Need an escape?
If the open road isn’t enough, you might want to try trail running.
Taking your running routine out for a trip on the trail can offer many benefits – among them is the chance to run in nature and experience a change of scenery – and its often-breathtaking scenery – from your normal routine.
So, whether you’re an experienced road runner looking to diversify your routine or a newbie seeking a challenging workout, trail running could be just the thing for you.
Here’s everything you need to know to get started:
Training & Stretching for Trail Running
Trail running works different muscle groups than road running, so you should start slowly and build into it. Additionally, your training and stretching regimen should take into account that different muscles may be used in different ways.
In your regular workouts, mix in exercises that strengthen core muscles and improve balance. Planks, modified lunges, or anything that involves standing on one leg are all good places to start.
For added fun, try some balance drills such as one-legged juggling (if you can’t juggle, try it with two items). These will help you develop your equilibrium and might save you from a tumble or two.
BONUS: check out our guide to At-Home IT Band Maintenance for tips on hip-focused stretches.
As far as stretching goes, pay extra attention to your core, back, and hips. Try some targeted dynamic warm up exercises before you hit the trailhead, and static stretches when you get back but before you hop back in the car to come back home.
Trail Running Technique & Form
General guidance on running form isn’t all that different between road running and trail running. You’ll still want to keep your back straight and chin up – it’s just more important to also keep your eyes down and your arms more active.
What changes most is your gait. You will likely want to shorten your stride to help navigate potential obstacles and uneven terrain with ease. Running over uneven terrain means each step can be a new challenge – think of it as dodging rather than stomping.
Maintaining solid form while also focusing on the trail can be a difficult proposition.
Check in with your body continually as you run. As much as you can, resist the natural inclination to hunch forward on uphills or lean back on downhills. Both tendencies can redistribute each step’s impact to your back and may decrease your efficiency.
On any particularly steep or technical sections, you may consider hiking rather than running in order to be more efficient. Even professional trail runners switch freely back and forth from a full run to a power hike on steep climbs.
Finding the Best Trails to Run
Where are the best trails to run near you?
Find out using online resources such as Trail Run Project and AllTrails, or tap into local online communities via social media.
Take your experience level into account when selecting which trails you want to try. Even if you’re a road-running pro, your first forays on the trail are likely to leave you sore in a few new places. Start slow at first with a park path or a forest road and work your way up to more difficult trails.
If you’re unsure about your target distance and speed in the early going, start small – covering a distance on the trail typically takes longer than covering that same distance on the roads due to elevation change and technical obstacles. Adjust your mileage goals accordingly. For example, if you typically cover six miles in a 60-minute road run – a pace of ten minutes/mile – you may only cover 4 or five miles in 60 minutes on the trail. And that’s okay – often, time is the preferred way to measure your training, rather than distance, for trail running due to the inconsistent and hard-to-compare nature of individual trails.
What to Expect from Trail Running?
Bumps. Bruises. Scrapes. Tired muscles.
You can also expect a few trips and snags. Falling is a part of trail running, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. Don’t let stumbles discourage you. Take it in stride – and try to fall softly or roll if possible. That said, it is impossible to prescribe a single action that will make a fall less painful since falls happen on every type of terrain. Mostly, don’t worry too much.
Proper hydration is also even more of a concern on the trail than it is on the road. You still don’t want to overload before a run, but bring a water bottle along, and consider packing a larger jug in the car for a refill when you’re done.
Food, even if it’s just gels, is also a good trail provision. Remember, you’ll be working more varied muscle groups than usual, so your calorie intake needs will speed up even if you’re moving more slowly.
Trail Running Safety
Focus and attention are your two biggest allies in avoiding trouble. Keep your eyes on the trail as you run, and continuously plan out your next couple of steps. To borrow a phrase from other outdoor sports such as skiing and cycling, it’s helpful to “choose your line” as you run.
Also consider your personal safety before setting out – trails are also more remote than a city road run. Apps such as AllTrails allow you to share your location and progress with a designated contact. If you can, use the buddy system for an added layer of safety. Navigate carefully, especially if it’s your first time on a trail, taking extra note of turns and your route back to the trailhead. Carry more food and water than you think you’ll need in the event of a wrong turn.
You might also want to keep a small first aid kit – band aids, alcohol swabs and ointment should be fine.
Trail Running Shoes & Gear
Aside from the already-mentioned water bottle, a fanny pack can also be a handy accessory for storing your first aid kit and trail food.
Some experienced trail runners also like to use poles for steep inclines. But since you’re just starting out, you can cross that bridge when you come to it.
What you will want is a different pair of shoes than you’d ordinarily use for road running. Trail running shoes have added stability and durability features, such as toe covers, stiffer midsole materials, thicker rubber lugs for added grip and tougher upper mesh for more rugged terrain. These add a little more weight than you’d find in a typical road running shoe, but that minor sacrifice is worth it.
For sure-footedness, trail running in hiking boots is also possible, but since they’re typically so heavy, they will tire you out much faster – if you’re wearing full boots, it’s likely your trail run will revert back to a trail hike before too long.
As far as trail running apparel goes, moisture-wicking is the key feature. You may also want to consider layering up – in moderation. Keep in mind you’ll be moving pretty quick relative to the other hikers, and the exertion could make that outer layer feel a little stuffy after a while.
Good luck and enjoy the outdoors.
As Roy Rogers would say, happy trails to you.