Trail running typically inspires ideas of rolling mountain vistas, soft streamside paths or even leafy and peaceful seclusion. All that may be true, but there are also some factors people don’t typically mention when it comes to taking runs off-road. Here are seven ways to improve your next dirt session that nobody ever addresses.
YOU’RE GOING TO BE SLOW
There are miles, and then there are trail miles. Expect your pace to fall by a minute or more per mile. You’ll have rolling terrain to consider, tricky footing and more. I’m a beginner-intermediate trail runner, and my off-road pace is sometimes 3 minutes slower than what I can maintain on the pavement. I’ve found it’s better to focus on increasing my mileage to see measurable gains — and perhaps when I’m more advanced, I’ll try to speed things up.
YOU SHOULD SPEED UP ON THE DOWNHILL
Heading down is actually where you can pick up your pace! You’ll need to watch every step — depending on how rocky the trail is — and focus on keeping those steps under your body. That means short, quick strides without leaning back or forward. Once this starts to feel ‘normal,’ you can relax, but just a little. Sometimes focusing too much on rocks, roots and other obstacles makes you more liable to hit them. Going with the ‘flow’ of gravity can also help you speed up.
YOU’LL WANT YOUR PHONE
You’ve likely heard the usual advice about heading into the woods alone: It’s a good idea to let others know where you’re going and when you expect to return. But if you’re out on the trail and encounter someone who makes you feel uncomfortable, pretend you’re on the phone. Note: Avoid running while holding your phone. If you fall with it in your hand, it won’t help you. (I did once, and broke my finger and phone.) Instead, buy a carrying case or strap that can secure your phone to your body safely.
IT’S OK TO WALK
It may surprise you that even elite ultrarunners walk tricky or steep hills. They’re typically not the spots where you’ll make up speed, so it’s OK to use them as an opportunity to slow down. You’ll also conserve your energy for areas like the flats to comfortably pick up your pace.
POLES CAN HELP
Top trail runners often tote running poles, too, for extra-long runs. Poles can help you up steep hills, whether to take the load off your legs or help you pick your way up tough terrain.
LONG SOCKS BEAT ANKLE SOCKS
The foliage around you might be pretty, but there’s often poison ivy or poison oak lining trails. There could also be stinging nettles or plants you may have an allergic reaction to. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to wear long socks to help keep yourself covered. (Some runners like to run with knee-high compression versions, anyway.)
DON’T GET CAUGHT UP IN THE SCENERY
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to zone out while running, especially when gorgeous views abound. Trails are not the place to shuffle your feet, though, because it’s too easy to catch your toe on a root or rock and trip. (I’ve had my share of spills, and learned this the hard way.) Even when the ground is dry, it can slide and be ‘slick’ underfoot. Pay attention, and pick up your feet.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.