So You Want to be a Trail Runner

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Six tips to get you hooked on off-road running

My first trail run, along the Mesa Trail in Boulder, Colorado’s Chataqua Park, was not what …


Photo by Joe Bloggs

My first trail run, along the Mesa Trail in Boulder, Colorado’s Chautauqua Park, was not what you would call poetry in motion. Donning bright yellow track shoes, I tore out, quickly rolled an ankle and limped home. I solicited advice from a trail-running friend, who, after a good laugh over my flimsy ribbon-paper shoes, furnished me with a simple gear list and said, “Listen to your body, eat right and run safely.”

The following six tips will help make your first trail runs successful.  As you feel more adventurous and your runs become longer and more challenging, quiz experienced trail comrades and learn from your mistakes.

Appreciate The Trail Advantage
Trail runners, preferring the rush of a swift river or the hush of mountain moonlight to the honk and roar of traffic, are attracted to off-road routes’ natural settings. Not only mentally refreshing and de-stressing, trails are less physically punishing than their concrete counterparts.

“Trails are easier on the body, not just because dirt is softer than pavement, but on uneven terrain every step is different, requiring you to use stabilizing muscles in the lower legs and hips,” explains Denver, Colorado-based trail-running coach Adam Feerst. “In a flat road marathon you repeat the same muscle movement and stress the same ligaments over and over.”

To survive rough trails, learn to slow down or walk over especially technical or steep sections, not only to avoid tripping but also to allow muscles to recover and keep you moving efficiently.

Gear Up
Talk to a local running-shop expert about shoes most suitable for local trails, which fit best and offer the right combination of cushioning and stability (see also Trail Runner’s fall and spring shoe reviews, October and June issues). Trail-specific shoes are generally beefier than road models, with knobby treads for better traction on dirt, mud and rock and reinforced uppers. For maximum protection, some models come with waterproof-breathable uppers and durable toe rands.

Trail running attire should match the weather conditions, climate and season.  Sunny conditions call for light-colored, moisture-wicking running gear (lighter colors reflect heat while darker colors absorb it).

Essential in cold conditions, layering is the art of staying dry and warm without overheating.  Use a three-tiered layering system including base, mid and outer layers designed to draw moisture away from your skin while keeping you warm. As you heat up, remove outer layers, cap, hat, gloves or unzip tops to allow better airflow.  On all but the coldest days, one moisture-wicking, windproof layer will suffice for the lower body.

Expect to encounter muddy trail sections, stream crossings and rough ground that can lead to any number of foot ailments. Blisters, caused by friction on the skin, can be a trail runner’s biggest handicap. Either place a blister pad such as Blist-O-Ban or Spenco’s Second Skin on known problem areas before you go or carry spare bandages in your hip pack.

Padded trail-running socks cushion your feet and ankle gaiters keep your shoes pebble- and mud-free. If your feet get soaked from crossing streams or bogs, you may be more susceptible to blisters and soggy shoes will feel heavy.

Stay Safe
Familiarize yourself with new trail with maps or guidebooks found at outdoor-gear, running or mountain-bike shops. We feature numerous trails and trail running destinations on our website.

To avoid getting lost, pay attention to trail junctions and landmarks, and learn how to use a map and compass. Though it’s wise to carry a cell phone, keep in mind there may be no network coverage outside town limits. Staying on the marked trails and making a mental note of your route (glancing behind you frequently is helpful) is the surest way to find your back to the trailhead.

Inform a family member or friend of your intended route and return time, or write this information down in the trailhead logbook or in a note left on your car.

Fuel up
Every trail runner has unique nutritional needs based on body type, individual preferences, food sensitivities and training regimen but all trail runners need to monitor their hydration level. Always carry more water than you anticipate needing in case you are out longer than expected. On trails far from convenient, sanitary water stops, use a portable water-purifying system such as a hand-pump filter, iodine and chlorine tablets or ultraviolet light.

A key part of proper hydration is consuming sufficient amounts of electrolytes, the essential minerals that regulate water retention, blood pH and muscle function. Consuming electrolyte-containing drinks, gels or tablets is critical when running for more than an hour. When out for a long haul, combine electrolyte-balancing water with easily-digestible, calorie-rich foods such as energy gels, bars, bananas, dried fruit or crackers.

Share the Trail
Chances are you won’t be alone out there. Be aware of animals in your area—know what do if you encounter a mountain lion (cougar), bear, moose, poisonous snakes or other dangerous wildlife.  Pay attention to your route, and keep your gaze several paces in front of you, watching for roots, loose rocks or other hazards.

Be aware of other trail users, yielding the trail to downhill mountain bikers and runners and keeping your dog on a leash. To avoid startling hikers and riders on horseback, call out when approaching them from behind.

Take Training Off-Road
Trail runners often require more recovery between workouts because they recruit more muscles to stabilize the body while moving over uneven terrain. Perform core-strengthening exercises on a ball, focusing on abdominal and hip stabilizers to help develop connector tissue while giving your joints a rest from the impact of running. Between hard, hilly trail runs, include several flat, short, easy trails for active muscular recovery.

Running pace does not generally translate well from the roads to the trails.  Five miles at seven minutes per mile pace may feel easy and comfortable on the road, but the same distance on trails may take twice as long. Given the varied terrain and rolling topography of most trails, gauge your workout on a basis of time instead of pace. Heart-rate readings will also tend to fluctuate more dramatically on the trails as you travel over varied ground. As your trail running advances, add distance and intensity gradually to avoid injuries and burnout.

Join a running camp, running clinic or ask your local running shop about group runs or upcoming trail races in your area. Preparing for a race can keep you motivated in training and give you a great sense of achievement when you cross the finish line.

Trail running gear to get you going

The Basics:

  • Trail-specific running shoes
  • Padded trail-running socks
  • Moisture-wicking shorts or tights
  • Moisture-wicking shirt and lightweight jacket
  • Non-chafing wicking underwear
  • Hat with visor (mesh or waterproof)
  • Sunglasses
  • Watch with chronometer (optional: altimeter)
  • Sunscreen

Condition-specific gear:

  • Water, sports drink, energy gel (runs over 5 miles or 1 hour)
  • Hydration system (waist or hand-held bottle carrier or bladder and hose)
  • Wrist computer (with heart-rate monitor, etc)
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Waterproof/breathable clothing
  • Gaiters
  • Ear warmers, hat, gloves

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