work that way - your brain wants reaction time. When you focus on whats COMING, you give your brain that 1-2 seconds to see the terrain and adjust for it. Eye-foot coordination, if you will. This keeps you moving more smoothly and consistently, while looking down will slow your response time and keep you in a choppy-step state.
2. Lift your feet - specifically at the back of your stride.
As mentioned above, your brain is prepared for whats in front of you, lifting your feet at the front of your stride is typically not a problem. 90% of the time when you trip and fall, it's on something BEHIND you - your toe catches on a rock at the back of your stride, then your leg doesn't swing forward to land as you expect it to you, and suddenly you're down.
Lift your toes off the ground at the back of your stride to clear the terrain your brain and eyes have already passed. Think "pull" when lifting your feet.
3. Ditch the sunglasses.
What? Yep, in the woods when you're moving between sun and shade, sunglasses will actually make it harder for your eyes to adjust and to see anything in the shade when your face is in the sun. If running in the morning or evening when the sun is lower in the sky, wear a hat or visor to keep the direct-light off your eyes but maintain that better shade/sun transition. (This effects light-eyed folks more than dark-eyed!)
4. Walking is acceptable.
Trail running is not all running. When the terrain feels too technical (tricky) for your brain or body to keep up, WALK or slow down to navigate without rushing. Same for big climbs.
But do power-hike, use the principles above to maintain strong forward progress even when you can't run - use your arms, extended your legs fully.
Being aware of these few tips can make a significant and instant impact on your hill and trail abilities - but I'm sure it's not all-inclusive. What else would you add? Feel free to add a comment directly on this post!