Footwork drills for trail runners

There is nothing like bombing down a hill at full speed to jack your adrenaline and give you that runners high that you've been hoping for. You get that rush of excitement and that feeling of total freedom as you're screaming towards the bottom of that hill!

...and the whole time you're thinking "Don't fall, don't fall, don't fall!!!!"

That's because you know that all it takes is one tiny misstep for you to be catapulted forward and explode into a million pieces on the trail in front of you.

Trail running is tons of fun...the views, the outdoors, the challenges...but there is no arguing that it is more dangerous than road running. Streets and sidewalks generally provide a flat, even surface for you to run on. You don't have to worry very much about roots, fallen branches, or loose rock that is going to cause you lose your footing and wipeout.

When you're running on trails you have tons of things trying to make you trip, slide, or slip your way into a face plant. Just today, I ran a 5.3 mile section of a pretty technical trail near my house and I almost ate a pile of rocks for lunch! I got lucky and got my hands out in time so I just belly flopped, but let me tell you...the risk is real, people!

Since I started running trails a few years ago I realized how important it is to be quick and agile on your feet. Slow, heavy feet are a recipe for disaster. You can't get away with having lazy feet like you can on the road. If you don't lift your foot up high enough on the road, nothing happens...if you don't lift your foot up high enough on the trail you could catch a rock, root or stump and go flying.

This is exactly why I started doing footwork drills to improve my foot speed and overall agility.

If you've read my story you know that I played college lacrosse. We spent at least 10-15 minutes everyday doing footwork drills to help get warmed up and to get our body ready to move quickly and explosively. I think that the same mentality should be brought to trail running.

Footwork drills help with overall agility

When you're doing footwork drills, you aren't just moving your lower body, you're pumping your arms, you're shifting your weight and you're moving your hips. This helps you get comfortable moving quickly and efficiently to overcome obstacles as they pop up.

Footwork drills improve foot-eye coordination

Foot-eye coordination is as important for runners as hand-eye coordination is for baseball players. If you can't judge where to place your foot, you're not going to last on the trails. Everyone sort of assumes that you should just naturally have great hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, but that's just not true. These are skills that need to be practiced and footwork drills provide a perfect training stimulus!

Footwork drills increase your foot speed

Elite runners know that in order to increase their top speed they need to be doing speed work drills to get their legs used to the faster cadence. The same is true for your foot speed. You need to train your feet to be fast and efficient with their movements. We can't always get away with the long strides that we use on the road. Sometimes we need short, choppy steps to help us keep our balance or control our pace up and down hills.

Footwork drills will improve your confidence on tough terrain

One of the biggest factors in attacking those downhills with authority is having confidence. If you're lacking confidence it's hard to enjoy catching some speed on the trails because you're going to be constantly worrying about your foot placement, just hoping you don't roll an ankle or splat on a rock. When you begin to build your confidence in your technical abilities you will have a lot more fun on the faster sections of trail!

So, now that we know why we should be doing footwork drills, how do we go about actually doing them...?

Well the awesome thing about this training is that it doesn't require any special gear! Yes, you can get things like a footwork ladder or speed hurdles, but you really don't need to.

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These drills can be done by simply marking out an area in chalk, tape, string, or anything else that you having laying around. Once you understand what we're doing you can get pretty creative with things you have around the house!

Alright, first, I want to show you how people do footwork drills for soccer, football, lacrosse, etc... Below is a video that I think does a great job of explaining some of the drills and how to do them properly. (Link here)

Of course, you can do the same things he is doing on the pavement with your running shoes. You can use whatever you want to mark out a ladder, or just picture one in your head and start moving those feet as fast as you can!

I think that one important aspect of footwork drills that is missing from this video is the use of high knees. High knees help you get used to that explosive movement of bringing your leg up quickly to get it up and over an obstacle. It will also strengthen your hip flexors, core, and quads.

Here are my favorite footwork drills to improve your technical abilities on the trails:

  • 2 forward

  • 2 Forward, high knees

  • Icky Shuffle

  • Lateral in and out

  • Hip Twist

  • 2 Forward 1 Back

When first starting it's helpful to walk through the drill at a super slow pace and gradually pick up the speed as you get into the rhythm of the drill. Things like the Icky shuffle or hip twists are not movements we are used to doing, so start slow and pick up the pace as you get more comfortable.

Remember to move your arms in sync with your legs as well as really over-emphasizing things like turning your hips and shoulders. This will prepare you for when you need to do it in the real world when you're tired and conditions are wet and sloppy!

Footwork drills are not a replacement for speedwork

While footwork drills will improve your foot-eye coordination, foot speed and agility, they are not a substitute for doing speed work drills. You will not be getting the same sort of leg turnover and top end speed training that some speed workouts provide.

In fact, you really don't need to change your running schedule at all. You can fit in some footwork drills before your runs and again after your runs if you really want to challenge yourself! The biggest thing to focus on here is trying to get in a rhythm with

The bottom line is...if you're looking to improve your speed and safety while trail running, footwork drills are a low-cost, high-reward training method that are sure to help you find secure footing when you need it the most!

Do any of you do footwork drills?

Coming from a team sports background I've always found it odd that footwork training is so uncommon within the running community!

Let me hear from you!! Do you think footwork drills would help you improve your trail running or do you think it's a waste of time?

If you found this article helpful or entertaining, share it with someone who you don't want to face plant on a rock any time soon!

As always, thanks for reading!


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