Start Your Trail Running Journey
‘To me, heaven on earth is exploring a trail’
- Deena Kastor
Trail running is one of the most joyful, cathartic, inspirational activities I have ever participated in. It is also one of the most intimidating and difficult things I have ever done. Who would want to bring themselves to the middle of the woods, surrounded by critters big and small, go up and down hills with various terrain, and exhaust themselves by traveling miles on foot running from and towards nothing in particular? Here’s something truly crazy: people do it for fun. And I am one of those people… never thought I would be but here I am finding myself day dreaming about the next trail run.
The feeling of being completely solitary in the middle of a buzzing forest, wind sweeping across the trees creating all types of chatter, the rustling of brush as little lizards and squirrels moving about, the breath taking hills that literally knock the air out of your lungs, the exhilarating downhills that feel as close to flying as I will ever get. Those are all just a few reasons why the pain is worth it.
I feel very called to share my love of running with the world and bring more people to this wonderfully inclusive sport. However trail running can seem like a different world entirely from road running. To be honest, it is. So I am here to break down trail running for beginners, share my limited experience, and give you the tools to feel confident enough to go out on a trail run.
STEP 1: GEAR CHECK
The gear you might take on a road run will probably suffice for getting started on trails. Unless your running shoes are made out of easily broken foam (aka Nike React Foam) your shoes will be able to hold you on the trails. Trail running shoes become more necessary when you start racking up the mileage because they are generally more durable, have a wider toe box for more stability, have stiffer soles to protect your foot from rocks and sticks, and have more tread on the bottoms to provide better traction on trail terrain. They aren’t necessary to get started, but can’t hurt either. But I always go for a new shoe when I have an excuse to buy them, so go crazy. I currently love the Nike Wild Horse trail shoes.
Depending on the distance you are running you might also need to bring hydration and nutrition. A good rule of thumb is to have 4oz of water for every 20-30 minutes of running. Be careful using camelbacks and other products that were created for hiking and not running, because these will probably chafe you. I love the Nathan Hydration vest (pictured right). You can also find handheld bottles although I like my hands to be free. Snacks can be traditional running gu or gels, but I love bringing a cookie or pretzels or candy or all three. One of the lesser known facts of trail running is that it’s really all about the snacks. So go snack crazy.
Chafing becomes a real problem on the trails so find something that prevents chafing for you and double down before you head out. I currently use KY Silicone Lube and it’s literally the best running secret I’ve ever been given (thank you Alexia MVP). There are a lot of anti chafe products out there and different things work for different people, so get some samples if you can from REI and experiment! Or just trust me and buy the lube. KY hit me up for a brand deal I am still waiting.
Sunscreen and bug spray are always a good idea, although hopefully you’ll be running so fast bugs won’t touch you, right? But sunscreen always. Find a sport sunscreen with a 35+ SPF so it will last through your longer trail runs.
A hat and sunglasses are optional but great protection against the elements. You won’t find me on the trails without a hat.
GPS: When you get started, make sure you are tracking your runs and can find your way back to where you started no matter what. Strava is a great app for this because even if it loses your GPS signal, it will show you how to get back to your starting point.
You can leave the headphones at home. Trail running is a great time to tune into nature, but you also want to be able to hear oncoming traffic like horses or mountain bikers. Also bears. And mountain lions.
Trail running shoes
water bottle (or hydration vest/belt/handheld bottle)
GPS friendly device.
STEP 2: FIND A RUNNER FRIENDLY TRAIL
THIS IS THE FUN PART. Literally any hiking trail can be a trail running trail if you’re bold enough. AllTrails is a great App that will show you hiking trails in the area, you can see the elevation gain and difficulty, and details of the trail (like if dogs are allowed). It will also map you to the starting point, so I use this App whenever I’m looking to venture out of my comfort zone. I like finding trails that have variations in elevation, meaning the entire trail isn’t up a big mountain and back down. An elevation profile that has lots of ups and downs means good variation for the run and your calves will thank you for the more frequent downhills.
STEP 3: FIND A BUDDY OR TELL SOMEONE WHERE YOU ARE GOING
Always tell someone when you’re going to venture out somewhere new. It will help the helicopters eventually find your dead body.
Just kidding… but seriously safety 101, always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. Don’t skip this step because it could be life or death if you get lost in the woods with no cell reception.
STEP 4: FORGET ABOUT YOUR ROAD RUNNING PACE AND DISTANCE
Trail running will serve every single runner a big old warm slice of humble pie when it comes to pace. Don’t be surprised if your first few trail runs are significantly slower than your road runs at the same distance. There are two big factors that make trail running more difficult to go fast: terrain and elevation. The ground you are stepping on will be more difficult to grip and get a good kick off of. Your stability muscles will need to work harder to keep you upright (aka not tripping on rocks or sticks). Slowing down will allow your road running muscles to adapt, where going too fast too soon could easily lead to injury. Check your ego, slow down, and let your body adjust to the terrain. Elevation is simply the nasty hills you will encounter when trail running. So keep in mind when you are flying down a hill and feel unstoppable and speedy, what goes down must come back up. Don’t be surprised if the time that you gain running downhill is stripped from you when you turn around and try to run back up. Humble Pie. Enjoy.
Due to the more difficult terrain and elevation, trail runs should also be shorter than your normal road runs when you get started. Let yourself get strong running on trails before you start shooting for crazy long distances. If you are an active road runner try out a 3-5 miles trail run to get started and see how your body feels.
STEP 5: GO RUN.
Yep, that’s it. Go run. Find a trail, lace up your shoes, text your buddy, grab your water and snacks, and hit the trails!