Trail Running 101 (cont.): How to Run more Confidently - Chi Running

Trail Running 101 (cont.):  How to Run more Confidently

Posted by Danny Dreyer on Mon Jun 1st, 2009, 13 comments

When I ask attendees at my ChiRunning workshops, I’m always amazed at how many runners don’t run trails. I suppose there are lots of reasons why someone might be a bit shy about heading out into Nature with nothing but dirt to land on. Could it be the wild animals that lurk in the woods? Or maybe it’s just the serial killers. Whatever the reasons are for anyone, I’m sure it’s based in fear of some sort. There have been only a very few times in my 35+ years of trail running that I’ve felt fear. I’ve never been chased by a wild animal and certainly not by another human being (with the exception of my competitors in racing events). I have been caught in a lightning storm at 11,000′ elevation in the Colorado Rockies and I’ve jumped over a rattlesnake that I mistook for a rock. I’ve run along trails where one misstep could result in a vertical plunge of a couple hundred feet. But, generally I feel trail running to be much safer than running in a city. So, if we can take some of the fear out of running on trails, maybe we can turn more runners on to the joys of running “pavement free.”

Here’s my contribution to dissipating some of the fears that might come up. I’m guessing that one of the reasons for not trail running has got to be either the fear of running on an uneven or slippery surface or even worse…falling down on an uneven or slippery surface. So, here are a couple of tips for you newbies.

Running Downhill on Loose Gravel
If you’re running downhill on a single-track trail and the surface is loose dirt or gravel there are a couple of things to do. If there is grass growing along the sides of the trail I suggest running there where the traction is better. The next best thing to do is look for spots on the trail where your feet won’t slip. These could be buried rock, roots or any place where you can see solid ground. If you begin to train your eye to see only the solid places on the trail, pretty soon all of the loose footing will disappear from your field of view and all you’ll see will be the multitude of safe places for your feet to land.



  • running,
  • chirunning,
  • trail running,
  • running downhill,
  • running trails

13 CommentsLeave a comment below

Christina Brownson Jun 3rd, 2009 12:51pm

Hi Danny,
Christina here from the Steven Creek Sriders in Cupertino, Ca.  I’ve been running trails since 1996 and prefer them over roads.  Running on dirt is so much easier on the body, not to mention being out in nature.  You can truly get strength from the beauty that surrounds you.  Tom Kaisersatt, Gayla Johnson, Steve Reagan and myself took some of your classes ages ago.  At that time I purchased your cassette tapes, I just recently purchased your new CD’s, refreshing the memory really helps. Thank-you
Happy Trails,
P.S. I have run over 100 Ultras in wilderness areas and have not had any dangerous encounters.  Knock on wood.

Hi Christina,
I’m so glad to hear from you and especially glad to hear you’re still out there running ultras. Please give my best to the Stevens Creek Striders. You were all my very first ChiRunning students and I’ll never forget running with you all. I’m also glad you have the new CD. At least this version doesn’t ask you to “flip the tape over.”

Best regards and happy trails,

Pat Wellington Jun 7th, 2009 12:07pm

Hello Danny,

Were your ears burning on May 31st?  I was wearing a ChiRunning Hat I bought at your ChiRunning class in San Francisco in 2006 at the Ohlone Wilderness 50K on May 31 and Christina and I were talking about how much ChiRunning has helped us. Ditto to everything Christina says only it has taken me since 1992 to run over 100 ultras.  The Trails are magical!  I had knee surgery in 2005 and credit ChiRunning and Bikram Yoga for my being able to continue ultrarunning.

Congratulations on your well-deserved success, Danny, even if you did desert us here in San Francisco grin

Pat Wellington aka TrailPatty

Hi Pat,
Very nice to hear from you too. It’s so fabulous that you and Christina have both run over 100 ultras. You ladies ROCK!!!  I sincerely wish you both all the best for many more years of continued great running. You are both a testament to the enduring effects of good running form ... and of course… the endless love of running out in nature, which we all share.


Hey Danny,
I’m with you on that. if all you run on is pavement all your feet know is pavement.

