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Trail Tips

Transitioning to Trail

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Busting five myths for road runners making the leap

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Anna Frost cruising on smooth trail outside of Salt lake City, Utah. Photo by Kevin Winzeler.

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue. Want more? Subscribe to Trail Runner.

For road runners or even hikers, trail running represents the next frontier, with a whole new host of rewards. It allows you to see the best that nature has to offer—up close and human-powered. And, compared to hiking, trail runners can experience in a single run what would otherwise take several days.

But with these rewards come equally powerful challenges. Beautiful trails are often paired with severe conditions—rugged terrain, wicked-high elevation and extreme weather. As such, many budding trail runners are timid at first. And seasoned road runners worry that it’s not “real” running. But never fear—what follows are some common misconceptions, debunked, about transitioning to trail adventure.

1. Myth: “I need expensive, specialized gear to start out trail running.”

When I ran my first bona-fide trail adventure—on the Pacific Crest Trail through the Three Sisters Wilderness in 2001—my only gear was the clothing on my back, an energy bar and a water bottle stashed in a fanny pack. Yet it was plenty sufficient to get me out to enjoy the Central Oregon wilderness.

Since then, even the demands of competitive trail racing, culminating in my first 100-mile trail race at Western States in 2011, required acquiring only a bit more high-performance gear and fuel, such as a hydration pack, quality apparel and some gels and electrolyte capsules. That simplicity is the beauty of our sport.

Take-Home Message:

Don’t let the gear junkies keep you off the trails. Start small, keep your runs short and keep it simple: wicking clothes and solid trail shoes, a water bottle and calories—of any kind—are all you need. Once you accumulate trail miles and experience, you will learn what items to purchase or upgrade.

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Calculating your trail pace requires a new equation. Photo by Kevin Winzeler.

2. Myth: “If I train on trails, I’ll lose all my hard-won road speed.”

As a former road and track runner, I too was enthralled by the numbers: distance, pace-per-mile and personal bests from mile to marathon. But when I first ambled onto the trails, seeing GPS readouts of double-digit mile splits had me wondering.

Yet trail miles, with their often hilly terrain, elevation and rough footing, require a whole new “exchange rate.” Remember, the hard work is the same, whether it is flat and fast, or rugged and strong.

Former road or track stars who have accepted a relative slow-down on the trails have been richly rewarded: 2014 Western States, Leadville Trail and Run Rabbit Run 100-mile winner Rob Krar brings a mid-distance track speed to the trails. Before him, Sage Canaday (2:16 marathon) and Max King (2:14 marathon) have both raced at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon—while actively training and racing on the trail. Canaday and King are first to admit that, while they still crave the road speed, it is the trails that keep them healthy and strong—avoiding repetitive road pounding, developing hip and core strength—and invigorated in spirit.

Says Canaday: “It’s mentally and physically refreshing. By racing a wide variety of distances on different surfaces I keep my body constantly adapting and finding new ways to expand my thresholds for overall strength and speed.”

In fact, not only are the trails enjoyable, Canaday believes they make him a better marathoner: “The strength from running ‘over-distance’ beyond 26.2 seems to really help with my last 10 kilometers in the marathon. I’m more dialed into my nutrition and hydration during marathons because of my ultramarathon experiences.”

Both runners intend to collect U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying times for 2016—Canaday is shooting for a sub-2:18 B-Standard at the Houston Marathon in January— and if their trail results are any indicator, they will fare well against their orthodox road competitors.

Take-Home Message:

Road runners wishing to experience the adventure and splendor of the trail need not worry about a loss of speed. Challenging trail adventures provide excellent cross training, strengthening and a refreshing mental boost.

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It’s all about pacing … and don’t be afraid to hike. Jared Campbell dialing it back a notch on a steep section of trail in the Colorado high country. Photo by Fredrik Marmsater

3. Myth: “Running mountain trails—up steep hills at altitude or rugged, slick downhills—is too hardcore.”

A common preconception among road-turned-trail runners is that rough trails require super-human strength. However, it’s simply a matter of tactics—at a certain threshold of terrain, footing, pitch and altitude, running becomes less efficient than power hiking. A form of whole-body, core- and hip-dominant walking that can be as fast or faster than uphill run shuffling, power hiking includes an aggressive forward trunk lean coupled with a powerful hip extension beneath. Often, this is complemented by a hands-on-thighs push, where the arms help drive the legs up steep grades.

