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Mental Training

In a Training Rut? Psychology Says It’s Time to Find a New Trail.

If you’re feeling unmotivated, chances are changing things up could work wonders.

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As much as this hurts to hear, like any sport or hobby, trail running can become monotonous. For many runners, a passion for hitting the trails will, at times, start to feel like a chore. Luckily, there is a very simple fix that can reignite your passion for trail running during these moments, and that’s the power of the change-up.

“You can definitely get stuck in a rut, just by running the same thing over and over again,” says clinical and sport psychologist Michael Griffith. “I think the part of trail running that gets people so interested in it is going to epic places or trying out different trails.”

Griffith sees this training rut first-hand, as he works directly with many athletes to rekindle their motivation and achieve their athletic goals. 

Repeating the same trails can cause runners to lose interest over time and their performance to lag. Creating new challenges, whether that’s a new part of town or a weekend road trip, improves both physical and emotional wellbeing. You’ll explore new trails while better setting yourself up for upcoming races.

“Our brains adapt to routine,” says Griffth. “By changing things up, you’re exercising that mental muscle. You’re forcing your body and brain to react to new situations and new stimuli. Anytime you put yourself outside your comfort zone, that’s probably a good thing.”

Griffith has worked in psychology for decades, and these premises are not new. Numerous studies like this one from the University of Florida and others shared by the National Institute of Health, show the impact of change on athlete motivation. Essentially, it’s the same drive that brings many of us to trail running in the first place: the rush of exploring somewhere new and the drive to see what comes next.

RELATED: 3 Ways To Crush Your First 100 Miler

Avoid Injury

It’s important to find new trails to continue that drive, not only from a mental level but a physical one, too. Think of trying out a new trail as a form of cross-training that can help reduce your risk of injury. 

“If you’re running the same route, the same way, same direction, day in and day out, your body becomes more prone to injury in those situations,” says Griffith. “I think first, because your body adapts and second, because your brain takes the situation for granted. Challenging your brain to be present and in the moment while you’re running is part of mixing up your course and throwing new stuff your way.”

trail running mental training
(Photo: Armand Khoury/Unsplash)

Prepare for the Unfamiliar

New trails or a different location can also help prepare you for a race in a region where you don’t normally spend time. Think about going from the Rocky Mountains to California’s high desert – two very distinct regions with differing topography, temperatures, humidity, and altitude. Waiting to experience those differences until race day may not be the best way to set you up for success, so a scouting road trip may be a great idea.

“When you’re training for a race, typically you’re going to be running a new course, right? It’s not going to always be your home course that you typically run,” says Griffith. “You want to prepare yourself for this and have the mindset of, I can handle whatever the course is going to throw at me. I’m ready. I’m prepared. I’ve done this. I’ve run a number of different courses. I think it puts you in a good mental mindset when you’re faced with a new race and a new place to run.”

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Locate New Trails

For some runners, a roadblock for changing things up may be a lack of tools, and finding a new trail isn’t always easy. Fortunately, there are a wide range of apps aimed at trail runners, hikers, bikers, and climbers to find new ways of getting outside. GPS apps can show different trails and paths, while some have helpful tools and can even work offline. 

“I know how useful it is both for finding new trails and also for not getting lost,” says Abby Levene, a trail runner and user of the Gaia GPS app. “So I selfishly like trying to show people that this is a useful tool, not just for hiking and backpacking, but also for running. When it comes to finding new trails, it uses open street map data and has a robust collection of trails.” 

trail running mental training
(Photo: Linda Sondergaard/Unsplash)

Levene has used Gaia both near her home in Boulder, Colorado, and while traveling to find new places to run. She says that not only can you see what’s nearby, it can also help you prepare for what you’ll find once you arrive at the trail.

“If I see that mountain biking is allowed on a trail, that’s a good indication it’s going to be a nice flowing, runnable trail,” says Levene. “And conversely, some days I’m just like, I do not want to see a single bike. I don’t want to have to stop and get off the trail. So then on those days, I look for trails where mountain biking isn’t allowed.” 

Safety First

Having a GPS in hand can also help keep you safe in unfamiliar terrain. Last year, officials in national forests and national parks saw record numbers of rescues that in some instances could have been avoided with the help of a mapping system

“That’s where learning how to read a topographic map becomes really useful, once you understand what all of those little squiggly lines mean on the map. Then you can realize, oh, this trail actually has like 4,000 feet of climbing,” says Levene. “And if you don’t know how to read a topo map, no problem. That’s where I start using the planning tool and I’ll look at a trail and I’ll create a route from the bottom to the top to see exactly how much climbing there is.”

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Time to Explore

Avoiding outdoor cliches about taking new paths is hard, but the truth is, sometimes leveling up your training really is as easy as finding a new trail.

“We talk a lot about that cool beginner mindset. That’s a healthy thing for our brains to be in that space as it builds confidence and challenges ourselves by putting ourselves in a novel situation,” says Griffith. “I think that’s a good way to access that positive, growth-oriented beginner mindset that says, ‘yeah, I can do this.’”