Running is simple. But it isn’t always easy.
Well, maybe running on asphalt is. One foot in front of the other. Left, right, left, right and repeat ad nauseam. It really doesn't take long for a beginner to master the art of road running. A few laps around the block and you don't even have to think about it anymore. Sure, some are faster than others, but anyone can become an unconsciously competent road runner skill-wise. More about the fancy terminology later though. When it comes to asphalt, I just prefer the term "mindless..."
Enter Trail Running - where every stick is a snake until proven otherwise!
We artfully jump, lunge and sidestep until, all of a sudden – and here the fun really begins - we slide into an uncontrollable downhill freefall. Much like a mountain goat, if only we were half as gracious and skillful. I’ve seen fast roadies and trail runners alike brought to a complete standstill on only vaguely technically demanding trails. Join any group trail run and it'll pretty soon become clear that not all of us are unconsciously competent at the art of selecting the best line along a technical trail.
So, what is this ‘unconscious’ stuff?
Abraham Maslow, creator of the Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, proposed a model describing four stages of learning a new skill. I find this to be a great guide whenever I attempt to improve on a specific skill. It’s like a manual to becoming aware of exactly where in my learning process I am.
1. Unconscious incompetence - Ignorance
You don’t know what you are doing, but you're not even aware of that. How long you remain at this level usually depends on your willingness to learn and how much you wish to improve.
2. Conscious incompetence - Awareness
You know that you don't know what you're doing. You fall while running along a fairly rocky and technical trail, realizing you are not a mountain goat after all. You become aware of your incompetence and decide to watch lots of YouTube videos of expert ‘mountain goats’ to improve your skills. AND you start reading articles like this one, hoping to pick up some useful tips.
The good news is that it's possible to overcome this stage and move up a level through making a few basic mistakes. The bad news is that basic mistakes in trail running will probably send you home with a few cuts and bruises. But hey, it's integral to the learning process, and you chose to do trail running!
3. Conscious competence - Learning
You know that you know what you're doing. By now you’ve watched hours of videos on how to choose a line in trail and mountain running, read some more articles and even attended a skills clinic on the topic. You’ve also spent hours on the trails practicing those tricky downhill sections and river crossings. But it still requires conscious thought about what you are doing, where to place each foot and how not to lose your balance when running on technically demanding terrain.
You are definitely getting it right, but you are not yet flowing effortlessly down the trail...
4. Unconscious competence - Mastery
You don't know that you know what you're doing. It sounds contradictory, but this is where the magic happens. You have finally mastered your craft and running along even the most technical and rocky terrain has become second nature. You can now do what you love and love what you do without a moment's hesitation. This is the stage we all strive to reach, and where we hope to remain. If you can descend the Drakensberg's Rockeries Pass on the Mnweni Marathon comfortably, at high speed, and with a smile on your face, then congratulations - you are unconsciously competent!
So let’s get learning...
Firstly, do not overthink it. Thinking less will allow you to actually observe the terrain ahead of you, process it and let your body react to it. Allow that inner mountain goat to run free! I know it sounds counterintuitive at first, but be like a kid - just have fun. Our ‘adult’ brain focuses on all the possible hazards that may lie and wait for us, completely inhibiting our ability to flow with the trail. Allow your mind to switch off and enable your body to become one with the earth below your feet.
Chin up and eyes ahead
Train yourself to look ahead, noting all the obstacles you should avoid and focusing on the path of least resistance. You want to glide over the terrain, so you need to relax, keep scanning the trail in front of you and try to remember what's immediately ahead of each foot as you lift and place it. Try not to look down and become obsessed over where each foot strikes the ground. Keep your chin up (literally and figuratively) and remember that the faster you run, the further ahead you will have to look.
Choosing the line
Always look for the best and fastest line. This might not necessarily be the most direct line. Pay attention to the terrain you are covering. What’s under your feet? Large loose rocks? Small pebbles? Slippery mud? Sometimes it’s better to choose a less direct line over a grassier section in order to avoid wet rocks, loose stones or bog. But that's only if you're running completely off-trail. If your route has specific path that is maintained, it's best environmental practice to stay on the designated trail so as not to disturb sensitive fauna and flora.
"Visualize the carved out line ahead of you, then trust in yourself, follow it and run with confidence"
Don’t obsess over obstacles along the trail. You need to be aware of them and notice the pitfalls, but FOCUS on the LINE you are trying to follow. In other words, look where you want to go and not at what you want to avoid, because we naturally tend to go where we are looking. It sounds obvious but it’s really easy to get sidetracked by that dodgy loose rock glaring up at you, and inevitably you end up tripping over it. Rather visualize the carved out line ahead of you, trust in yourself, and then follow it with confidence.
It probably won’t come naturally at first, because we are instinctively inclined to watch out for threats. But with practice you will become less anxious and tense, which will make it much easier to stay calm, look ahead and be in control of your chosen line.
Watch and learn
Following another skilled runner up or down a hill, or along a flat, tricky section, is a great way to improve. Try focusing on their line and noticing what they do differently from you. Then ask and discuss the reasons for their route choice with them afterwards. There is no single correct way to run technical trail, but by always being open to advice you're guaranteed to pick up some great tips. Also, it is considerably less painful learning from others’ mistakes than actually having to make them all yourself!
Spend time on the trails
You can read up and watch all the videos you want, but unfortunately that alone will not make you proficient at the art of selecting and executing a line. You will need to spend hours out on the trails, and some time off them as well, until the technique becomes ingrained in your running. It takes hours of repetition and practice to reach this much desired state of Unconscious Competence.
Take the time to figure out exactly where you are in Maslow's learning process. Awareness can be a very powerful tool in helping you progress through the different stages. It will also eventually assist you in remaining in that amazing Unconscious Competence zone once you have reached it.
Just have fun!
Isn’t this the reason we go to the mountains after all? Why we suffer the long trudges up those steep passes? Yes... For the joy of flying down the other side with absolute abandon, the biggest smile, and with greater ease and competence!
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