So there you are, innocently minding your own business and enjoying your weekend trail run with some friends. You reach a steep downhill section of singletrack that is still sodden after the rain yesterday.
As you step on what looks like a firm patch, your foot slips from under you and you crash down heavily on your side, sliding down the path at hyper-speed and coming to a sudden, jolting stop against a very prickly bush.
“Are you OK?” asks your nearest friend in a worried voice.
You sense you haven’t broken any bones, but are aware of an intense burning sensation along your outer thigh – what will later prove to be lacerations that will need medical assistance to clean out.
This situation could easily have been avoided, with a little technical know-how.
If you’d like to steer away from hugging prickly bushes and doctor’s rooms, or are simply after tips to improve your running ability in wet and dry trail running conditions, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s face it: you are at the mercy of nature and it can throw anything at you. It all depends on the weather.
Let’s talk about the weather
This planet’s weather is weird (just like its politicians). It often has two (or more!) seasons going at the same time (just like its politicians).
And South Africa has arguably some of the weirder ones (and you could say the same about the weather).
In winter, the Highveld is normally bone dry, while the Cape gets lots of rainfall and the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal are somewhere inbetween.
In summer, the opposite occurs. This means dry and dusty terrain in places and wet and slippery in others.
We spoke to a few South African trail runners with experience in varied conditions to share how they remain upright and enjoying their trail running in these very different underfoot conditions.
Wet and dry
If you apply their pointers, you should quickly improve your running confidence and speed in four different scenarios:
A. Wet uphills
B. Wet downhills
C. Dry uphills
D. Dry downhills
A. Slippery uphills
- Scan at least two metres ahead
- Look out for potential hazards like tree roots and concealed rocks
- Reduce your stride length
- Point your feet slightly outwards to increase your shoes’ horizontal grip area
- Keep your running speed consistent and avoid sudden accelerations
- Use the sides of the trail if there’s grass or drier ground for better grip, but only if this doesn’t damage the vegetation to the point that it erodes the trail
- Flare your feet outwards slightly to increase grip. You might look like a duck but you will move faster than the guy laughing at you. Pump your arms forwards and backwards in a fast motion close to your body, with elbows at 90 degrees to give you more forward motion and propel yourself forward. Dawid Visser
- The worst type of mud is greasy mud (smooth, shallow and clay-like). Try to look for small rocks that can give you some grip or aim for the less trodden on side of the path. Linda Doke
- For really steep rocky inclines use your hands for extra grip and support. This also helps you feel the texture of rock that you’re climbing onto. Angelique Tostee
B. Slippery downhills
- Try to recce the route first if possible
- Flare your feet outwards slightly for better grip
- Watch the ground five metres ahead so you know what’s coming
- Stay loose and expect the odd slide motion
- Use a higher knee action so you have more time to respond with your feet if you slide or hook onto something
- Keep speed constant, don’t suddenly brake
- Accelerate slightly as you get to the bottom of the hill
- On technical running in wet versus dry “I don’t believe you have to focus too much on over technical things when running in different conditions or terrain. Just go with the conditions and terrain don’t try and fight them, “
- Sideways foot placement will help you stay upright. Linda Doke
- One thing that can really help you stay on your feet is your choice of shoes. If you’re going to be running on large, wet, smooth, rocky surfaces, look for a trail shoe which will have more surface area connected to the ground. If it’s muddy, go with a shoe with an aggressive tread. Kane Reilly
- When you’re running at full-tilt, use your arms for balance, almost like propellers. Angelique Tostee
In the wet, also look out for:
- Rocks can be extremely slippery (but you already knew that!).
- Deep puddles may hide dangerous obstacles under the water.
- Stagnant water often harbours nasties. Cover any open wounds and clean them properly after your run.
- Squelchy mud can suck shoes off. Be sure your laces are done up tightly.
C. Dry uphills
- Reduce your stride length to prevent pushing too far back and slipping
- Power walk up if very steep (by pressing your hands on your thighs above the knees)
- Look out for loose sand underfoot
- You can now grip with the ball of your foot, unlike in wet conditions
- Lean more forward and power up with arms close to your body than in wet conditions
- Watch out for rocks that aren’t secure in the hillside. Don’t use them as handholds or rely on them to pull you up
- Keep yourself as light as possible
Foliage is often more useful than rocks if you need a gentle pull-up (in the Western Cape, watch out for the sharp leaves of the notoriously prickly and ironically named Hiker’s Friend bush – it has a warped sense of humor). Linda Doke
D. Dry downhills
- Look five metres ahead
- Keep your weight forward
- Don’t lean too far forward if it’s a fast downhill – you don’t want to kiss the gravel
- Land on your forefoot to give you more stability
- Watch foot placement especially if you need to turn sharply
- Enjoy the odd slide but don’t fall on your face when your shoe suddenly grips
- Never put your full body weight onto each foot placement. Use a high cadence (foot turnover) to achieve this
- Be aware of rutted terrain that could trip you up. Angelique Tostee
- Very important is your choice of shoes. If it’s dry, look for a trail shoe which will have more surface area connected to the ground. Kane Reilly
- Clothing in wet conditions: Consider these when it’s wet and windy. Waterproof jacket and pants, windbreaker, base layer, space blanket, cap, running beanie, first aid kit, cellphone. Longer socks, so they don’t creep into your shoes when wet. I don’t like Goretex or waterproofed shoes as once water gets in it cannot get out. Ryan Sandes
- Just go with the flow, don’t fight the motion. Ryan Sandes
- If you do end up falling, try rolling onto your shoulder and then back (easier said than done). Grant Harper
- If you’re falling backwards, remember the best cushion you’ve got is your bum. Linda Doke
And that’s it – have fun out on the trails.
Please share your comments (on trail running and politicians too, if you’d like) with everyone below.