Ask the Experts: Tips for Running Through Tough Terrain

Words by Taylor Thomas at Thomas Endurance Coaching

Most every runner has had the following experience: You’ve been running through neighborhoods and town paths and feeling great. Then you branch out to more technical terrain that involves climbing, descending, and managing your footing and you realize that this is a much different experience than the town runs you’ve been knocking out. That’s because there’s a physicality to running on more challenging terrain that’s often overlooked. The type of terrain plays a large role in the type of training, your level of fitness, and your overall approach. 


Climbing is one of the most obvious areas that differentiates an “easy run” from one that’s more challenging. Anytime you begin to go uphill, it’s going to be harder. First and foremost it’s important to adjust your expectations. Odds are you won’t be able to go as fast as you’re used to, your stride will be shorter, your perceived exertion will be higher, and your legs will burn. That’s okay. If you know that going into a climb you’ll be better able to adapt. Try to maintain your form as best as you can. Don’t slouch and fall into the trap of a “choppy” stride. Remember to keep your upper body tall, arms swinging through, and a comfortable cadence/footfall. If you’re going to be climbing for a while you might also consider climbing poles. These are popular in the ultra running world, and can dramatically improve efficiency and form on long climbs. 


What goes up must come down. So often we get lured into the trap of thinking that the downhills are “free miles”. Anyone who’s done a long descent knows that this is not the case. There’s just as much skill involved in descending as there is climbing. The muscular demands of descending are often what get runners into trouble in big mountain runs. Try not to put on the brakes too much. The impact that comes from trying to slow yourself down can wreak havoc on your knees, quads, and hamstrings. This wear and tear can cause all sorts of negative impacts as the run continues. Also, it’s important to look ahead and read the terrain. Try not to look down at your feet, but rather run tall and look ahead. This will help you respond more fluidly to technical terrain, and allow you to open up your stride and gain speed. The more fluidly you can descend the better you’ll feel on longer more technical runs. 

Strength Maintenance

There’s a physicality to running technical terrain that’s over and above the normal demands of running. Climbing, descending, and managing your footfall in technical terrain takes its toll on the body. It’s important to be strong and athletic outside of running to ensure that your body can handle the wear and tear. It’s a good idea to maintain a consistent strength and conditioning routine while you’re focusing on run training. Exercises like lunges, step-ups, squats, and deadlifts are great go-to’s to ensure the lower body is strong and resilient. Don’t forget about your upper body either. A strong core, shoulders, and back facilitate good running form when things get challenging. Running in technical terrain is about being ready for anything. That means constantly working to build a strong body both from a muscular and aerobic perspective. 


If you’ve completed a technical run you know that the hours and days that follow can leave you feeling pretty tender. This type of running puts the body through a lot, and it’s normal to expect a fair amount of muscle damage, resulting in soreness, inflammation, and tightness. As the adage goes, “recover harder than you train”. Nutrition is one important aspect. Be sure to hydrate during and after your run with an electrolyte mixture that provides sodium to replace what’s lost in your sweat. Next focus on carbohydrates and protein to restore glycogen levels, and send vital amino acids to damaged muscles. You should also employ mobility work like stretching, foam rolling, and trigger point movements to stimulate blood flow and smooth damaged fascia. 

Pushing your body in challenging terrain can be one of the most rewarding parts of being a runner. However, it should not be taken lightly or seen as the same type of running that you might perform around your neighborhood. Typically climbing and descending are what make these types of runs so dynamic. Make sure you prepare for them mentally and physically before tackling technical running. Once the run is complete recover like a pro with proper nutrition and mobility techniques. Now you’re ready to push it even harder when things get technical!

Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) and has more than a decade of experience in the endurance sports industry as an athlete, coach, team organizer, writer, and podcast host. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in a wide variety of disciplines ranging from running and cycling to mountaineering. For more information on their personal coaching and training plan options visit Also, listen to their top-rated podcast Endurance Minded everywhere you get your podcasts.

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