Running is a natural thing. In previous lives we may have done it to hunt, travel, or simply survive, but nowadays we do it to stay fit and have fun. While years of progression and evolution has moved us off the plains and onto the roads, there still remains a certain “je ne sais quoi” when it comes to trail running. Additionally, hitting the trails more frequently will benefit your running, fitness, and overall well-being.
Before jumping into a new trail or trail running in general, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to stay safe, and have fun. Even the most experienced trail runners can encounter issues on new or unpredictable terrain so there are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind when leaving the roads. Stay connected as much as possible by carrying a cellphone, identification, a whistle, or depending on the location, a map or compass. When running alone it is a good idea to inform someone of your planned route and intended timeline in order to ensure someone is aware of your whereabouts. Focus on time instead of distance because off-road conditions can slow your average kilometer by as much as double, run for a pre-set amount of time. For example, if you run 5km and average around 30 minutes on a regular basis, aim to run 30-35 minutes on the trail. Added difficulty in footing and terrain not only slows times but also uses a great deal more energy than road running so proper fueling is of utmost importance. Stay fueled, hydrated, and prepared to spend longer than anticipated in the woods. It is important to carry water and food, even on short runs, in case of injury, loss of direction, or any unforeseen circumstances. As the old adage goes, it’s better to have, and not need, than to not have at all. The easiest food items to pack for a run include energy gels, bananas/fruit, granola bars, or candies. These items are small and easy to pack, they offer sugars and carbohydrates to keep you fueled and focused, and they may end up saving your life. Water is essential. It’s never a bad idea (especially when going for a longer run) to carry more than one bottle; one with water and another with a sports drink (Nuun, Gatorade, fruit juice, GU) for added sugars and carbs. Small running backpacks or “camel-backs” are ideal for packing water and food while still lightweight and runnable. It is important to be prepared BUT you don’t need to pack enough to survive for a week when going for a 5k or 30 minute run. Use your best judgment to assess your needs in regards to your planned route and possible W.C.S (worst case scenario).
Being prepared is the best way to avoid accidents and injuries but some things are out of our control. As much as we’d like to, we cannot control the weather, although most serious runners will go out in almost any conditions, being aware of the weather is of vital importance. Because trails are seldom cleaned or groomed, inclement weather can wash out paths, worsen footing, blur trails, or down trees. Opting for the roads is a good way to err on the side of caution during bad weather. Proper clothing and footwear choices can also make the difference between a great run and a soggy or cold trudge. Trail running shoes are a great investment if you are looking to add more miles in the trails or snow. Where trail and road shoes differ is in the sole and the tread. The traditional trail shoe has a wider base (for a more stable ride in unstable terrain), deeper and softer treads or “lugs” (that offer more traction than flat road shoes), a rock guard plate (a plastic plate forged into the sole of the shoe to protect from rocks and twigs), and certain models have a Gortex (waterproof) upper. Having waterproof shoes (and socks) can make a world of difference in cold or wet weather, but not necessarily a “must”. In regards to the rest of the running ensemble, simply dress for the weather and personal comfort.
Training your feet to run on the trails is a process that needs to be practiced. By taking quicker, shorter strides you can react faster to running through roots and rocks. As opposed to road running, you need to focus on your foot placement instead of getting into a patter or routine. When on the trails, you have to plan your line (or steps) to avoid or utilize roots, rocks, and keep your pace. There is no pattern or routine to be had on the trails, you must adapt and react to every step. The best way to acclimatize yourself is to start on basic trails and work your way up to more technical or advanced paths.
Keep these handy tips in mind and expand your horizons by adding more trails to your running routine. Rekindle your relationship with nature and challenge yourself by keeping the body guessing. Stay safe, get fit, have fun, grab your running buddy, and get lost!