Anyone who runs on roads or around the city often dreams of trail running, as its seen as the next frontier and rewarding on an entirely different level. Trail running lets you explore nature at its best, and when compared to hiking, you can experience a whole new world in a few hours, instead of a few days.
Transitioning to trail running is not as hard as some may believe, though it does come with a new set of challenges. Trails often come with severe conditions, including extreme weather, high elevation, and rugged terrain, which may put off some budding trail runners.
We’re here to put your mind (and some myths!) to rest, debunking some common misconceptions about the transition from road to trail running.
Trail running does not require specialized and expensive gear
Aside from a good pair of running shoes, you don’t need much more than some energy gels, a hydration pack, and proper apparel. If you’re planning on running smooth trails, there’s no need to purchase a new pair of running shoes. However, for rocky trails, you are going to need a trail-specific shoe, as the tread on the sole will keep you from slipping on slimy roots, mud, rocks, etc. Trail-specific shoes are also designed to withstand more abuse.
Your other gear can be kept simple: a water bottle, wicking clothes, and some calories (here’s where the energy gels come in). Once you have more experience and trail miles, you’ll have the knowledge to know what items you need to upgrade and purchase.
Choose the proper trail for your ability
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where there are lots of trails to choose from, take advantage of this and be choosy, especially when you’re starting out. Begin your training on the less technical trails as they won’t have many obstacles (such as boulders, rocks, or roots) to trip you up. Starting with a flat trail is a good way to let your feet get used to the sensation of trail running, instead of pavement running.
Watch where you’re going!
Remember back in drivers-ed when they taught you to look further than the car ahead of you? Trail running is the same. If you’re always looking down at the path, you could miss something that’s ahead, such as an oncoming cyclist or a tree branch. Scanning further ahead gives you more reaction time to avoid any obstacles. And same as with anything, practice makes perfect, and soon you’ll be spotting large rocks ahead with enough time to sidestep them and place your feet where they need to be.
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Be ready to trip and fall
Tripping and falling are inevitable, so you may as well be prepared for that situation. You will probably be a bit fearful in the beginning, and that is totally normal. Unfortunately, feeling awkward often leads to being clumsy, and a rock or root will jump up and trip you when you least expect it.
It happens to even the most seasoned of trail runners, so you know it comes with the territory. You’ll most likely just end up with some scraped knees, and a bruised ego, so just brush yourself off and keep running. If you can, don’t fall on your hands; tuck and roll instead to avoid a more severe injury.
Strengthen your ankles
Loads of road runners are afraid to make the transition to trail running as they’re scared to twist an ankle. While this may seem like a perfectly valid fear, they’re not taking into account that your ankles will only get stronger the more trails you run.
When you are running on pavement, the only way you’re going is forward, aside from the occasional move to the left to avoid barreling into a pedestrian or another runner, or hopping off the sidewalk.
Trail running requires a lot more side to side or lateral movement, leading to stronger ankle tendons and ligaments. Furthermore, as you get more experience on the trail, there will be a decrease in your reaction time as well as an increase in your proprioception, meaning you rapidly learn to dodge a potential ankle roll.
To strengthen your ankles, use a Bosu ball to practice single leg balance, as its instability will force your ankle muscles, tendons, and ligaments to engage in all possible directions. If you don’t have a Bosu ball, try some physical therapy exercises such as spelling the alphabet or your name with your feet.
Forget about your pace
There is no way you can compare your trail pace to your road pace, so leave the GPS at home. There are numerous reasons for this, including the much softer terrain which will slow you down, in and of itself. Your momentum will also be delayed by the ground, such as rocks and hills, and no two trails are created equal. Therefore, even if you have a specific time where you run 15 miles on a wide open and flat trail, it may take you three times that to cover the same distance on a different course.
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Trail running doesn’t require superhuman strength
Another common misconception is that running mountain trails on slick and rugged downhills or steep hills is too hardcore. However, all you need is practice and good tactics.
Sometimes, depending on the altitude, pitch, footing, and terrain, you will have to learn to switch from running to power hiking, giving your muscles a much-needed rest. Remember that practice makes perfect, so just be patient. Start out power hiking, and then work your way up to running by taking shorter steps.
Never leave the Ten Essentials at home
As time goes on, you’ll start to feel ready to go for more remote and more extended running adventures as you develop your abilities and gain more experience. However, trying more difficult trails can lead to severe consequences, such as a sprained ankle, an unexpected storm, or losing your bearings, if you’re not properly prepared.
Therefore, it’s vital that you have the proper gear and backcountry survival skills to survive the unexpected. That means you’ll want to brush up on your knowledge and make sure you take the ten essentials with you wherever you go.
Don’t just take our word for it, Grand Canyon National Park has had to deal with increasing amounts of search-and-rescue calls from runners completing the 44-mile “Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim” traverse, as they were not prepared for the heat, elevation changes, and distance.
Therefore, keep the following things in mind when venturing out for backcountry trail running:
- Preparation is key: Prepare yourself for the specific demands of your run, taking into consideration the conditions, duration, and location.
- Use the buddy system: When traveling into wilderness or remote areas, take a friend with you.
- Share your route: Let a friend or family member know where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone for. If you drove to the trailhead, you can also leave a note in your car with the same information.
- Be prepared for various weather conditions: Pack extra layers, and if there’s room in your bag, take a survival blanket.
- Have a hydration plan: Humans can live for up to a few weeks without food, but dehydration can come quickly and have devastating consequences. When you plan your route, make a note of fill-up points, and pack some iodine tablets so you can purify water from any source. You can also purchase a UV sterilization wand, which will make any water safe to drink.
- Carry a map and compass: Even if you have a GPS device with you, technology can fail and leave you stranded. Therefore, know how to use a map and compass, and never leave home without them.
As you can see, trail running isn’t as difficult as it may seem, you just have to know your stuff and be prepared.