There are many appealing aspects to trail running — getting away from cars and crowds, appreciating nature, and challenging your body in a different way. The best part is “where it takes you,” says Brian Tolbert, a professional ultra-runner with Under Armour. But to get where the trails will take you, you need to be prepared.
Trail running differs from other kinds of running in a number of ways, but Tolbert says if you start small, you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Most important, plan your route before you leave and “tell someone where you’re going.” Peter Fain, a founder and coach with Run on Dirt, has his athletes start with out-and-back runs, so they get familiar with the terrain and don’t get lost.
Fain also tells them to stop worrying about their GPS watches and paces. Running on trails, even flat trails, is slower than running on the road. Plus, there are lots of other variables (and hills!) on the trails. “Forget about the rules,” says Fain. There is a whole different set of rules for the trails.
Here’s some other advice from the experts:
1. EAT MORE, EAT EARLY
“One big thing I had to learn was nutrition,” says Sarah Cotton, an Under Armour runner who moved from the track to the trails last year and set a course record at the Mt. Hood 50K. “It’s a totally different animal.”
The principles of nutrition don’t necessarily change just because you’re on a trail, but the difference is trail races often take longer than the same distance on the road and when you head out for a trail run you need to be prepared in case something goes wrong. That means you should eat early, because if you’re out there longer than you intend, it might be too late to start taking in calories later.
It also means you should always pack some extra food — just in case.
2. PACK THE RIGHT GEAR
Before you head out, you should prepare for the worst-case scenario. “Think ‘Survivor,’” says Tolbert. Bad things don’t happen frequently; it’s just that if you get slightly lost or the weather turns, you should be prepared for being out in nature longer than you expect. Tolbert always packs extra gels, a windbreaker shell if it gets cold and a buff (a kind of all-in-one headband, scarf and neck gaiter). He once used his buff to brace someone’s broken collarbone as they hiked out.
You’ll also want to prepare with the right clothes for the conditions. Although some runners rely on trail shoes for traction and stability, if you’re just getting started, you should have no problem running in your regular shoes. “You don’t need a whole bunch of new gear,” says Tolbert — at least not right away. You just need to bring the right gear.
READ MORE > 10 BUCKET-LIST TRAIL RACES TO RUN THIS YEAR
3. PREPARE FOR THE NEW TERRAIN
Along with preparing for what could go wrong, you should prepare for what will go right, too. Running on trails means running on different kinds of terrain: more hills and a more uneven surfaces. This takes some getting used to, even in the best case. When you run downhill, you’ll want to look farther ahead so you know where you’re going, shorten your stride and pay attention to foot placement, says Tolbert. When you’re running uphill, stand tall.
And do all this in between looking around at the scenery, because if you aren’t paying attention, you might trip on a rock or root (especially as you get tired and drag your feet more) or run into a low-hanging branch.
“It happens,” says Tolbert. He’s fallen plenty, and that’s fine. Just get up, brush yourself off and keep going.
4. WATCH FOR WILDLIFE
When it comes to running outdoors, though, it’s not just the weather and terrain that concern people; it’s the animals that cause the most worries for new runners.
“Pretty recently I ran into a bear on a run and I had no idea what to do,” says Cotton. The bear was just sitting there on the side of the road, and Cotton almost overlooked it. Once they noticed it, though, she and her boyfriend backed away and changed directions. “This is their home. Let them be and respect that,” she says.
On a practical level, that means: Don’t spook the animals. It’s best to make noise to let them know you’re coming and to pay attention yourself (no headphones on trails, please). While the specific things you’re supposed to do in an emergency vary from animal to animal, the major problems come when a runner surprises a bear, mountain lion or a hidden snake.
“I’ve been known to sing to myself,” says Tolbert of letting the animals know he’s coming.
5. LET YOUR BODY (AND MUSCLES) ADAPT
Once you get out on the trails, you’ll see all kinds of new things — and you’ll feel new muscles you never knew you had.
For a lot of runners, the hill climbs and descents put stress on hamstrings and quads. If you do a big mountain run, you’ll feel it in your quads after. You’ll also need to focus on strengthening your glutes, so they’re prepared to stabilize your hips on the uneven surfaces (especially if your hamstrings are weak). “Take care of your quads and hips,” says Cotton.
The other common issue runners often have after they start running on bumpy trails is they’ll feel it in their ankles and Achilles. If your calves get tight, you could end up with an Achilles injury. Make sure you’re taking care of your body, rolling out tight calves and quads and preemptively strengthening weak hamstrings and glute muscles. “Your body’s going to tell you what’s wrong,” says Cotton.
The most important thing is just to get out there, start small and enjoy yourself. The majority of things that are different from the roads will be obvious.
“Just don’t be an idiot,” says Tolbert.