So you want to run some trails. Or maybe you’ve already gone through a bunch of easy trails, and want to kick up the difficulty up a notch. We all thirst for activity, and running in the middle of nature is definitely better than choosing the side of a road.
Trail running is fulfilling and a great exercise routine. It actually has plenty of health benefits as well, from losing stress and anxiety to even allowing you to live longer. To reap those rewards, though, you have to get it right.
Trail running is not as simple as putting on some shoes and hitting the road. It requires more planning, preparation, and understanding of the right technique. Get it wrong, and you could risk injury. That’s what these 10 trail running tips can help you avoid.
Preparing for the Run
Trail running, like many outdoor sports, starts long before you actually leave your house. Preparation is absolutely key to making sure that when you do put on those shoes, you know where you’re going, what you’re doing — and that those shoes are actually what’s best for you. All of that starts with some preparation.
1. Pick the Right Trails
As with any other sport, you have different difficulty levels. Some routes are as simple as a path through your local park. Others look like they might be more fit for a mountain bike race than a run. Where on that range do you fall?
It starts with some basic scouting. Look at a map, and find some green spaces. Chances are there are some trails running through — you just have to find them.
If you want to go beyond those basics, ask around. Many cities have local trail running clubs that can tell you how to start and where to go. At the very least, you’ll get to hang out with some like-minded people.
2. Leave Yourself Plenty of Time
Most trail runners already have experience running on the road or on a treadmill. This is a theme you’ll find throughout this article: don’t think that prepares you 100% for this different environment.
For instance, when you go on the road, the distance you’re about to run, as well as your average speed, allows you to figure out how much time you will need for the exercise. There’s an ‘average mile’ timing spot for a reason. The trails, though? That’s a different animal.
You don’t know the pitch, the condition of the trail, or how often you might want to stop for some scenic pictures. If you’re on a tight timeline or just like to stay organized, plan in at least 50% more time than you think it will take the first time you run any trail.
3. Balance Out Your Muscles
Trail running is great exercise. Did we already mention that? At the same time, your body also needs to be prepared for what’s about to hit it. While road or gym running is mainly focused on the legs, the trail will go straight to your core.
Your body needs to be prepared for that if you want to avoid injuries and total overload. A few tips can help you get that going:
- Resistance training particularly exercises like crunches that strengthen your core. Start at least a couple of months before you start running, and get to it at least twice per week.
- Yoga helps you improve both your balance and flexibility. Both will matter more than you think once the terrain gets tough and the ground gets stony.
- Stretching not just to warm up but to add to the yoga benefits above. In trail running, you can never have too much flexibility.
A prep routine that includes all three of the above steps helps you get prepared for the run. By the time you put on those shoes, your body is as ready as you are to explore some nature.
Be Afraid to Switch to a Hike
Yes, the name is misleading. No, the goal in trail running is not speed. Yes, you can ease yourself into it as much as you need. It’s actually common even for experienced trail runners to adjust their pace to the pitch of the hill they’re running up. Once it gets too steep, they will gladly switch to a hike.
Trail running is exhausting. You’ll want to preserve that energy for more than just the immediate incline. Periodic hikes might be just what the doctor ordered to keep you on track and avoid the dangers of complete exhaustion.
5. Set Some Goals
Finally, it’s good to go into any run with some goals already in mind. Know exactly what you want to accomplish, both for the immediate run and your long-term endurance.
The goal might be consistent stretches of a certain pace for the first run, but the ability to run an off-road 5K six months from now. It could be completely different. No matter what you set, make sure that they’re top of mind as you tie up those shoes and get ready to go.
During the Run
You’ve done all the preparation you can. Your legs are itching to finally loosen up and go. Your muscles are stretched, you know the trail ahead of you, and you have all the time in the world. Now, all you need to know is how to actually move when you start running.
6. Keep Your Eyes in Front of You
Yes, it’s easy to look ahead. Tempting, even. Nature is beautiful, and especially when you get on top of that hill, you just want to forget about where you are and appreciate all your surroundings have to offer.
That’s a dangerous trap to fall into. Trail running means off-roading — which means rocks, roots, and all kinds of other obstacles you constantly have to be aware of.
Of course, you also don’t want to look straight down at your feet. As a general rule, try to keep your eyes about 10 to 20 feet ahead of you to spot and avoid any potential obstacles. You can always take a break or come back with a camera to appreciate the scenery later.
7. Shorten Your Stride
Roadrunners tend to be used to a long stride that allows them to cover the maximum amount of distance as they look to get from one point to the other. But, as we’ve mentioned already, that’s not the goal here. Neither are long strides.
Most experts instead recommend taking short, purposeful strides as you run the trail. Yes, that slows you down a bit. The added security you gain, though, is well worth the speed you sacrifice.
Shorter strides allow you to be more agile, more easily avoiding any potential obstacles in your way. They also give you more flexibility to extend your stride in case of an unexpected obstacle, keeping you safer during your entire run.
8. Practice that Technique
Because it’s so tempting to start running, many trail runners actually can get themselves into trouble by using an incorrect technique that hurts their back or feet. Avoid that trap with some of these tips:
- Shoulders straight. Align them with your back rather than rolling them forward. If you do, you could actually restrict the lung space you have to get the oxygen you need.
- Land on your mid-foot. Simply put, it allows you to keep your balance more easily because it adds weight to your center of gravity. Avid skiers will be able to relate.
- Swing those
arms. Short, relaxed, and passive swings that don’t distract from your leg motion are best. It doesn’t hurt to practice a bit to find the motion most comfortable for you.
9. Don’t Overly Exhaust Yourself
The more exhausted you get, the less likely you’ll be able to make those subtle movements your body so needs to take care of any obstacles. Yes, pushing yourself is okay, as it would be with any exercise. But you absolutely cannot overdo it.
You might not even notice it, but tired runners pick up their feet less than those with fresh legs. All of a sudden, that rock or root becomes that much more dangerous. When you feel yourself slowing down too much, take a breather.
10. Wear the Right Equipment
Finally, as you go out for the run, make sure you wear the right equipment. The best shoes, for example, have a good grip and stiff construction to avoid any ankle twists from unforeseen obstacles. Of course, bring water — and, if the trail is comprehensive, a map should always be an option.
It doesn’t stop there. When you go trail running, you will get exhausted. That means finding breathable clothing that adjusts to the weather.
Merino wool clothing is perfect not just because of its comfort, but because of its natural protection abilities. Its breathability means you stay warm in cooler temperatures, and cool when it gets hot out. In trail running, where you can easily encounter both, that’s a crucial (and hard-to-find) quality in clothing.
Trail running is not necessarily for the faint of heart — at the same time, it has something for almost everyone. You just need the background to prepare yourself and make the best out of your run. As you start looking in that direction, make sure you wear the right equipment when you hit that first trail.