Trail running combines the speed and athleticism of running with the view, terrain, and surprises of hiking. Runners turn to trail running when they seek escape into nature, or the challenge of steep hills, or the stimulation of constantly varied surfaces. Hikers turn to trail running when they seek a more intense workout, or a chance to compete, or just the joy of covering more ground in a day.
What and Where?
Trail running is a broad discipline that covers running anywhere unpaved: dirt roads, double-track jeep trails, single-track hiking trails, fields, forests, coastlines, mountains. We sometimes call it trail running when there’s no trail at all, like when routes veer through bogs, or into mountain talus and boulders. Trail runners may not even run 100% of the time—even in elite-level races, you’ll see competitors drop to a brisk walk as they “power-hike” the steepest uphills, or tread gingerly down the most precarious descents.
Trail running helps recharge your mental batteries by trading crowds and traffic for natural beauty and quiet. It also gives your legs a break from routine. The repetitive strides of road running are replaced by constant adaptation to rocks, roots, ruts, off-camber slopes, steep ups and downs, slippery wet slabs, slippery dry gravel, soft earth, softer grass, hard granite, deep mud, crunchy snow ... It all depends on where you venture.
How to Get Started?
Start slowly. Whether you come from hiking or road running or the couch, your mind and body will need time to adapt to running on trails. The more technical the trail, the more you’ll have to focus your attention in order to run safely.
What does technical mean? The more important the precise placement of each foot, the more technical the trail. Steeper, rockier, more slippery, more exposed to a precipice, all mean more technical. On technical trails, you’ll have to break your road-runner’s trance and watch your step—every step of the way. This is mentally tiring, especially when you’re not used to it.
It’s also physically tiring. You’ll be using your body in completely new ways, varying your gait with each stride, using all your stabilizing muscles, testing your balance, working your ankles, getting comfortable with your feet sliding from time to time.
Both your mind and your body will need to be eased into all this new activity. You can start by mixing just a few minutes of trail running into a road running or hiking session. You can also start with easy, less-technical routes, such as gravel roads.
In either case, it’s best plan your workouts and chart your progress by time, rather than distance. One mile on a tough trail may feel like five miles on the road, so if you go by distance, you’ll risk overdoing it.
Types of Terrain
Trail running terrain varies as much as the great outdoors. Trails may flat or mountainous, smooth or aggressively rugged, wet or dry, forested or open, coastal or inland. And every trail will present a different experience depending on the season. Trail running is a sport defined by variety as much as anything else.
Trail races can be found in every type of terrain and every imaginable distance. Distances can range from 5km to over 100 miles. Sub-disciplines include Fell Running, Sky Running, Mountain Running, and Trail Ultra-Running. If you choose to compete, you’ll be certain to find something that fits your strengths and your whims. Just be sure that you’ve prepared for the specifics of the event. Road racing won’t adequately prepare you for trail racing. Long-distance forest running won’t adequately prepare you for mountain running—and vice-versa!
The requirements are somewhat different from those of road running. You’ll almost certainly want trail running shoes. Compared with road running shoes, these trade some lightness for durability, and some cushioning for stability. They have more aggressive tread patterns for loose terrain, and stickier rubber compounds for gripping dry or wet rock. The rubber tends to be softer, so it won’t wear very long if you use these shoes on tarmac. Keep a pair of road running shoes for the road.
You’ll need to be more self-sufficient on the trail, because your route will often take you far from the comforts of civilization. A hydration pack or vest will be necessary on all but the shortest runs. It will provide storage for other essentials like energy gels, a compact rain shell, sun screen, and a phone.
Pay attention to the weather and your route’s exposure! In the high country, lightning is a serious hazard. At high altitudes and latitudes, summer weather can turn to cold rain or even snow or hail with little warning. Know the forecast, bring lightweight protective gear, and avoid exposed ridges when storms are likely.
Commit your route to memory. On longer or more complex routes, consider bringing a paper map for backup. Phones and other GPS devices are marvelous inventions, but dead batteries and other interventions of bad luck can turn them into useless little bricks. Please don’t bet all your safety on a piece of electronics.
Above all else, enjoy! Whether trail running becomes your main sport, or just an occasional break from routine, we hope you hope you’ll find it a rewarding way to get your blood flowing.