A beginner's guide to everything you need to know about moving to trail running.
Trail running offers the promise of adventure and a distraction away from city roads, lights, and the hustle and bustle of the world. Every year, trail running is growing on average by 12%. According to an August 2021 report from the International Trail Running Association, there are an estimated 20 million trail runners worldwide. If you are looking for a beginner's guide to everything you need to know about moving to trail running this blog is for you.
Learn your trail running terrain
The first thing you will notice as you move to trail running is that the ground you step on will feel a whole lot different. It requires more stability as you navigate each step. Understanding these differences as well as the terms used to describe them will help you to select trails that are appropriate for your level. The types of terrain can vary from groomed to technical and from singletrack to wide, open, long district roads. Groomed trails are smooth with packed dirt or gravel, with limited to no roots, rocks, or exposure. The more a trail moves along the continuum toward technical, the more obstacles you’ll run that add to the challenge, such as roots, varying types of rocks, mud, mountainous exposure, etc.
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Trail runners typically use the terms “flat” and “hilly” quite different from the road running term. The concept or even idea of “flat” on a trail run is typically experienced as a whole lot more “hilly” for a roadrunner. This is because trail runners typically spend more time in the mountains or on hills than road runners.
Worshiping the ground you walk on
While on the road you can expect to run on tar, trail surfaces have varied terrain and often combinations of dirt, grass, gravel, sand, mud, roots, and rocks. The more varied the surface, the more technical the terrain becomes, which requires a change in technique and effort. This gives trail running an adventurous and fun feeling.
Trail running technique
A groomed trail likely won’t result in many changes to your run technique, but as you move across that continuum toward increasingly more technical trails, there may be some changes in stride and approach to hills. Generally, trail runners employ a shorter, quicker stride than road runners, which allows for rock hopping or skipping to get over roots.
Hills and more hills
Stay alert - we are running up and then back down! Hills are a key part of the fun and adventure of trail running. Work on quick, short strides for both uphill and downhill running, and use your upper body and arms to assist with stability and drive.
Uphill running requires a strong leg drive and you need to use your arms to assist with this. On very steep or technical uphill grades, it is often more efficient to power hike and possibly even use trekking poles. You can control your effort by switching between hiking and running, which allows you to run as soon as the grade lessens or as you crest over the top of the hill. Work on transitioning between running and hiking. If the terrain is a super steep gradient, put your toe into the ground to get traction rather than hiking with a flat foot or heel first. The downhills, while a challenge at first, can give you a sense that you are flying fast. Stay relaxed, and don’t lean too far back, as this will force heel striking and increase your risk of injury. Instead, pay attention to quick steps, using your arms for balance and steering. This gets easier with time and experience. Look down the trail several meters in front of you, not directly down at your feet, this makes picking your line easier. Rocks and small stumps can trip you up, especially if covered by leaves.
Measure your efforts
Roadrunners use pace as a good measure for their effort and vice versa but when it comes to trail running this isn't usually a good guide or metric. Trail running is usually slower with the terrain being more technical even if the effort and intensity levels are high.
Train for time
Different trail terrains can vary in time drastically so training for time is a better measure than mileage. This will also be best when assimilated for your ultimate goal event.
When transitioning from road running, it is best to slowly build your trail time. For example, making half of your road runs trail runs and shorter runs are probably best to keep you from getting too fatigued or injured. Start with time and slowly add to these runs.
Train for your race
In order to prepare for your goal race or trail event, you need to train specifically. In addition to hitting duration targets, run on terrain that is specific to your event. Think in terms of the variations discussed in the previous terrain section, including terrain type, elevation, and surface.
Add strength - add Pilates!
Include strength training into your training plan. Pilates is a great full body exercise that works on balance, stability, mobility, and functional movement. It also makes sure you use your upper body which you use more often than you realize in trail running.
Be independent and self-sufficient
Take sufficient hydration and food on your trail runs. If you don’t have a hydration system, you need to get one. Depending on where and how long you will be running, you should also consider bringing a headlamp, additional clothes for emergency weather changes, a space blanket, and some basic first aid.
Trail running comes with its own set of risks. Keep your overall safety in mind. Bring a pocket knife/pepper spray, trail map/compass, some basic first aid, a Spot Device is also highly recommended as well as a cell phone. You will often be without reception, so it’s a good idea to share your route with someone and to give them an estimate of when you expect to return.