So, you want to be a trail runner.
Perhaps you got the bug to challenge yourself on dirt while out for your daily run around the block. Maybe one of your co-workers hit the single track and you thought it sounded fun, or maybe your run club pestered you into taking your morning jog off roads after too many post-run beers.
Whatever your reasons, congratulations! If you spend a day on dirt, I’d say you fit the bill. Welcome to trail running; it’s the best! Every run is an adventure instead of the familiar grind of rhythmic roads, and you will discover new places, both far off and hidden right under your nose in the unpaved nooks of even the most urban areas.
Obviously, I’m passionate about this sport and want to share it. You will be happier, healthier and more energized as a trail runner. You will challenge yourself mentally and physically, and, along the way, you will see great new things and meet new people. But I get it, it can be hard and intimidating to get out there and try new things. Trail running can be scary! So here are a few things to consider to help you get out on the dirt.
So what does the average road runner have to gain from venturing out into the wilderness?
Two things. First, reduced risk of injury: The soft, ever-varying surface of the trail lessens the likelihood of an overuse injury, strengthens core muscles, and ultimately makes for more comfortable long runs than asphalt. Secondly (and more excitingly), trail running offers a rush that road running just can’t give you. It should come as no surprise that soaking in the essence of the outdoors results in a quantifiably-greater endorphin release than does breathing in roadside fumes.
Trail running has done more than make me a stronger, happier runner: It has made me a runner, again, period. For years, even after running at the collegiate level, I was disenchanted by the sport. Chasing splits and pounding pavement left me heartbroken. But discovering trails has left me fulfilled and wanting more. Every run on trails is a good run.
Let go of pace, time goals, and even expectations.
The time you can expect to run a 10k in on the roads is going to be hugely different than the time you can hope to run a 10k on trails. Even a flat trail can significantly slow down the most gifted trail runners. Trails tend to have more elevation change and uneven, rocky terrain making pace an inaccurate and irrelevant measurement. Getting too caught up in splits and distances is a recipe for insanity! The undulating terrain and significant elevation gain and loss, to say nothing of tricky footing, will require that you slow down and shift gears regularly. Trail running is all about maintaining a steady effort, not a metronomic pace. So let go of pace, time, even expectations. Instead, run off effort level.
Pro tip: It’s OK to walk the climbs! When especially tired or trekking up a particularly long hill, hiking can be more energy-efficient than running. If the pros do it, so can you!
Find Some Dirt
Trail running is truly as simple as taking a normal run and doing it on dirt. But you’ll need to find the dirt.
So many people assume their overcrowded city is absent of trails, but even the biggest cities are littered with hidden single track. Google is a great resource, but picking up a map and looking for the green-colored areas indicating parks and public lands is the easiest way to find trails to explore. Better yet, download the Strava App and use its route-finding tool to find some dirt.
Feel more comfortable if you had a singletrack tour guide? Local-running clubs can provide both training camaraderie and a wealth of information on places to train and trails to roam. If there’s a running store or a specialty-outdoor store, chatting with an employee there can get you in touch with a trail runner who’ll have insight into trails. Even better, volunteer for trail work or work an aid station at a nearby race. By doing some good old fashion networking, you’ll likely meet someone more than happy to show you the ropes.
Focus on Fuel
Taking in calories on the run is not unique to trail running—but since trail running typically takes longer than your neighborhood jaunt and you’re less likely to find a convenience store along the way, carrying enough fuel and figuring out what works is a key (but often overlooked) element to the sport.
Failing to adequately fuel can lead to the dreaded “bonk.” which occurs when your body runs out of fuel, sending you into a state of total-body fatigue and brain fog. Bonks lead trail runners to say crazy things, cry at random, hallucinate, and essentially transform into a shell of your formal self. It happens to everyone at some point and is truly unpleasant. Luckily, bonking is avoidable by fueling well and carrying a responsible amount of calories with you on your trail run.
So how many calories do we need? According to studies, our bodies can process up to 400 calories an hour while running. Since we typically burn around 100 calories per mile, we still would enter a calorie deficit eating the allotted 400 calories an hour. However, spreading out the timing of your trail calories in can keep the bonk in check and the body fueled. For any run over 90 minutes, people should take in fuel every 20 to 30 minutes. The colorful assortment of gels, chews, bars and drink available these days is intimidating, so experiment to find what works best for you. For any run over 90-minutes, I eat a GO Energy bar thirty minutes before heading out the door. If I am out for three hours or longer, I use Beta Fuel and an assortment of SIS Isotonic gels. Remember to take gels both with electrolytes and without, especially if it is hot outside.
Fueling, of course, shouldn’t just happen during a run. Finding products and foods that will help you recover pre and post-run is crucial, especially when introducing new elements to your training regime like such as trails. Just like with any sport, it’s important to fuel with real foods and well-rounded meals to get the most out of your training and recovery. However, I am also a big believer in aiding your everyday diet with careful supplementation. Whether I am out for 5k or 50k, I take SIS Rapid Rego Recovery post-workout recovery shake (chocolate flavor, obviously!) after every run and if I feel behind, I also supplement with SIS Overnight Protein. I got in the habit of taking post-run and pre-bedtime protein powders after experiencing some severe overtraining in 2018. I am not exaggerating when I say that supplementing with protein powder helped to dig me out of a stint of chronic fatigue that my coaches thought would take years to recover from.
Be safe. It’s not called “the wild” for nothing.
Whenever possible, run with a friend. Bring a map if you’re running a new trail for the first time. Have a first aid kit in the car, and carry extra food with you for emergencies. Bring along a cell phone or pepper spray if you’re running alone. Use common sense, you know what is safe and what isn’t.
Most importantly, know the area you’re running—how to deal with the wildlife, when and where hunting takes place, when the sun goes down, and anything else that might pose a danger.