If you are used to only pavement for runs, then trail running does have some inherent risks. While there are wide, (almost) flat, crushed gravel trails which are easily accessible, we are talking about more challenging hilly trails (sometimes single track – i.e. only wide enough for one runner at a time) which have roots, rocks, and even sometimes a tree trunk you have to navigate over (and slugs you’ll want to avoid stepping on). These trails are known as “technical trails” and are typically what we are referring to when we are discussing the benefits of trail running.
Sounds super fun already, eh?
The activity of running is a prime candidate for inducing an overuse injury like IT band pain or tendonitis as most of us who have run for very long have experienced. One of the main reasons for these pesky injuries is that running is a very linear movement in the forward direction. We are using the same joints and muscles over and over again doing the same repetitive movement.
While trail running does require closer attention to where you put your feet, it challenges our balance and strength in a way all of us can use. The more technical the trail, the more it forces you to move from side to side using your upper body, core and small stabilizer muscles to assist you. The typically hilly terrain also forces strength work in your quads, glutes, and lower legs. Think of this as a gym workout without going to the gym. We know that appeals to a lot of you!
New to Trail Running?
As you start to think about trying a trail run, let us help you avoid a couple of the most common mistakes we see runners new to trails make. You are thinking shoes or clothing, right? Actually, we are thinking about pacing and fueling.
Effort and Pace, Time versus Distance
One of the biggest mistakes we see for runners who are trying to add in trail running is expecting effort and pace to be the same on trails as for pavement. It’s not! Your pace on technical trails (even if they aren’t very technical!) is usually dramatically slower. To maintain the same pace you’d expect for an easy run on trails requires significantly more effort, sometimes shockingly so.
Runners who expect roads and trails to be equal will go out too hard and struggle to finish their run as they push the effort to try and match their typical pace on roads. They miss out on the simple freedom and fun of trail running. These runners will tire both physically and mentally, be at a greater risk for tripping and falling, and get frustrated.
Another way to approach trail running is to run for time rather than a set distance. If you want to run 5 miles – and 5 miles on pavement would normally take you 55 minutes – plan to run out for 25 minutes or so and then turn around and head back. If brand new to trail running or just getting back to it, ease into longer distances to give your body a chance to adjust. You may be able to bang out an 8 mile run on roads any time, but 8 miles on trails requires a bit of patience to build towards.
Start your trail run easily to give your legs and feet and brain a chance to adjust. Just like when you go out too hard in a race (who hasn’t done this?!), use discipline and restraint when starting a trail run and be mindful of effort.
We have had more than one runner who checked in the day after a first trail run who was sore in spots they couldn’t even imagine. If you get annoyed that your pace is so slow, turn your watch to a different screen that doesn’t show pace.
Sometimes new trail runners make the mistake of thinking they will “make up time” by going hard and fast on the downhill. Bad idea. Downhill running involves eccentric muscle contractions that are only developed by stimulating those contractions in practice. Save your quads: use your first few trail runs to introduce this type of muscle use to your body. Over time you’ll get stronger on the downhills and be less sore after.
This too is an area where road and trail do not match. The effort and time that a run takes on the trails will be significantly longer than the time the same distance will take on the roads. Bring extra fuel when trail running and use it more frequently knowing the exertion is higher and you will be out longer. If you typically fuel every few miles on roads, those same miles can take a lot longer on trails. Instead of cueing fueling by mileage, consider cueing fueling by time. If you fuel every 4 miles and that takes you 44 minutes, plan to fuel every 30 - 45 minutes rather than by a set distance.
We are sure there are varied schools of thought on this but truthfully, you don’t really need trail shoes, especially if you are first starting. Trail shoes typically do have a more aggressive lugged sole which can give better traction over slick, muddy trails, and they may have a “rock plate” which protects your foot from larger rocks. But even with a more aggressive lugged sole, you can still slip on wet rocks and wooden bridges. Just ask coach who slipped last week! doh!
Trail shoes often tout goretex or other water repellent features, which are great but still don't tend to keep your feet completely dry. If you don't have trail shoes,try keeping a regular pair of running shoes for for trail running and expect to slosh your shoes in a puddle towards the end of a run or hose the mud off at home. Running shoes clean off surprisingly well. Expect your feet to get wet and even muddy. Fortunately, you clean off well! Be prepared with a change of shoes and clothing in your car for when you are done running.
Running Form and Focus
Trail running does require more attention when running. Instead of looking down at your feet, keep your gaze up, scanning the ground 5 - 10 feet ahead of you. Over very technical sections with lots of roots and rocks, slowing down and picking your feet up will help you continue to move forward. Also we notice that trail running requires a subtle change of running form as you stay upright (run tall!) and land with your foot directly under your body for better stabilization. This will help you avoid falling!
The attention that trail running requires is also important for being aware of your surroundings and not getting lost. We have a lot of areas to trail run in the greater metropolitan area and a lot of resources like maps and route recommendations. Our favorite trail areas are only 20 - 30 minutes away! Take advantage of group runs on trails to start learning some basic trails.
Trail running may feel hard at first and often this can start a negative chatter in our heads. Just because trail running feels hard, it doesn’t mean you aren’t fit or that by only running for time versus a particular mileage that you are short changing yourself on miles. Trail miles count and count for a lot and can be very humbling. Consistent trail running will make your runs on smooth pavement feel a lot easier!
Keep Moving Forward
Another secret to successful trail running is hiking. That’s right, sometimes the trails can be so technical or so steep that hiking with purpose is a better way to cover the trail. A common mantra among ultra runners is “keep moving forward,” and sometimes moving forward at a hiking pace makes sense. When running, if your effort level is hitting the red zone on a steep section, shift to a hiking pace and keep going! Even planning on hiking breaks at set times can help you keep your effort at a reasonable level and help you to go farther more comfortably.
And here’s another secret: all this applies if you are nervous about actually running on trails. Instead, hike! All of the benefits of trail running apply to hiking, and hiking is usually done at a pace which lets you admire all the beauty around you.
Remember we are running to have fun and be healthy. Being in nature (as a hiker or a trail runner) has a lot of benefits all on its own. Regularly getting out of the urban environment can benefit your mental health as well as your physical health. Recent studies have shown that being out in nature can improve mood and attention and lower stress hormones.
To the trails we go!