More and more road runners are coming to value what trail runners enjoy: greater challenges and chances for adventure out in the wilderness. Leaving the monotony and motor vehicle traffic behind, the roadies are coming out to play in the dirt, too.
Trail running doesn't just provide a change of scenery, however. It's a wholly different sport than road running, which takes some getting used to for athletes making the transition. Unlike paved surfaces, trails can be dotted with roots, rocks, steep ascents and descents, and plenty of other obstacles—but those are all part of the fun, too. Here, five trail running tips for beginners to keep you on your feet, uninjured, and eager to hit another trail.
1. DON'T OVERDO IT.
Trail running can be intoxicating, especially in a particularly scenic area where you’ve not run before. It’s tempting to treat a run like an exploration, running as far as you can to see as much as you can. It’s so easy—until it suddenly isn’t—to run so far that you forget you still need to run back to where you started. You risk running to exhaustion, dehydration, and injury. When tired, your form deteriorates and you’re more apt to misstep and take a fall.
To be successful as a trail runner means trading speed for flexibility. You need to be able to handle, literally, whatever is thrown in your path. You need to factor in the unpredictable when trail running, such as downed trees, uncrossable floodwaters, unexpected reroutes, and the greater likelihood of getting hurt and/or lost. No matter how fit and good you feel at the start, a trail may conspire to slow or take you down.
Rather than run for distance, run for time. As you are becoming familiar with a trail network, opt for out-and-backs instead of trying to string together loops, turning around wherever you may be 20 or 30 minutes after you started. Trails tend to look very different depending which direction you run them, so don’t think you’ll have less fun doing this than completing an overly long loop.
2. WATCH YOUR FOOTING.
Trail surfaces vary, and some vary from stride to stride. Root-y and rocky paths can be tricky to travel, requiring the agility and lightness of a ballet dancer and the patience and concentration of a matador.
There’s no shame in walking, whether it's through overgrown areas or on steep climbs and descents—even the most elite trail runners walk when they need to. The alternative is risking an ankle sprain or worse: a tumble that leaves you bloody, bruised, and broken.
Some superficial wounds—anything short of a metal plate in one’s head—are worn as badges of pride by accomplished trail runners. But the goal should not be to win a contest of battle scars. And fortunately, the more trail running you do, the stronger you become, and the better you are at staying on your feet and safe from flesh wounds.
3. WEAR PROPER FOOTWEAR.
Running of any kind can be as low- or high-tech as you want it to be. You don’t absolutely need a GPS watch, but you can’t go without shoes. The running shoes you wear on paved surfaces, with minimal tread or ankle support, may suffice on some trails, like crushed and packed limestone paths. But you’ll soon discover the shortcomings of road-specific running shoes when you try to traverse slick, loose, twisting, and undulating trails.
When choosing a shoe specifically for trail running, lose your loyalty to any particular brand. Think more seriously about where and how you expect to do your trail running. Try on shoes with tread and toe-to-heel profiles most appropriate for the actual trails you intend to run, the time of the year, and in what conditions. The more technical your go-to-trail (root-y, rocky, and otherwise requiring a higher degree of skill), the more you should look at trail shoes with big lugs, tacky soles, secure lacing, and minimal heel heights. Flatter, obstacle-free trails may call for a hybrid trail-road shoe that provides more cushioning and causes fewer blister-producing hotspots.
Consider adding supportive insoles, like those made by Superfeet, to keep yourself both agile and safe on the trails. You’ll also come to appreciate moisture-wicking socks. And post run, putting on that dry pair stashed in the car back at the trailhead feels like wrapping your worn feet in clouds.
4. DON'T FORGET TO HIT THE GYM.
Given the choice between spending time getting the blood pumping on a trail run or pumping iron at a gym, the former almost always wins. But adding weight training to your weekly workout regime will help make you a stronger and less injury-prone runner.
If you’re truly interested in sustaining a long career as a runner, you need to strengthen the muscles around your joints, increase bone resiliency, and stretch and stabilize the tendons. The repetitive motion and pounding of certain joints and muscle groups that occur from running can lead to imbalances that only weight and resistance training can counter and correct.
Whether your approach is using weight machines, dumbbells, elastic bands or your own body weight, the emphasis should be on resistance and high reps. Three of these types of workouts a week (on days you don’t run but possibly cross train by biking or swimming instead) are recommended by most athletic trainers.
5. SLOW DOWN.
Depending on the terrain, it can take up to twice as long to run the same distance on a trail as on the roads. Knowing that, a trail run is a great opportunity to break all the bad habits you learned on the road: Setting a fast and even pace early, obsessively checking your watch for mile splits, and thinking only energy gels as fuel will do.
Trail running rewards the vigilant more than the valiant. To survive rather than set a PR should be the goal. And that’s done by picking the safest line, not bombing down hills, and always keeping energy in reserve for what might be the toughest sections of trail up ahead.
Another best practice on the trails is to run with a shortened stride, landing on the forefoot rather than the heel. This not only softens the landing of your feet, it generates a quicker leg turnover and more precision that can help turning an ankle.
The promise of adventure on the trails await those who arrive smart, healthy, and in harmony with their surroundings. And with these trail running tips, soon you'll start feeling less like a bumbling beginner and more like the sure-footed mountain goat you always knew you had inside.
Originally written by RootsRated for Superfeet.