Seven tips for the newbie trail runner

Living in Boulder, Colorado, it’s almost a crime to solely be a road runner. There are numerous trails just minutes from my house, from the iconic Mesa Trail to the historic Rattlesnake Gulch Trail. There are also trail races happening with almost as much frequency — I’m talking weekly — as road races.

While I’m forever a fan of hiking, it takes time — something I don’t have a lot of during the week. However, once I transitioned a few runs to the trails, I realized I could get all the beauty of hiking with a bit less time, albeit a lot more effort.

It’s a different experience to run on trails instead of asphalt because it quiets the mind after a day at the office in ways that the road can’t. Additionally, it’s a wonderful way to explore my backyard and let my adventurous spirit roam free.

This half-marathon training season, I’ve decided to push myself into trail running. While it’s been an exciting experience so far, I’ve already learned a few tips that every newbie trail runner should know before venturing outside. If you just started trail running, or are thinking of incorporating it into your running routine, check out these tips so you’re always as prepared as you can be!

1. Start easy. 

No matter how fit you think you are, trail running will kick your butt the first few times. From the rocky terrain to steep ascents and descents, it’s a different beast altogether than road running is. To save yourself from humiliation, exhaustion and injuries, start on trails that are rated easy and have minimal elevation gains (around 500 feet max).

REI’s Trail Run Project, AllTrails and ProTrails are wonderful resources to use when planning where to go. Not only do they rate trails as easy, moderate or difficult, they give you elevation gains, detailed information on terrain, directions to trailheads, and photos and reviews from others who’ve been on the trails before. Need more inspiration for where to start trail running? Check out the trails Runner’s World recommends, but be sure to work your way up to the more difficult ones!

2. Expect your pace to slow down.

When you have to jump over rocks, navigate streams, make your way up endless switchbacks and traverse craggy, jagged hills, your pace is going to decrease. I typically run an 8- to 8:30-minute mile, but on the trails I can average anywhere from a 13- to 15-minute mile. If you try to push yourself to hit your road pace, you’ll run out of the energy you need to climb your way up the trails and lose focus on the technical terrain. Be okay slowing down — expect it — and allow running to do what it does best: humble you.

Worried you’ll get back to the trailhead feeling like the slowest runner you know? Ditch the watch or phone and just run based on effort. Focus on the beautiful scenery and the euphoric experience. Only focus on pace after you’ve been trail running for a few weeks or months, or when you train for a trail race. Until then, make having fun your most important goal.

3. Run based on time, not distance.

A 5-mile run on trails is not the same as one on roads — it could take anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes longer to run that distance on trails. Instead of aiming to run a certain distance on trails, run for an allotted amount of time. How do you do this correctly? Say you’re swapping out an easy 5-mile run for a trail run. If your easy run pace is 10 minutes, it would take you 50 minutes to run five miles on the road. Now what’s your trail pace? If it’s 13:30 minutes, you would only run for a max of 4 miles on the trails since that would get you around 54 minutes of run time.

Ultimately, every mile is different so even if you run for less time than you would’ve on the road, that’s okay. With the varied terrain and all the ascents and descents, your legs are getting a more intense workout than they would be on the roads. It’s better to do less and stay injury and exhaustion free!

4. Take walking breaks. 

Sometimes I’ll be running up a hill and I just don’t know how I’m going to make it. This is when I walk — to that big pine tree, the weirdly shaped boulder or to the couple hiking up ahead. Walking breaks are perfectly reasonable when trail running, even if you never take them when road running. Walking breaks give you the energy to finish your run, and they’re also the perfect opportunity to snap a photo of your gorgeous surroundings.

Adopt the fartlek method when running on the trails, and walk long enough to catch your breath and let your legs rest before running again to a landmark up ahead. Even if you get passed by a hiker when you’re taking a walking break, don’t be ashamed! If you’re sweating, huffing and sporting your trail running shoes… they’ll know what you’re doing.

5. Save speed workouts for the road.

When you first start trail running, you’re already doing something new. Your legs are adjusting to ascents and descents; your feet are adjusting to landing at different angles on rocks; your lungs are adjusting to higher altitudes. When you try to do speed work on the trails as a new trail runner, you’re engaging in the terrible too’s of running that are a recipe for injuries: too much, too fast, too soon.

Save your easy or long runs for the trails, and leave the speed work to the roads for a while. If you’ve been running hill repeats on the roads, consider ditching those as your trail runs should provide you with all the hill training you need. It’s always better to be more conservative than it is to end up in a walking boot before a big race.

6. Get the right gear.

If you’re just testing out trail running, there’s no harm in using your road shoes. However, if you decide to incorporate it into your running routine, you’ll quickly realize that you need trail shoes. If you wear road running shoes on trails, the bottoms will wear down, the uppers will get damaged and your feet may slide around. Trail shoes are designed to give you better traction on rocks, hold up against dirt and mud, and keep your feet snug and secure. Your local running store should carry trail running shoes, but you can also find them at outdoor stores such as REI or Cabela’s.

Beyond the right shoes, you’ll want to invest in a light running backpack or waist pouch so you can carry water and your phone hands free. Don’t forget to pack toilet paper because you never know when the runner’s trots might strike!

7. Know your route.

When you’re used to running near home, it’s easy to stay on track — you know all the roads and neighborhoods. Trails, however, can be a bit more confusing. Sometimes trail markers are missing or difficult to see, and sometimes you get so wrapped up looking at the ground to avoid falls that you miss your turn. Always be sure to carry a trail map with you so you’re not stuck in the woods after dark. You can also snap a picture of the map at the trailhead, but a physical map works best in case your running app drains the battery or the cold winter air kills it completely.

Now that you know how to get started trail running, all you have left to do is enjoy and explore. Comment below and let me know where you’re running — pictures welcome!






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