Trail running is still running, but it’s not exactly the same as running on the road or the track. In fact, it’s completely different — and that’s a good thing
Brian Tolbert didn’t even start running until his early-30s, and it wasn’t love at first sight. He struggled a little originally, but once the elite Under Armour ultrarunner found his way to the trails, he didn’t look back. Now, he loves the fact he can enjoy the open wilderness around him in Utah. “I can look at those mountains and think, ‘I can get there,’” he says.
For many runners, it’s the idea of using your own two feet to get yourself somewhere new and beautiful that makes hitting the trails so appealing. But the things that make it exciting also make it different — and are also reasons to love the sport.
1. IT’S HILLY
It’s not that trails necessarily have to be vertical; it’s just that they often are. Even if you start out running on flat river trails and levee paths, odds are eventually you’ll want to run up (and then down).
“There’s always a lot more cool stuff to see at the top of a hill,” says Peter Fain, a coach with Run on Dirt. Fain encourages his runners to get on dirt, any dirt, to start with and then he typically pushes them to do more hills, partially for the strength work and partially because the best trails often have a lot of elevation change. Trails — unlike roads — don’t have to cut the flattest routes. When you’re on them you won’t run straight through the mountains, but up and over them instead.
2. IT GETS DIRTY
Yup, you’re doing all that up-and-down running on dirt. Perhaps, the most obvious difference between trail running and other kinds of running is the surface you’re on. Besides the occasional paved section or old logging road that’s been turned into a trail, you won’t see asphalt or concrete. What you will see are all kinds of different surfaces: dirt, mulch, mud, rocks, sand, grass, packed trails, rutted trails and riverbeds.
Along with being more interesting, the dirt and soft surfaces can actually be good for you, too. “I get more beaten up running on the road than I do on the trails,” says Tolbert. The soft surface creates less impact and grinding on your joints, and it helps by varying the stress on your body. Running on different surfaces forces your small stabilizer muscles to work as you find your footing.
3. IT REQUIRES MORE FOCUS
Of course, all those different surfaces also require you to focus more while you’re running. You’ll need to keep an eye out for roots you could trip on, streams you might need to cross and even animals you want to avoid. Tolbert says, even the smoothest trails still require more focus than running circles around a flat track. “Every step is different,” he says, and he means that literally; you have to pay more attention to where you’re setting your foot each step.
“There’s no room for zoning out, or you’ll end up on your face,” says Fain. There’s another reason you don’t want to just stick your headphones in: You definitely want to hear any potential animals or other people out on the trails and be aware.
4. IT’S A CHANCE TO SLOW DOWN
Just because you’re paying attention, though, doesn’t mean you’re paying attention to your watch or GPS. Trails are slower. Even flat trails are slightly slower than flat roads, because a certain percentage of rebound and efficiency is lost in each push-off. Once you factor in changing surfaces, obstacles and hills, well, there’s just no point in worrying about your pace. “You’re not going to run as fast, so don’t compare,” says Tolbert.
Besides, trail running is really about enjoying the experience more than hitting specific target paces anyway. “I like to think of trail running as more artistic, while road running can become more scientific,” says Fain.
READ MORE > RUNNING ETIQUETTE : ROADS AND TRAILS
5. IT TAKES YOU TO NEW PLACES
Going slower also means you can take a look around, enjoy the outdoors away from cars and busy intersections. That’s an added bonus of trail running: You can reach places you couldn’t get to by car — and you don’t have to worry about cars. By definition, most trails are going to take you into nature, so enjoy that nature.
The main appeal of trail running is “where it takes you,” says Tolbert. Or, in other words: Where we’re going, they don’t have roads.