Many more runners hit the pavement, beach, track or treadmill than the trail, and yet trail running is increasing in popularity, with more than 6 million trail runners in the United States alone in 2012, the most recent year for records. Trail running is somewhat limited by one’s nearby scenery, as it typically takes place on hiking trails, often located in the mountains. Runners appreciate the softer terrain, the gorgeous landscape and the connection with nature.
The American Trail Running Association (ATRA) was founded in 1996, and the International Trail Running Association began in 2013, and trail races take place around the world, with distances ranging broadly – from 5K to 161K (100 miles). Many races are one single stage, but others are multiday events.
Ever considered trail running? It could be a welcome change for your body and mind, providing new inspiration, different challenges and valuable results.
Benefits of Trail Running
Runner’s World identifies the benefits of trail running as physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. What could be better, right?
- Physical – Trails remove much of the damaging impact of pavement, resulting in less stress on the back, hips, knees and ankles. Reduced impact stress can decrease fatigue and corresponding compromises in form. And a more forgiving surface lowers the risk of common overuse injuries, such as shin splints, knee pain and iliotibial band syndrome.
- Mental, emotional and spiritual – Trail running provides a welcome escape from the daily stresses of life and 24/7/365 connectivity. Your mind can focus on the task at hand or wander to enjoy some valuable thinking time, for problem solving and enhanced creativity. You can pray or meditate without interruption. The fresh air and beautiful surroundings can do wonders for your emotions, and being in the mountains can invite a spiritual connection, inspire awe and bring a fresh perspective.
All runners know that running provides multiple benefits, no matter where you do it. But trail running is special because the setting is less utilitarian and enhances the overall experience.
Preparing for Trail Running
Trail running requires a bit more forethought than simply stepping outside your front door to hit the road. First, ensure that you have the proper gear:
- Shoes – Trail running shoes typically have harder, knobby soles with less cushioning since they are designed to be used on softer surfaces like dirt and grass. The midsole can have a nylon plastic layer to protect the feet from rocks or other sharp objects. Crampons can be attached to the bottom of the shoes for snow and ice.
- Hydration pack – Carrying your own water via a hydration bladder in a backpack or waistpack is essential.
- Clothes – Trail runs often involve a change in altitude, so wicking garments can keep you comfortable, and dressing in lightweight layers enables you to adjust to temperature fluctuations. Lightweight pants or tights, along with long sleeves, can help prevent scratches from bushes and thorns, along with bug bites. Clothing with reflective panels also is recommended so that you are visible at dawn and dusk.
- Sunglasses – The sun is strong at high altitudes, so protection is important.
Plus, you don’t want to get hit in the eye with a drooping branch or bugs.
- GPS watch – While you definitely should not get hung up on split times on trail runs, a GPS watch can help you navigate the trail and provide other valuable data.
- Extras – Sunscreen, insect repellant and poison ivy block may sound like a hassle but ultimately save you from discomfort later. You may need a waistpack or trail belt for these items, along with gels, car keys, a cell phone and a trail map. When you’re on trails where you may not see many people, being prepared can keep you safe.
To find local trails, ask a local trail running club or specialty running store for recommendations. Research options through the ATRA, Trail Running and Runner’s World magazines and online, like at Active.com, which has a local guide.
If you like to race, Active.com and many other sites have lists of the top trail races for beginners, including Mud & Muck 5K in Unity Village, Mo; Maryland Trail Running Festival in Germantown, Md.; Summer Blast in Redmond, Wash.; Connecticut Forest and Park Association Run for the Woods in Burlington, Conn.; and the Louisville Half, 10K and 5K in Louisville, Colo., among others.
Trail Running Tips
Because trail running is different than your typical cruise through your neighborhood, consider the following recommendations:
- Plan ahead – Research the trail that you are running on and carry a map. Check in at a ranger station if possible, and let someone know where you will be and what time you plan to return.
- Gear up – Wear the proper shoes, apply sunscreen and carry water and your phone. Bring gel or food in case you end up being out longer than anticipated.
- Start slowly – Trails are different than pavement or treadmills, so don’t plan a long uphill run your first time out, or you may be discouraged. Try to begin with a flat course and limit your run to 15-30 minutes so your body can acclimate.
- Progress gradually – After your first few trail runs, you can increase your time or distance by about 10 percent each week. Any more than this increases your risk of injury or overuse, so fight the urge to hit it hard and fast.
- Keep your eyes on the trail – This may seem obvious, but don’t get so lost in the scenery, your music or your mind that you neglect to look down and watch for obstacles, direction changes, elevation and more.
- Focus on overall time – Unless the trail is pre-measured, you may not know the exact distance covered. Furthermore, your pace typically is slower on a trail due to uneven terrain, hills, turns and unfamiliarity with the path. Don’t worry about setting a PR; just concentrate on your overall time running.
- Be smart on the hills – Take short, quick strides on the uphills to conserve your energy. On the downhills, maintain high cadence, and fast, short footfalls.
- Don’t run to fatigue – Many trail runs are out-and-back, so don’t go so far out that you can’t manage to get back. Also, when you fatigue, your form is compromised and you’re more likely to trip or get injured.
- Bring a buddy – Trail runs in solitude can be blissful, but running with someone else once in a while adds variety and increases safety. Cell phone service in some remote areas is spotty, so a partner can help in case a problem arises.
- Cross train – If you want to be a better runner – and trail runner – work on strength, agility and balance with strength training, plyometrics and yoga and Pilates – all of which can help your form, stability and reaction time, particularly when navigating challenging terrain.
- Remember to recover – Because of the greater demands of trail running, make sure you stretch afterwards, use a foam roller or massage tool and try an ice bath for 10 minutes to reduce inflammation. Don’t neglect this step, as the better you recover, the better you will feel and perform on your next run.