If you've done a fair bit of hiking, you've probably seen them — leaping down rock scrambles, whizzing past out-of-breath hikers, making it to the summit and back in record time. For those who've never tried trailing running, trail runners look practically inhuman. How exactly are they managing to run trails at such remarkable speeds without twisting an ankle, or worse?
It turns out there's an art to trail running, and it's not as simple as just trading out your hiking boots for tennis shoes and taking to the off-road trails at a jog. There are certain precautions and tips to consider so that you can have an enjoyable and safe experience.
If you are interested in trying out trail running for yourself, here's everything you need to know, including a few running tips and a beginner's guide to everything you need to get started.
Why Try Trail Running
If you're just even a little intrigued by trail running, there are plenty of reasons to take the plunge and give it a try. Compared to traditional road running, trail running is often easier on the joints while simultaneously a little more challenging for your balance and coordination. Additionally, trail running can provide you with a greater connection to nature, putting you in contact with the great outdoors in a way that just can't be obtained by running through your neighborhood or at the park (or, obviously, on a treadmill).
Starting on the Right Foot
But before you can start trail running, you'll need the right gear. One of the most essential pieces of equipment for trail running is the proper shoes.
You can find specifically-made trail running shoes at your favorite outdoor recreation store. These shoes differ from your regular tennis shoes or road runner shoes in that they're made for trail surfaces and extra stability.
Trail running shoes:
- Help keep you steady on tricky terrain
- Have a thicker sole and toe guard to protect your feet from feeling all the rocks and roots
We recommend investing in a pair of these shoes before you begin trail running, especially if you intend to take on some more challenging trails. If you're only going to be traversing groomed, flat paths, you may be able to get away with your regular running shoes for a while, but if you ever level up to more challenging trails with altitude, you'll need those special-made trail running shoes.
Other Gear to Add to Your Outfit
Other than your trail running shoes, you'll want to wear comfortable, breathable clothing that's suitable for specific weather conditions. Remember, if you're running a trail that increases in elevation, you may find that temperatures, as well as overall weather, fluctuates as you climb.
Look for breathable, quick-drying fabrics for your entire outfit:
Also, it's recommended that you dress in layers that you can easily remove or add as needed. You may want to pack a shell jacket and shell pants for lightweight protection from the rain.
You may want to also pack a light backpack that contains your choice of hydration. If you're going on a shorter trail run, you may be able to take a water bottle; if you're doing a longer trail run, you may want to take a hydration pack or bladder. Food is also essential, whether you take an energy gel packet or more traditional hiking snacks; consider what makes your stomach feel best when you're exercising strenuously (you don't want an upset stomach on the trail!).
Also, take a phone with your favorite trail running app to keep you on course and track valuable data about your speed, altitude, etc. Some trail runners prefer a smartwatch to their phone, but go with what works best for you.
In addition to investing in the right gear to keep you comfortable, you'll also want some gear that'll keep you safe.
While you'll likely have your phone on you anyway, bring a backup physical map of the trail system, too (or download a map to your phone or GPS watch that can be accessed offline). You always want to be safe rather than sorry.
Regardless of how short your trail is, if it's unfamiliar to you, or if it's indeed a longer trail, you'll want to bring a light of some sort, just in case. A headlamp is ideal as a hands-free option.
If you're running in a sunny area or during the winter months, take some sunscreen, so you can easily reapply as needed. Keep in mind, even if you're running in a forested area, you may hit patches of rocky outcrops or ridges where you'll be exposed to the sun.
Bug spray is also a must, both to repel potentially harmful insects, like ticks, as well as to repel just plain annoying insects that plague trails, like black flies.
You'll also want a small first aid kit that will easily slide into your backpack. Carry the essentials, such as regular and blister bandages, antibacterial ointment and pain medication.
Other essentials to keep in your trail running pack include:
- Materials to start a fire
- Materials to build a shelter
- Trail toilet paper (just in case nature calls).
If you're trail running in an area with active wildlife, bring the proper tools, such as:
- Bear bell to alert animals to your presence
- Bear spray if active bear attacks are even a remote possibility.
Moose and bears are the most potentially dangerous animals to trail runners; if you spot one, slowly back away. If a moose charges at you, run; if a bear charges at you, you'll want to do one of two things, depending on the type of bear. Black and brown bears are less likely to attack, so make good use of your bear spray; grizzly bears, however, are a much more significant threat to your life, so your best bet is to play dead.