Lastly, power hiking can also provide the muscles a much-needed break from running, helping to keep the legs fresher in the late-stages of a long run or race.

Rugged, slick or scree-filled downhills can be daunting for a new trail runner, too. It is not uncommon to tip-toe or walk slower down a hill than up. With time and practice, downhill running improves. The world’s best downhill trail runners—including the otherworldly Kilian Jornet—compare a skillful mountain descent to a dance: a fast-footed fandango that, when mastered, can be more invigorating than any other run.

Take-Home Message:

Practice makes perfect. Be patient on uphill climbs, working on strong power hiking, and, when running, taking shorter, quicker steps. On the flip-side, ease into technical downhill running—mud, scree, rock, root and snow—and remember to look ahead. Soon you’ll have earned those dancing shoes.

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Nutrition needs on short runs are minimal, but become more critical once you go over a couple of hours. Photo by Kevin Winzeler.

4. Myth: “To complete a long trail run or race, I need just a water bottle and a few gels.”

When tackling multi-hour trail outings, our simple sport gets more complicated in terms of the fuel required. The wrong—or the lack of—food, drink or supplement can be the difference between success and failure, and enjoyment and misery. The goal is to avoid the dreaded “bonk:” the brain-and-body crash that results from a lack of fuel.

Distance trail races feature aid stations, which may supply most of your nutritional needs (research any race beforehand to determine what exactly what will be offered and how frequently, i.e. the distance between each aid station). Backcountry runs, on the other hand, are more committing and require you to carry all your fuel. So experiment on shorter-length runs to find out what types of fuel work best for you.

Take-Home Message:

Talk to other runners and research your proposed race or adventure route. For races, if the aid stations don’t offer foods that you’ve used in training, carry your own nutrition. A race is not a place to try anything new.

For backcountry runs, determine how long you think it will take, and err on the conservative/long side. Remember, you may only cover two or three miles per hour in rugged terrain. Short-distance runs under two hours in cool conditions might be runnable with no fueling, while hot, multi-hour adventures might require several liters of water and several hundred calories.

The key is to eat and drink frequently, typically in the range of 16 ounces of liquid and a couple hundred calories per hour (or more, if running in hot conditions). If you run low on water or calories, simply slow down, which will help your body conserve water and tap into its fat stores for fuel. Even the leanest runners have days of fat stores to keep them going.

If you’re running a trail race and hit the wall, slow down and spend extra time at the next aid station, eating, drinking and, if needed, taking a salt pill. If it tastes good, eat it.

5. Myth: “I’ll be back at the trailhead in a few hours, so I can leave the ‘10 essentials’ at home.”

As your experience and ability develop, you may go for longer, more remote adventures, which can quickly turn dangerous. For example, you can become lost, sprain an ankle or get pounded by a storm. So you need the right gear and backcountry know-how to survive the unexpected.

Case in point: Grand Canyon National Park has seen a surge of runners completing the epic “Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim”—a 44-mile double traverse that includes over 10,000 feet of gain and loss—with an increasing number of search-and-rescue calls from distressed runners, many of whom are ill-prepared for the distance, elevation change and heat.

Take-Home Message:

Be prepared for the specific demands of your trail adventure, which will depend upon location, duration and conditions.

Run with others: Avoid traveling into remote or wilderness areas alone.

Share your route: Notify a family member or friend where you are going and for approximately how long. Also, leave a note to the same effect in your vehicle at the trailhead.

Be prepared for any weather conditions: Wear or pack an extra layer, and consider bringing a small survival blanket.

Have a plan for drinking water: While you can live a long time without food or salt, water is essential. Plan your route to include water fill-up points. New technology such as UV sterilization wands can make the dankest water safe to drink. Or kick it old school and pack a few iodine tablets.

Bring a map and compass (and the knowledge to use them): Both are vital, especially when venturing into unknown terrain. Veteran ultrarunner Nick Clark—with dozens of 100-mile trail races to his credit—and I turned an 18-mile run into a nine-hour day when we got lost in Rocky Mountain National Park—Clark’s backyard. While we had a map, the lack of a compass resulted in several hours of dense forest bushwhacking before we fortuitously found the trail.