I got into chi running when I lived in San Francisco. Most of the times my run would start just coming out of the house and I’d go find a place usually a park just so I could get away from the city and get into a more open space. If there was some other surface other than pavement to run on, 9 times out of 10 I’d run on that. I’ve been out a few times now that I’m in LA and that routines is a bit harder to keep up with. Much more pavement and further away from open spaces.

Hi Sam,
Living in a place with an abundance of concrete is the perfect opportunity to learn to run extremely light on your feet.  Learning to have a soft footstep is really the only way to “tame” the harshness of asphalt and concrete.
All the best,

Phyllis Howard Jun 16th, 2009 02:49pm

Hi Danny!  I so enjoyed the trail running at Kripalu last month with the chi program that I’m eager to give the idea some effort.  I’m fearful of running trails b/c I usually run alone and have a terrible sense of direction—more than once I’ve kept running in unfamiliar territory only to end up running twice as long b/c I got lost!  so that’s my excuse!  But I promise to try it when I can run with a friend…  I have a wonderful memory of the trail runs at Kripalu and the Tai Chi exercise as well!
Phyllis Howard - Attleboro, MA

I also wonder why people are so hesitant to give trail running a try (I’ll tell my bear encounter story another time….wink. I’d much rather take my chances with nature than with an inattentive driver or a curb (indeed tripping on curbs seems to be very popular). But, as with any activity there are things to learn - so thanks Danny for pointing out a few tips here. Another great way to pick up technique is to hook up with a group of experienced runners. Indeed trail running or any other remote activity is far safer when done in groups. In the Bay Area we are fortunate to have many trail running groups. Christina mentions the Stevens Creek Striders. And I’ll put in a plug for the Palo Alto Run Club’s Monthly Trail run (see link). Or check out the American Trail Running Association for clubs and events throughout the country.

I run at Soberanes Point (Big Sur)every Sunday.  Even though I am alone, I feel much safer there, in nature, than being on roads with cars and people.  It is easier to stay engaged in the enjoyment of the run on the trail, as I have to think about what my body is doing so I don’t trip and fall!  I get “bored” on pavement.  My friends comment that I look like I am flying…perhaps because that is what I feel like I am doing…because of the chirunning technique!

Hey Danny,
Bought and read your book a number of years ago when I got started into serious distance running. Stumbled upon your website and blog and it’s a great resource. I’m a convert from roads to trails and it’s difficult to go back to roads (on the occasions when local trails are all washed out from flooding). I did a measly 16 last Sunday on roads and my joints and feet hurt more than after the 22 I did the previous Sunday on trails. As for danger, I’ve had way too many close calls from drivers on cell phones so I’ll take any real or perceived dangers on the trails in a heartbeat. Unlikely to be hit by an inattentive deer on a cell phone.

Dear Danny,
I run in the woods outside my door over in The Netherlands. The varied terrain, views, and seasons are always pleasant and interesting in the ever-changing weather. My dog runs with me; it’s a delight to watch him responding to the scents and sounds, and he makes me more aware of the beauty around me, too. The time just flies by. And although there is nothing to fear out there, I feel less “alone” with him along. May I suggest to those who feel at all queasy about running alone in the deep woods to find an energetic dog (Neighbors? Shelters?) as a running buddy? They are great personal trainers, and you’ll both have fun. 
Using Chi running techniques, and running on packed dirt trails, I never have muscle aches.

Thank you for the running instruction and your interesting and inspiring website.

Rob Houghton Sep 11th, 2009 05:15pm

Hi Danny,

I read ChiRunning about six months ago and have been working to conform my running to the ChiRunning principles.  After a couple hundred miles of working on technique, I thought that I was beginning to get the hang of it.  You know, lengthening my spine, engaging my core, leaning forward, relaxing, and bringing my heels to my butt.  However, on my last two runs (on rough, single track rocky trails), I have fallen four times.  It seems like every time I relax and begin to get into the “zone” that I trip and fall.  I haven’t had any problems running asphalt, but I am primarily a single track running and obviously having difficulty applying your methods on uneven terrain.  Any suggestions?

It’s always important to bend your knees more when running on uneven and rough terrain. Don’t lift your knees, just bend them more and let your heels float up a little higher behind you.

What are your thoughts?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

Top 100 Runnning Blogs award

Over a million happy runners can't be wrong.

Watch our FREE video series and run easier and better than you ever imagined. Feel the difference in your next run!