If you do find yourself lost or disoriented while trail running, try to backtrack. If that's impossible, and if someone knows where you are (which they always should), stay put so that it's easier for officials to find you.
For a greater level of safety, try to trail run with a buddy when possible. You're always safer in pairs.
Pick the Perfect (Or Near-Perfect) Trail to Start
When you first start trail running, you may want to start slow, especially if you're not really an avid runner or an avid hiker. Choose a relatively flat first trail that will come with fewer obstacles. Then, gradually add hills and increase the difficulty level as you choose new paths.
Don't feel bad if you need to take it slow — you'll eventually get to the more complicated stuff and more technical trails. The key is never to push yourself too hard or too far; that's when accidents and injuries happen, and the last place you want to be injured is on a trail miles away from civilization.
The best way to build up your stamina and skill so you can take on those harder and longer runs with ease? Simply trail run as much as you can. Practice makes perfect.
If you're not sure where to find the best trail for you, look to trail running websites, local trail websites and apps for hiking and running (such as AllTrails) and regional guidebooks. Also, look into whether your region has a trail running group or other running clubs, which may have a Facebook page where you can glean helpful information (and maybe even find a trail running buddy).
Perfect Your Technique
Just like any activity, trail running requires a particular technique and form in order to see the best results from your running experience.
It's advised that you use short strides and keep your eyes on the trail to best avoid falls. You'll quickly pick up on the best ways to avoid rocks, roots and other obstacles without breaking stride, but take it slow at the start. Keep a straight posture and swing your arms for better balance.
Your technique will need to be further adjusted depending on whether you're running uphill or downhill. When running uphill, it's advised you lean forward and take advantage of your momentum. When running downhill, you may want to increase your stride if running on a smooth, slight descent; if you're running downhill on a steeper trail with lots of rocks and roots, you'll want to decrease your stride and increase your cadence.
You can also improve your technique by working on strength training and conditioning exercises outside of your trail running routine. Lunges, squats, planks and leg raises are all excellent strength and conditioning exercises that can improve your trail running form, and all can be done at home. No special equipment is required.
Practice Trail Etiquette
Seasoned trail runners and hikers place a high emphasis on trail etiquette, so you'll want to have a few things down before you hit the trails.
Firstly, be sure to yield as needed. If there's not enough room on the trail for you to pass, it's considered courteous for the person to coming up the path to yield and pull off to the side of the course to allow the person to go down the trail without breaking stride.
If there is room on the trail for two people, stick to the right side and give the other hiker, runner or biker plenty of space.
If you're coming up behind a slower runner or hiker, announce yourself so you don't surprise them. If the other runner keeps about the same pace as you, try to stay about 10 feet away from them.
Additionally, you'll find that folks are pretty friendly on the trails, and it's considered basic politeness to offer a courteous 'hello' to anyone you come across (and if you're too out of breath from all your running, a simple nod of acknowledgment will work, too).
If you're running in a region of the country that experiences what's known as "mud season," the springtime period in which melting snow from mountains creates an excessive amount of mud on the trails, it's usually advised that you run straight through the mud. This helps cut down on trail degradation and erosion; doing otherwise is a bad look.
Lastly, even though you probably know this, it's still worth saying — don't litter.
Ready for a Trail Race?
After you get the hang of trail running, you may decide you want to sign up for a trail race. If you've never actually participated in a trail race before, there are a few things you'll want to know.
Trail races are nothing like road races that you may have done in the past. The environment is a lot more social, relaxed and, for many people, fun. You may see a wider variety of running wear on the trails, and you'll often get rewarded for your efforts with food and drinks of the alcoholic variety at the end of the race.
Some extra challenges come with trail races, including the added challenge of relying on yourself for navigation.
Otherwise, you can still expect to find a vast array of race lengths and themes, as well as happy volunteers operating aid stations and helping you along the way.
If you do want to try a trail race, start with a shorter trail before working your way up to a more challenging or lengthier trail race, such as an ultramarathon.
Time to Hit the Trails
Even if trail running looks intimidating, with a bit of practice, you can become an accomplished trail runner, too. With the proper preparation, gear and safety precautions, all that's left to do is simply get out on the trail.
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