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Making the Transition to Trail Running

With the switch from road to trail come new obstacles, challenges, and rewards. Expecting the unexpected is a large part of the trail running experience, but there are a few things to think about before you get started.

Running Surface

Running surface varies significantly between treadmill, road, and trail running, and determines much in terms of form and gear in each discipline. Treadmills are uniformly smooth and somewhat shock-absorbing, whereas paved roads are generally smooth (depending on their condition) and hard. Trails, on the other hand, are by definition not uniform—tree roots, stones, mud, water, gravel, and debris make for a dynamic running surface that requires significant stride-to-stride changes. Packed dirt, mud, and sand offer shock-absorption on trails, scree and shale less so, bare rock none. The bottom line: trail running demands a running form and running gear that can take on dynamic and varied surfaces.

Dynamic trail surfaces require good trail-running form: a light, efficient, compact stride. Trail runners run up on their toes, picking their feet up over obstacles, keeping their heads up and eyes scanning the trail 10-15 feet ahead. Trail running shoes with rock plates under the forefoot and aggressive tread patterns keep a trail-runner’s foot engaged with the trail, protecting the foot from bruises and turned ankles.

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Conditions & Terrain

Conditions and terrain in trail running differ drastically from treadmill and road running. A dozen treadmills in a climate-controlled gym lined up in front of flatscreen TVs couldn’t be more different than trail running in terms of conditions. On the trail, weather can change rapidly, especially at higher elevations. The longer and more remote the trail, the more heat, cold, rain, wind, snow, and lightning become active concerns (or “fun”) for trail runners. In a similar way, terrain on most trails changes more frequently than a typical treadmill workout. There’s rarely any ‘flat’ in trail running—changes in incline come quickly, and static elevation profiles are a rarity. And often there’s nearly no one else on the trail. Trail runners often are their own support system; on longer runs, water and essentials must be carried.

Changing trail conditions mean that trail-running gear must be effective in a range of weather conditions. Wicking and quick-drying fabrics like synthetics and merino wool keep a trail runner dry and cool, while technical base layers and shells keep out cold and precipitation. On longer trails, many trail runners carry water in hydration packs, handheld bottles, and waist packs, and bring along gels, energy chews, and meal-replacement bars.

Tips for Transitioning to Trails

Incorporate trails gradually

Trail running demands more from joints and micro-muscle groups, and building strength in these areas takes time. Focus on form, foot placement and total time (stay out 45 minutes, stay out an hour, and so forth) rather than setting goals for speed over a distance. Try adding trail workouts once or twice a week until you feel comfortable increasing. Start out on flat (or as flat as possible) and work up to more technical or steep routes.

Slow down

Trail times are slower and trail specific. What a road runner can do on 10Ks of pavement is going to be very different than on 10Ks of trail. The more technical or steep or hot or cold or rainy the trail, the slower the pace. Which is fine —trail-running is about effort, not micro-managing your splits. Don’t worry about walking to the top of steep or technical sections. Better to save that energy and effort for the more forgiving terrain than blow yourself out. Likewise, don’t worry about walking to the bottom of steep sections. Steep descents can be rough on feet, ankles, calves and backs, leading to fatigue, or worse, injury. Muscle development for long ups and downs takes time; slowing down on steep ascents or descents can speed that process up by helping you avoidinjury.

Expect an erratic pace

Good trail runners can shift gears smoothly and effectively for changes in trail terrain and conditions. Dialing back on ascents saves energy for technical sections and descents. Stubbornly sticking to a ‘race pace’ a la road running makes little sense on trails with dynamic elevation profiles.

Ditch the watch

Or at least focus less on speed and distance and more on time and effort. Trail running is about adapting to the terrain and conditions, not meeting an expected time. Micro-managing your splits on a trail can be frustrating because trail elevation profiles and conditions vary so wildly. In race situations, race the trail and whoever shows up rather than some finishing time that might not apply to the conditions and terrain of that trail.

Keep your head up

Look where you want to go, and your feet will follow your eyes. Scan the trail 10-15 feet ahead rather than keeping your head down and focusing on obstacles underfoot. Pick direct lines to sequence between obstacles, anticipate changing terrain, and watch for variable weather conditions. One of the best parts of trail running is the scenery, but be careful to stay focused on the upcoming trail. Know your trail etiquette—on most trails this means stay to the left and yield to others. Watch out for mountain bikers, they move fast and can be on top of you quicker than you expect.

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Know the course

Trail running and solitude often go hand in hand. This raises the stakes somewhat from your usual 6-mile loop in the neighborhood—make sure you’re familiar with the trail route and trail-marking system of the trail you’re running. Same applies in race situations; in trail races, packs are small and spread out, and support stations are rare. Familiarize yourself with the race route and bone up on your route-finding skills before you find yourself alone at an unfamiliar trail intersection.

Tell someone where you’re going

Make sure someone knows the trail you’re running and a ball-park estimate as to when you’ll get back. Bring along a cell phone if there’s coverage in case of emergency. Pack a bare-bones first-aid kit with TP, ibuprofen, duct tape, and iodine tablets for longer runs.

Run with others

Just like in road and treadmill running, motivation is a critical component to progress. Running with other folks gets you out onto the trail on those days when you feel more like ordering a pizza and binging on some Netflix. Find a local trail-running group or club, sign up for a trail race, or drag a friend or two along with you.

You’re going to fall down

Road and treadmill runners can go their whole lives without falling. Not so for trail runners. As you push yourself on more technical routes, steeper ascents and descents, and more difficult conditions, you’re probably going to take a fall or two. Resist the urge to put your hands out—this leads to broken wrists. A long lateral lunge or stride can usually do the job of catching you, but on steep rocks, talus, or cactus-infested or foliated terrain, rolling or sliding using the ‘stop, drop, and roll’ technique is usually a good way to prevent serious injury. Cover your head, and try to make use of the most-available soft tissue to cushion yourself. Scraping up your hip or your rear is much better than smashing a knee or elbow. Good form prevents most falls: pick up your feet, scan the trail ahead, and keep your speed under control.

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