When I first switched from road running to trail running, I thought I was going to die. At that time, I couldn’t fathom how people were able to run these gnarly paths (if you can even call them that sometimes). I was used to flat road, where I didn’t have to concern myself with my footing or thinking about where I was at. It was a set a pace and go on autopilot type of mindset. Mind numbing, if you ask me. It took me some time, but I’ve finally become quite comfortable on the trails; they feel at home and warm to me. Trails may not be for everyone, but if you are thinking about giving them a go, here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Pay Attention
This is a must in trail running. You have to think about each and every step you take. These are not the flat roads you are used to. You can and will hurt yourself if you aren’t cognizant of how you are placing your foot. Trails have rocks, holes, roots, dips, boulders, etc. randomly placed about them. You have to aware of where you are going to place your foot, and how it’s going to affect your body and your next move. No trail is the same so you can’t rehearse your footing.
For me, this is the beauty of trail running: you have to constantly be thinking about your next move, and even your next twelve moves. The best advice is to keep your gaze about fifteen feet in front of you. Use this distance to logically think about what your next step is going to be. Once you get better at this, you will start thinking four and five steps ahead. In the initial stages, the slower the pace, the better. Once you have practiced, start throwing some speed in there.
2. Throw pace out the door
In trail running, there is no such thing as pace! As I have said before, no two trails are the same. Your pace on one trail may not be your pace on another. Trails have different levels of difficulty. Hills, trail type, elevation, mother nature, etc. all play into how fast you are able to go. Get used to your pace being all over the place.
When running uphill, take it easy. Power hiking is your friend here. Use your upper body strength to displace weight from your legs to your arms by grabbing your thighs at the top. When you take a step, use your arms and upper body strength to support your upper body, and that will take a lot of weight off your legs, giving them some needed rest.
When running downhill, make up your time! Getting good at running downhill will save you in trail running. Most people want to tense up, and take it slower downhill. The trick is to stay loose and watch where you are stepping. By not tensing up, you are able to react easily to changing trail conditions. This will allow you to go faster and not break your leg(s).
When in doubt, just walk! There is nothing wrong with walking in trail running, especially ultra distances. There are a lot of miles to go, and some walking won’t hurt your time. Get over pace, it doesn’t exist on trails!
3. Slow build up
This is one I struggled with for a few months. Having just come off back to back marathons, I was used to high mileage and long runs. Well that’s great in road, as my cardiovascular system was quite developed and I didn’t have to use a lot strength to get through. On the contrary, trail will take some time get used to. There is a lot more involved. Your legs’ stabilizer muscles are put to the test way more than road. If you have only been running road, be prepared for your ankles to be sore. It took about a month for my body to adapt to running trail.
Likewise, mileage is not the same. Trail requires a lot more out of you, even though you are going slower. You a body is constantly trying to stabilize, and just staying up right is a workout all alone; so running longer distances on trails will take time. Your body needs time to rest and recover, rebuilding all the muscles that have been broken down. Building up slowly, over the course of the 3-4 months will allow you to adjust without injury. Without injury is the most important part here! An extra rest day or two won’t kill you, likewise cutting the distance short won’t either.
4. Look up
This one seems counterintuitive from what I just said before, but seriously look up! I have been surprised so many times by what I was missing because my head was down staring at the trail. There is so much to see out there! Personally, I look at road running as monotony; mind numbing, repetitive scenes of cars, buildings, and streets. But trail running has provided me with breathtaking sights that most people never get to see. I always have a camera or GoPro with me to make sure I can capture these. There is a lot out there that we miss because we are head down in what we are doing, so make sure you take a breather and look around you; you never know what you’ll find!
5. Strength train
Seriously, this is way more important in trail running than road running. Trail running requires you to draw on your muscle strength more than road running. With all the stabilizing and all the elevation change, you need to have developed muscles, in particular core strength. Your body will twist and turn all over the place, and being able stabilize that is important. It’s also important for your hips. My last 50k, I had some hip issues. I’ve never had those issues until then, so I will be working on my core and hips in particular. Another part that you should focus on is your upper body. Your legs and lower body will get plenty of work just from running. So make sure you are getting some workouts in for your upper body. I like to do upper body on rest days so I can rest my legs, while still doing something.
6. Run with others
Running with friends can make 6 hours of being off in the woods fly by! This is the best part of trail running, in my opinion. The community blows me away every day. Running with a group or another person is great! Personally, I find it motivating as it keeps me honest. If we say we are shooting for a 10 mile run, we usually get there. It makes running enjoyable. I personally use this as a time to gain experience. I run with people who have completed tons of races and gone a lot further than I have. Getting to know them and how they came into running has allowed me to grow personally and improve my training than running alone.
Trails have so much to offer. The only requirement to run trails is to be up for an adventure. Experience, technique, and pace will all come in time. You only need to find a trail and keep moving forward. Be smart and be open for adventure because the trails will give you only as much as you are willing to take. Never stop exploring!
Average Joe Trail Runner
About the Author: Alexander Harris
I am the self proclaimed Average Joe of trail running. I am not fast or elite, but I enjoy it passionately. I have my sights set high wanting to run my first 100 miler next year, and completing 4 ultras this year. In my spare time when I am not running, I enjoy photography and am working on bettering my skills to start producing my own running vlogs and documentaries. Feel free to follow my adventures on my blog at averagejoetrailrunner.wordpress.com.