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Running has long been heralded for its simplicity as a sport.
Rather than relying on external equipment, running uses your body as your means of propulsion. Your feet are your wheels. Many people enjoy running for this very reason—because it is such a humble, accessible pursuit.
Unlike its outdoor counterparts such as mountain biking, skiing, climbing or kayaking, trail running requires no great investment in gear to get started. Sure, certain equipment can enable you to run farther, faster, more comfortably or more safely. But, when it comes down to it, chances are good that you can head out the door right now in whatever you’re wearing and begin running, even if only for a short jaunt.
That said, the longer the distances you tackle, or the more extreme terrain you venture into, the more you may benefit from additions to your gear arsenal. Many trail runners still eventually manage to become “gear geeks,” obsessed with improving their trail runs with the latest and greatest in shoes, apparel, hydration packs and more. However, there’s no need to overwhelm yourself at first.
Although the necessity of shoes for running trails has been contested by a few diehard barefoot runners, here’s the reality: for most of us, our shoes will be the most important piece of gear we need to run trails.
Unless you’re running on very flat, dry, non-technical trails, avoid the temptation to wear your road-running shoes. Trail-running shoes offer features that road-running shoes lack, including:
• Knobby tread (called “lugs”) to give you traction on muddy or technical terrain;
• Rock plate to prevent bruising underfoot if you land on rocks and roots;
• Lateral support to help prevent you from rolling your ankle on uneven ground;
• Tightly woven mesh uppers to help keep dirt and debris out;
• Toe bumper to protect against stubbed toes on trail obstacles;
• Waterproof or water-resistant membrane to help keep your feet dry on wet or muddy trails (be aware that such membranes reduce the breathability of a shoe, so may not always be a boon if your feet run warm).
Maximalist vs. Minimalist
You may hear these two terms, which represent two different camps of belief about the kinds of shoes that promote the best running performance. Both camps offer some key differences from “traditional” trail-running shoes, which are often on the heavy side, with medium stack height and high heel-to-toe drop.
Minimalist shoes typically feature light weight, low stack height and minimal heel-to-toe drop for an agile, “close-to-ground” feel that more closely mimics natural, barefoot running motion. They often eschew protective features like rock plates in favor of weight savings and proprioception (the body’s ability to sense and orient itself among external stimuli).
Maximalist shoes typically feature greater stack height for a plush ride that can feel like running on marshmallows. Like minimalist shoes, though, many (but not all) still feature low heel-to-toe drop.
Deciding which shoe is right for you, or for a particular kind of terrain or distance, is largely a matter of trial and error. Try as many different kinds of shoes as you can. Over time, you’ll learn which ones work best for you for different kinds of terrain, speeds and distances.
Stability vs. Neutral vs. Motion Control: How Trail-Running Shoes Handle Pronation
If you come from a road-running background or have ever had your gait analyzed at a specialty running shop, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “pronation”—a natural inward roll of the foot as you take a step. Because too much or too little pronation can result in injury when pounding pavement, many road-running shoes are designed to control for over- or underpronation.
The three main categories of road-running shoes include: stability, for runners who overpronate; neutral cushioned, for runners who underpronate or “supinate”; and motion control, for those who severely overpronate. Stability and motion-control shoes feature a “medial post”—a firm piece of foam under the arch to prevent it from collapsing too far on impact.
Trail-running shoes, however, rarely use these same categorizations. The majority of trail shoes do not have a special medial post. This is in part because most trail shoes are inherently less soft and more stable than road shoes, thanks to stiffer midsole materials and, in some cases, torsional rock plates. Because trails are a more forgiving surface than asphalt, they also offer some natural protection against the injuries that over- or underpronating runners may otherwise face when pounding pavement.
If you absolutely swear by stability or motion-control shoes on the road, though, you can still look for a stability trail shoe (keeping in mind that they are rare), or just swap out the insoles for a supportive orthotic. Otherwise, don’t worry about such categorizations and pay attention to more trail-relevant factors—such as tread—when choosing a trail shoe.
In Praise of Brick-and-Mortar Shops
The Internet makes it easier than ever to purchase gear. However, especially when first getting into trail running, consider heading to your local specialty-run or outdoor shop.
