“Running is a road to self-awareness and reliance…you can push yourself to extremes and learn the harsh reality of your physical and mental limitations or coast quietly down a solitary path watching the earth spin beneath your feet. But when you are through, exhilarated and exhausted, at least for a moment everything seems right with the world.” (Unknown)
There usually comes a time in every runner’s life when they want to take their running to a new and different level, and for many that means a venture into trail running from their typical road races. Trail events are becoming more popular each year, and there’s good reason for that. Being in nature provides experiences that a road run cannot, and the softer surfaces encountered on a trail give your body a bit of a break from the hard-hitting pavement you’re used to. Trails provide an undeniable escape from what can be an otherwise hectic day full of distractions, chaos and just a bunch of stuff you don’t feel like doing (the pity!). There’s something about escaping into the woods or meadow that touches the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual areas of your life. Covers just about everything, right?
As good as trail running sounds (and is!), there are some things you’ll need to know before you get started.
Sounds contradictory, but you will have to be cued in to a few extra elements while you’re running trails, like rocks, roots, holes, fallen branches and even animals. Just about all trails are uneven, and you’ll have to maneuver technical terrain (rocky & downhill) by constantly scanning the trail ahead so you can adjust accordingly. Save looking around for the times you’re on a flatter surface, it’s much safer.
It can be tempting to take advantage of the downhills by just letting go, but don’t. It’s crucial to stay in control by taking quick steps (think of your foot never landing fully on the ground) and lengthening your stride. One single slip has the potential to lead to a painful mistake (like tumbling down the hill with a sprained ankle, for example). Keep your weight centered and focus on landing softly as to not put too much unnecessary pressure on your knees, quads, shins and back.
This one, you might not like but it’s safest to leave your music behind. If you absolutely can not do that, listen to it as low as possible. You can disregard this suggestion, but you might want to have full use of all your senses, maybe to know if you’re being stalked by a predator or if there’s an audible warning from nearby wildlife being given that you should know about.
Running over felled trees, through mud and sand is tough and it takes some acclimating. You’ll get tired faster in the beginning and deciding to hurdle over a tree at full speed might land you on another body part instead of your feet. Use your arms to help with momentum uphill. Be cautious and remember the tortoise on tough uphills and downhills. You’re not going to match your road race stats, so don’t hang on to that as a goal.
Pack your water and fuel in a hydration pack–this goes for both races and training runs. Unlike most road races, it can be logistically difficult to place aid stations on trail courses, so it’s best to just get used to carrying what you need with you. Depending on your preferences, a smaller hydration pack (with a 1.5L-3L bladder) or a hydration belt should work fine.
A trail doesn’t have to be treacherous, steep or riddled with roots; you can scope out an unpaved surface, like a dirt/gravel road, wood-chip covered path or an old rail trail to get the same mind-body benefits mentioned before.