Whether you are a novice or a seasoned trail running fanatic, we have all experienced it:  Descending a rough trail at or near the limit of our comfort zone when the blur resembling a runner blows by with the inexplicable footing of a mountain goat.  How can a person run so fast downhill without wiping out? Similarly, we have all experienced this as well:   Cruising along a scenic trail with loose footing and precariously placed rock obstacles taking in the views when…CRASH…on the ground in a cloud of dust, taken down by an immovable object.   How is it possible to descend safely and efficiently?  Is it possible through training, conditioning, and preventative measures to increase my trail running efficiency and performance while reducing my risk of injury due to clumsiness or overuse?

As runners we are familiar with the 10% guideline for progressively increasing running mileage to achieve the desired speed and endurance to complete a targeted training run or race.  Trail running is unique in that distance is just one component of conditioning.

Balance, agility, and proprioception demands are magnified ten-fold on a trail run.  The key to running safely and efficiently on the trials can be achieved through a conditioning program which addresses these components.


Balance is a trainable component of walking and running which is multi-faceted.  While our foot and ankle balance are obviously key in adapting to uneven and rocky trails and terrain, the importance of a strong core (hip musculature, lower abdominal strength, gluteal strength) cannot be emphasized enough.  Ninety percent of the running injuries I see in the clinic (foot, knee, hip, back, shin splints, tendonitis) have a hip weakness component.  Our core is our foundation.  Without a strong foundation, balance reactions become significantly compromised.  A dynamic standing balance program (combining balance with movement) via a theraball or dyna disc is vital to a trail running conditioning program.  Static balance training is less running specific.


Trail running agility is a thing of beauty to see.  An agile trail runner makes running look effortless and easy.  Watching Anton Krupicka run the Western States 100 in the film Unbreakable was agility defined.

While some of us have more natural agility on the trails, agility training is effective.  Agility training involves being light on your feet.  Agility drills are common in many sports, but runners rarely practice agility.  It is important to practice agility drills following an injury as our agility and proprioception are compromised during the injury process.


Proprioception can be explained as our ability to know where our body is in space without actually looking at where our arm or leg actually is.  Proprioception allows us to run without staring at our feet which in turn allows us to run safer, run faster, and enjoy the views along the way.  While training, practice looking at the trail one step ahead of where your feet are and “feel” the results of your planned foot placement as you land.  Anticipate the trail ahead, but feel the trail with your feet.  Practice rapid foot placement and don’t hang out on your planted foot to improve your running efficiency.  Remember, during an average running stride, your foot impacts the ground for a mere .17 seconds!

While it is a given that nearly all trail runners unexpectedly meet the ground due to a misplaced foot or trail obstacle, the likelihood of running injury can be greatly reduced through proper foot and ankle care and conditioning.

Foot Mobility:

Feet come in all shapes and sized.  Feet are one of the earth’s true engineering wonders.  With each foot strike we apply 2.5 times our body weight through our foot.  Whether your feet have low arches, high arches, no arches, long finer-like toes, or short stubby toes, all foot types can benefit from mobility exercises.  Our great toe (big toe) is responsible for 80% of the stability in our foot.  The great toe achieves this through flexion (pushing the great toe into the ground as we push off) and extension (lifting the big toe off the ground as we begin to swing our leg through for the next stride).  The great toe is the driving force or “brains” of our foot.  Without 30° of great toe extension our foot mobility is compromised.  Without the isolated ability to push the great toe into the ground the intrinsic stability of the foot during push off is compromised, leading to over-pronation and foot strain (plantar fasciitis). I was recently introduced to a “foot yoga” program which effectively addresses the foot mobility needs unique to runners with great success.

Foot Stability:

Foot stability is achieved though intrinsic foot muscular strength and the delicate balance of pronation and supination.  Simply put, pronation allows our foot and ankle to absorb shock and impact associated with running, while supination allows us to push off a stable, strong foot rather than a mushy, pronated foot.  Physical therapists specializing in running injuries can provide you with a balance of exercises to address both of these necessary foot and ankle components.


May is sock month at Runners Edge.  Socks are an integral component of foot health.  Find a sock which matches the season and the terrain you run on.  A bit of cushion is nice, but make sure your feet can breathe as well to reduce the risk of blisters.  Trail shoe choice is a very personal topic to most runners.  No one shoe works for every foot.  Your trail shoes should allow the trail to communicate with your foot and should not interfere with your body’s (hip, leg, lower leg, and intrinsic foot musculature) goal of effectively propelling you forward.  Try on many shoes and let the experts at Runners Edge know how and where you run.  Make sure you can feel the trail through your shoes while protecting your foot.  As your overall strength and conditioning improve, your shoe options will increase as well.

Above all, enjoy the beautiful trails Missoula has to offer!

John Fiore, PT