These stores are filled with knowledgeable, passionate staff to help you find the best gear tailored to your specific needs. Such people can often also make trail recommendations or offer training advice. Some stores may offer group trail runs, film screenings or other community events, which can help you connect with other local trail runners.
DRESS FOR THE TRAILS
Comfortable exercise clothing can make or break your run. Experiment with different options in different conditions and seeing what works best for your body.
Here are a few factors to keep in mind when evaluating your options:
• Temperature: Of course you want to dress warmly enough for the weather that you’re never shivering, but also beware overdressing; running generates a great deal of body heat. This can cause your baselayers to get excessively sweaty—a recipe for discomfort. On the flipside, in extreme heat, opt for ultralight, airy clothing to keep you cool.
• Climate: The more humid the climate, the more important it is to wear moisture-wicking materials.
• Weather: Check the weather forecast before you venture out and dress accordingly. Will you need rain, snow, sun and/or wind protection? A brimmed cap can be great for keeping sun or rain out of your eyes.
• Fabric: Synthetic materials like nylon or polyester offer excellent lightweight performance and moisture management. The downside is that they get stinky quickly, so if this is a concern for you, try a natural fiber such as merino wool. Wool does not readily hold odors, while still offering decent moisture management.
• Chafing: This can be a big concern for many runners, especially if you sweat a lot. Experiment liberally in training and observe the old adage, “Never try (or wear) something new on race day.” For some runners, tights or compression shorts with miniature silicone grippers (similar to cycling shorts) can be the ticket to chafe-free bliss.
• Visibility: This is less of a concern on the trails than on the roads, since you’re unlikely to be anywhere near vehicles. However, if you plan to run to and from your local trail system (rather than driving to a trailhead), especially at dawn, dusk or dark, wear reflective items to help drivers see you.
* Women: Check out WOMEN chapter for advice on finding a good sports bra.
Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant Outerwear
Lightweight, weather-resistant shells are well worth the investment if you plan to run in inclement weather. Some jackets and pants offer fully waterproof protection, whereas others offer mere water resistance. Which is best for your needs?
Choose water-resistant if you primarily need wind protection and an emergency shield against light rain or a short, fast-moving storm, or if you’ll only need it for short, highly aerobic bursts.
Choose fully waterproof if you’ll be in very heavy rain and/or spending many hours in the elements, especially if moving at a slower pace. Be aware that such apparel is slightly heavier, bulkier and less breathable than its water-resistant counterparts.
Is Cotton Rotten?
The old adages “cotton is rotten” and “cotton kills” refer to the fact that cotton holds on to moisture—so, if you sweat heavily in a cotton shirt, it will tend to stay wet, heavy and often cold. In wet, cool weather, this can lead to chills or even hypothermia.
However, there is one environment in which cotton can be beneficial: in extreme dry heat. In the desert, wearing a cotton shirt (or cap) that’s been soaked in water can help keep your body cool.
CHOOSING A HYDRATION SYSTEM
If you plan to run for longer than an hour, you’ll want to carry water with you to stay hydrated. Back in the day, before companies made special bottles and packs to help with this, some trail runners used old maple-syrup bottles; the built-in handles made them easy to carry while running! Today, more sophisticated options abound.
Handheld bottles—typically designed with straps to keep them attached to your hands—are perfect for shorter runs or races where you’ll want easy access for refills at aid stations. For longer runs, or if you prefer to have your hands free (or available for, say, trekking poles), look for hydration packs or vests designed specifically for running.
Such vests generally feature either a water reservoir on your back or bottles that sit along the fronts of the shoulder straps. While some are one-size-fits-all, others offer specific sizing to accommodate your body type. The best thing you can do is try one on—ideally, loaded with water and gear—and jog around to see how it feels. Look for one with minimal “bounce” as you run, and that keeps key gear and snacks easily accessible on the go.
The advantages of a pack with a reservoir (also called a bladder) are a generally larger capacity for water—most are 1.5 to 2.5 liters—and easy drink-tube access. The advantage of a pack with front bottles (typically two half-liter bottles) is quicker access to refill your water at aid stations, water fountains or when filtering from nature. Another boon is the ability to put water in one bottle and an electrolyte beverage in the other.