20 Tips to Become a Trail Runner
So you want to run on trails? Perhaps scrolling through hundreds of staged instagram photos has given you the desire to leave the concrete and become a trail runner. Maybe you are thinking, “So cool! People who run trails are like hipster athletes who can drink beer and not get fat!” Or, maybe you are one of those strange people who are genuinely seeking trail running as a way to get off pavement, explore nature, and see more of your state or country?
Well, no matter the starting point, the reality is that running trails is quite different from pavement. That might seem obvious to you, but…well, it wasn’t obvious to me!
I decided to become a trail runner in 2013 at the Great Wall Marathon in China when I met the New Zealand National Mountain Running team. (They finished the marathon a full hour ahead of me!) Before then, It had never, never occurred to me that there was an entire team dedicated solely to the purpose of becoming quad beasts and crushing mountains. Little grasshopper had a lot to learn.
Fast forward to the end of 2014, post-embarrassing marathon finish, and a general dissatisfaction with being an ex-expat (long story short, I was living in the States for the first time in 7 years). I decided that I needed a challenge, the outdoors was my church, and if given enough time, there was the slight possibility that I could one day join a mountain running team in a country full of handsome men and exotic food. (Admittedly, this is an utterly stupid reason.)
I annoyed many (many) patient and seasoned trail runners with questions, I read books, trolled the depths of the interwebs, scrolled through endless race reports, and ran some bad (and a few good) trail races. In the end, I learned a lot (and I’m still learning), but eventually I had to get out there and learn by trial and error.
20 Tips to Start Trail Running
Here are 20 bits of advice, direction, tips, and general rules to help you start trail running:
- Find some trails and run. Yes, it’s that simple.
- Be O.K. with getting lost once and awhile. General safety tips apply here: Bring a phone and know how to read a map and tell your partner, housemate, person, or a mostly mature adult where, when and how long you will be out on the trails. If you are running a trail that is not well marked, or doing an out and back run, take a look behind you every mile so you’ll recognize where you should be on the return trip.
- Go through mud, not around it.
- A “wilder-poo” is often necessary to become a trail runner. Do not fear the wilder-poo, simply pack some toilet paper and a plastic bag – you’ll be fine.
- A hydration pack or handheld is your best friend. Not only will you have a place to stash the above mentioned wilder poo necessities, but also your phone, a snack, salt tabs, or your fuel of choice.
- Try different shoes. Your road shoes are a cadillac. Your trails shoes should be an SUV. When purchasing, think about: stability, cushion, and spending 1-8 hours in a shoe going over/through water, mud, roots, rocks, wood chips, sand etc.
- Try different socks: those lean little ankle skimmers might work for pavement, but running through burrs, thorns, dirt, sand and bugs can irritate legs. This is why those slightly dorky knee huggers and mid calf socks were invented. Think about padding, wicking, slipping (how well the sock keeps your foot in place), and how easy they are to get on and off. Take a pair of compression socks for a run (the debate is still out if these actually help) but understanding if they work for you is important.
- If you have done any sort of run longer than than a mile, you likely already understand the despair that is chafing and blisters. Thus, do not underestimate the power of Body Glide and Vaseline to address both.
- Know that a five mile run on trails will take longer than five miles on pavement.
- Don’t litter. The legend goes that for every time you litter, a unicorn cries. Not cool.
- Ask questions. Ask me questions. Ask someone who seems like a super cool pro questions. This is the best way to become a trail runner.
- Mountain bikes, horses, and faster runners use trails, too (surprise!). When a mountain biker and runner play chicken, it never ends well. Be a good person: yeild, give warning if you are passing (yelling “on your left/right” works great), and give horses a wide berth.
- Trail running works muscles you never knew you had – the lateral movements can work your legs, core, ankles, shins, feet in new and painful ways. Be smart: stretch, foam roll, do yoga, burn incense, or whatever it is you do after a hard workout to help your muscles recover.
- Start out fast-hiking those hills. We can’t all be the New Zealand Mountain Running Team on our first try. Once you have that down, gradually add in a bit of slow hill running and run a bit further each time.
- Use sunscreen and bug repellant (because your mom was right, and you will inevitably need both of theses).
- To try and avoid falling, look three strides ahead of you and pick up your feet a bit more. Know that you will fall eventually.
- Make a list of things to try (gear, food, races, electrolyte powder) and pick a few to test on each run. Afterwards, make your own opinions on what suits your needs. Not sure where to start? Try these suggestions:
- Learn about the hallowed buff and its many uses such as sweat band, nose wipe, and face covering.
- A trucker hat was invented to be worn backward.
- If you live in the city or work in an urban jungle, chances are you will be driving to a trailhead. Thus, fill a pack with your gear, non perishable energy fuel, an extra pair of socks, a clean shirt, bug spray, sunscreen, Body Glide, wet wipes, etc. Have it on hand so you can grab it and be ready to run. Nothing is worse than showing up at a trailhead, only to realize your forgot socks.
Your Tips to Become a Trail Runner
If you’re a grizzled vet when it comes to trail running, what else would you add to help others become a trail runner? If you’re new to trail running, what things give you hesitation or pause?