Whether you’re new to running or you’ve been running on roads or trails for years, technique is something that runners tend to ignore—especially those who run for fitness and fun versus serious competition and finish times. Trail running may seem simple: Head out, commune with nature, enjoy the shade of the trees … but then you trip over a rock or twist your ankle negotiating a tricky corner.
Technique matters a whole lot more on the trails than it does on the road. Years of trail running and racing—some years better than others—have taught me a few things to do and not do, whether you’re doing a 30 minute power run or a 4 hour exploration. Make your next trail run even more successful than your last, or make your first one a triumph by checking out these pointers:
1. Tie your damn shoes.
This seems like a superobvious tip, but seriously, check before you get into the woods that your shoes are still neatly double knotted. On the road, a loose lace might trip you slightly, but on a trail, a minor bobble can lead to a bigger fall. Additionally, make sure your shoes are laced up tight. I’ve done many runs where, before long downhill stretches of trail, I’ve stopped to tighten my laces and found that they were significantly looser than I realized—this is bad when you’re bombing down a rocky downhill segment. So be cognizant of your laces before and during the run.
2. Ease in.
If you’re new to trail running, start on easier trails that feature long segments of easy double-track or bridle paths so you can take a break from focusing on each step. And if you’re a road runner switching to trails, don’t expect your per-mile times to be the same on the road and on the trail, especially not right away. Chill out, and rediscover a slightly slower pace that will help you navigate unsteady terrain more easily.
3. Focus on each step.
Especially if you’re new to trail running, you can’t let your mind wander too much as you adapt to the trail. When you stop focusing on the route ahead, you catch your feet on the roots ahead. Trail running requires a slightly different visual skill set: You need to see the trail directly in front of you while at the same time gazing into the distance to see upcoming corners, hills, descents and tricky rocks and roots coming up. You learn to “zoom in” and “zoom out” as you get more used to trail running, but as you’re getting started, focus on practicing the skill, as opposed to letting your mind wander.
4. Run prepared.
You’re in the woods and off the beaten path, so running with a pack is often a smart idea. In my pack, I’ll typically run with a decent amount of water and a couple of snacks (often a bit more than I need so if I’m out longer, I don’t bonk), plus a foldable windbreaker in case the weather changes drastically. I also bring an Ace bandage so if I need to wrap a cut, I’m set. And, of course, I always bring my phone in a plastic baggie (in case of rain). I don’t bring enough water to necessitate a hydration pack, unless I’m out for an ultralong (over 3-hour) run, so, typically, I just put a water bottle into a small running backpack with the other essentials.
5. File a route plan.
When I do long trail runs, I always give someone (boyfriend, parent, sister) a “flight plan” with my basic route and estimated finish time. That way, someone knows (roughly) where I am. I also use the Find My Friends app so I’m easy to track, as long as there’s cell service. If you’re going way off the grid, there are fancier GPS/phone units you can carry with you. Remember, this may sound excessive, but if and when you need that rescue, you’ll be glad you had a system in place.
6. Find a buddy.
Trail runs are more fun when you have company, so enlist a friend (or a pup) to join you for at least part of the run. I prefer doing my longer trail runs solo-buddy-solo: I run to the meeting spot, then run with a friend for part of the trail, and split off to finish the run by myself. It’s amazing how much faster 18 miles go when they are split into more manageable 6-mile chunks! Plus, meeting a friend in the middle breaks up any mental rut.
Bring your phone (for safety reasons), but for at least part of your run, stay unplugged and leave the music or podcast turned off. The woods provide their own natural soundtrack, and the silence can lead to great ideas.
You’re doing this because it’s fun, remember? The beauty of trail running is that it’s your time to get exercise but also be part of nature. Give yourself the right to relax, stop and look around you, walk the steep sections for a break, dip your toes in the chilly creek you spot at the halfway point. You’re doing this for yourself, so make the most of it and enjoy the time away from civilization.