It’s easy to only think of trail running in terms of hilly terrain and very long distance races, but there is so much more to it. “There is something unknown about the wooded, twisting, dirt trails that can make some uncomfortable,” admits Erik Stanley, founder of Trail Roots, offering training to support the Austin, Texas, trail-running community. “When you step on a trail you lose track of the city noise, the cars, the buses and the construction; then it’s just you and the trail and the wild. Switching up some of your runs to trail running can help relax your mind just as much as your body.”
Here, we set the record straight about a number of myths floating around about trail running so you can hit the trails with confidence:
This myth is understandable; between the exposed roots, rocks, hills and even wildlife, it is only natural to worry there is a greater chance of getting hurt. However, Stanley shares that it just isn’t true.
“There is a belief that trail running is more dangerous,” he says. “We actually see less injuries with runners that mix their training with some trail running and road running.”
If you are worried about falling, Stanley recommends finding a training group that can help you learn about what you should pay added attention to on the terrain (such as spacing between runners and shortening your stride).
If you are already a runner, it is likely you have everything you need to run on the trails. According to David Roche, a two-time national champion and three-time member of Team USA, founder of Some Work, All Play (SWAP) run coaching and co-author of “The Happy Runner,” all too often we categorize trail running and road running as different activities. In the end, however, they are just running.
This myth has a lot to do with the picture of the terrain we have in our heads; the thought of trails in ultramarathons involves a lot of steep grades and winding switchbacks. While this can be true, not all trails are technical or involve a high level of difficulty — and as long as you slow your pace, you can take on anything.
“When runners are testing a trail for the first time, it is important to slow your pace down quite a bit,” reveals Stanley. “Don’t expect to hit the same paces on trail as compared to the road. The narrow trails, trees, roots and creek crossings slow your pace down. This doesn’t mean you are not as fast, but you need to take those adjustments into account.”
So, even if you are slower on the trails, it doesn’t mean the run was harder than the roads; just different. The terrain can play tricks on you in that respect, but often the grade of the hills on the trails is no different than you would find on the roads.
Because you have to slow down on the trails, it may be natural to worry you won’t be making any speed gains. Running at a slower pace on the trails, however, won’t translate to slower times on the roads.
“Trails don’t make athletes slow, running slow all the time makes athletes slow,” Roche reassures. “Trail runners benefit from the same fast workouts and strides as road runners.”
Even if you choose to solely run on trails and need to slow your pace to account for the terrain, you still need to be doing supplemental workouts as you would when running on the roads. Strides, strength work and more all help you maintain any speed you built on the roads before you made the switch to trail running.
All of the previously mentioned myths lead us to think trail runners are a different breed than road runners. They run straight into danger! They carry strange gear! Of course, as you have learned, that isn’t true; neither is the myth that trail runners are any different than road runners.
“Trail runners are no different than any other runner, but they are likely just connecting with their roots,” admits Stanley. “Being in nature and enjoying our surroundings helps provide a great opportunity for community.”
There is no special mindset or training you need to become a trail runner — just get out there and run. Roche acknowledges people tend to be intimidated by things that are unknown or new. However, trying it even once can change your whole outlook.
“I like athletes to look back in their lives at things that scared them before and how they think about it now,” he adds. “Often, what we fear is just a growth opportunity in disguise. Trails are an opportunity to grow, too — and growth rarely comes without some tough moments along the way that become funny stories later on.”