5 Things to Know When Getting Started with Trail Running
5 Things to Know When Getting Started with Trail Running
So you’ve been pounding the pavement on neighborhood streets for a while now. But it takes about the same amount of time, every time, to complete the circuit through the industrial park and past city hall. It's no longer much of a challenge, right? Even the variations on your urban or suburban route—running it backward or adding a residential block here or there—bore you silly.
Rather than continue to mindlessly run on pavement, it’s time to wake yourself up by veering off road. Trail running may seem daunting, but setting off into the woods, mountains, or prairies can connect you to the natural world like no other activity and renew your love of running in general.
But as a dedicated road runner until now, there are a few things you ought to know before taking to the dirt.
A trail run is a totally different work out than a road run.
To quote rapper Ice Cube, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” You can’t run anywhere near as fast on twisting, hilly, rocky and/or rooty trails as you can on flat, smooth roads. Sure, you can let loose on the downhills, but not without keeping an eagle eye out for what’s underfoot. Shifting sand, scree, slick leaves, and mud can (and should) slow you down.
The climbs may also reduce you to a walk or crawl, but you’ll soon learn there’s no shame in that. If the uphill grade is so steep it takes just as long to walk to the top as it would to run it, save the energy and walk.
When you do find stretches of flat and open trail, you can stretch your stride and let fly. Running “by feel” rather than by a pace dictated by your GPS watch is freeing and something of a lost art. You may be surprised to see this natural application of fartlek or interval training resulting in faster and stronger performances back on the roads.
A common unsubstantiated claim found online is that trail running burns 10 percent more calories than road or treadmill running. Just walking on the right trail surface can burn up to 40 percent more calories “than exercising on smooth surfaces,” claims Mark Fenton in his book The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness. (Still other experts argue that a regime of high-intensity weight training slims at a faster rate than running. But life in a gym isn’t half as fun as life on the trails, let alone a source of fresh air.)
You'll end up looking at your feet. A lot.
Let’s be honest, though. While trail running can lead you deep into sanctuaries of unspoiled beauty, there’s a good chance you will miss seeing most of it. If the trail is difficult or “technical”—replete with rocks and roots, cliffs and off-camber sections—concentration is required if you want to avoid getting tripped up. That means keeping your eyes on the ground so as to hopscotch from one safe spot to another.
The nonstop hunting and pecking for safe places to plant your feet can be fun or grueling (or both over the course of the same run). But if you make a game of it and try to stay light on your feet, the experience can be invigorating.
The fear of falling or turning an ankle is real. However, the more trail running you do, the more your balance improves and your ankle, leg, core and arm strength increases. Run with confidence, but don’t get cocky. The moment you look away from the trail three feet in front of you is often the moment you face plant. Besides painful, that’s a humbling moment for anyone.
You need to take proper safety precautions.
Trails are inherently risky, depending on where they lead, time of day and year you run them, and the shape you’re in when running them. No two trails are the same. In fact, the same trail—whether followed in one direction or the other—can be a wholly different experience. You may want to tackle the hills early or ensure the wind is at your back on your return. You may have limited energy on a particular day or fading daylight, so pick trail with cutoffs that can get you home in short order as needed.
If the trail is new to you and there’s a chance you could get lost, make sure to let someone know where you’re headed before setting out. Wear a GPS watch or use a phone app with geo-location or waypoint technology that tracks your progress.
If you do lose your way, don’t panic. Retrace your steps. This trail runner has a penchant (a reputation, in fact) for straying off course, even in trail races on clearly marked courses. It happens to me so often, I shrug it off and embrace the opportunity to get in a few more miles than planned.
Another reason to run trails is to encounter wildlife. Some of my most sublime trail runs have featured me pacing white-tailed deer and watching great blue herons and snowy owls swoop silently on ahead.
I’ve also hurdled aggressive muskrats and turned back at the sight of a brown bear less than a hundred feet ahead. In my part of the country, the Midwest, garter snakes are more likely to be seen sunning themselves in the middle of the path than rattlesnakes. On most occasions the old adage “an animal is more afraid of you than you are of it” plays out. Consider yourself lucky just to have caught a glimpse of a critter.
Avoiding run-ins with poison ivy and stinging nettles requires one to be more proactive. Study up so you can ID them by their leaves in various stages of growth. You should be safe sticking to groomed and/or well traveled and maintained trails. As for dealing with mosquitoes, black flies, and ticks there are times of the year it may be best to surrender the outdoors to them—say mornings and evenings at summer’s peak. You can always use bug spray, which may work until the point you sweat it off. I’ve had some success pinning a dryer sheet to the back of my hat to distract deer flies from biting me.
Proper gear can make all the difference.
With trail running comes the need to invest in some specialized gear. Trail running shoes run the gamut—from light, minimal tread, low-profile flats for less technical trails, to big-lugged, waterproof, protective sheaths suitable for scaling mountains. Consider Superfeet insoles for additional support, and durable ankle-high socks.
Hand-held water bottles or hydration packs are a must for long trail runs. Either option provide pockets for other essentials, like gels and snacks, a cell phone, emergency whistle and flashlight.
If you like gadgets, the downloadable data from GPS watches and smartphone apps (especially ones that track elevation change) are really cool.
It's a great way to connect with nature.
Whether it’s to build strength, shake up your routine, or get out there to smell the wildflowers, it doesn’t really matter what motivates you as a runner to leave the roads behind and take to the trails. What’s more important is that we runners take the time to better appreciate the natural world around us.
So surrender to the call of the wild and run that trail. You never know where it might lead.