Whether you’re stuck in a running rut, sick of the same old routes or simply in between training cycles and not sure quite what to do with yourself, it may be time to trade in that treadmill, take a break from the roads and head for the hills. Trust me: There’s nothing quite like a trail run to challenge your body, calm your mind and recharge your spirit.
As someone who had been running, training (and getting injured) on roads for years before discovering the trails, I know that there’s a period of adjustment before truly feeling comfortable on new terrain. But it’s well worth the time and effort — not only will you reap the benefits of fresh air and fantastic scenery, but you’ll also satisfy a primal need to connect with nature.
So here’s what to know as you venture off the beaten path:
1. Get the right gear. At minimum, invest in a pair of trail shoes. Not only do they have a lower profile to reduce the chance of ankle rolls, but they’ve also got a rugged tread to offer better traction when wet conditions make for slick footing.
2. Figure out fueling. Depending on the distance, most races will have several aid stations. But since you burn an estimated 10 percent more calories on the trails versus the road, I usually play it safe and carry a little food with me, just in case.
3. Stay hydrated. Your performance is impaired when you’re dehydrated by as little as two percent of your body weight. Again, even if there are aid stations on the course, I wear a backpack for longer distances or carry a hand-held water bottle for races lasting less than and hour.
4. On your mark, get set… Forget about waiting for the gun to go off at trail races; these events are much more mellow than your usual road-based affairs. So around start time, be sure to listen up because somebody will usually provide a quick countdown or simply say “go.”
5. Mind your manners. Don’t worry about elbowing, cutting people off or jockeying for position; trail runners are typically a polite, orderly bunch. Just stay on the right side of the path where you can to allow faster runners to pass, particularly if you notice a line forming behind you.
6. It’s all about balance. When you’re running on more technical trails with roots and rocks, it helps to keep your arms a little wider for balance. And prep your body in advance by adding some strength and balance exercises into your weekly workout regimen to develop strength and stability.
7. Focus on form. If you’re used to zoning out on road runs, remember that trails will require you to be more conscious about where you’re stepping. Run relaxed, keep your hips and shoulders in alignment, and scan a few yards ahead of you on the trail to watch for potential obstacles.
8. Forget about time. Sure, you can have a general goal in mind, but don’t try to use your road racing pace as reference because it won’t translate. Between elevation changes and navigating over difficult terrain
9. Leave no trace. Unlike road races where volunteers are positioned at aid stations to sweep up cups, you’ll be running on quiet trails, so be prepared to leave with what you bring in. This is another reason you’ll want that hand-held water bottle or hydration pack to help you tote it out.
10. Remember, it’s only a hill… Get over it! Take short, quick steps when going up, and use your arms. There’s also no shame in walking up bigger inclines; many ultrarunners use this strategy and then run the downhills and flats. As long as you’re moving forward, you’re doing it correctly.
Most importantly, have fun and stay safe — but be prepared to get hooked!