The Basics: Six Simple Things You Need to Know About Trail Running
Written & Edited by Pavlína Marek
At its core, trail running is simple. You just put on your shoes and go out there, as fast or slow as you want, for as long as you feel like, with as many or as few people as you enjoy. I believe that no checklists are needed in order for you to enjoy trail running. However, here are a few trail running basics for those of you who want to be more prepared.
My first trail run happened by accident, in old, torn-apart gym shoes, hiking-like pants, and a heavy cotton shirt. Objectively, that would be a terrible choice of equipment had I planned for it to be a trail run, but the beautiful thing is that I didn’t plan to run that day. In fact, I never planned to run at all. I didn’t find trail running; trail running found me. And completely changed my life in ways I could have never imagined.
If you want to go out there and hit a trail, I have only one piece of advice for you: DO IT. But if you want to go into it with a bit of knowledge (and perhaps save yourself some of the more serious trouble I got into, which might be a good call), read on. Here are six simple things you need (might want) to know about trail running. However, the most important one will always remain: ENJOY YOURSELF OUT THERE!
Trail-specific shoes aren’t a must for the less technical stuff but on more challenging trails, they can often be what makes or breaks your run. (No wonder shoes are the first on this list of trail running basics!) Wearing trail shoes with good tread is crucial when the only thing that keeps you from sliding down a mountain in a less-than-elegant fashion is the shoe’s sole! There are also many different tread patterns for different conditions (a different pattern works better for dry gravelly trails than for soft muddy ones) but a good pair of basic trail running shoes is really all you need to start.
Many people will favor lower-stack height shoes for the trail as they can significantly lower the risk of injury on uneven terrain. They offer better stability by keeping the foot closer to the ground and can help prevent a turned ankle. This being said, you should never rely solely on your shoes to prevent an injury—there are many strengthening exercises to help you get ready for the gnarlier stuff.
As mentioned above, some strength training will be helpful. It’s already important to keep the core, the ankles, and many other body parts in good shape for road running but when you go on the trails, the “important” turns into “crucial.”
This doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym for half a year before you can even think about trail running, oh no. Many runners started on and kept solely to trails and gained all the necessary strength along the way. The important thing is to start out slow and easy on the smooth and gradual stuff like fire roads and hit the more technical trails later on. You can’t be bombing down the Temelpa or Fern Creek trails on your first trail run but you can take on Mount Tamalpais’s Old Stage and Old Railroad Grade fire roads, for example.
When trail running, you’ll spend more time out there than you’re used to. The more hills, heat, roots, and rocks you encounter, the longer it’ll take you to cover the same distance. You might be used to running 8-minute miles on the road. On trails, that can fall down to 10 or 12-minute miles. Yes, even 15 minutes per mile is running out on the slightly more technical stuff! This is not a bad thing—trail running in general is more about the enjoyment of natural movement through whichever gorgeous place you’re running in than speed!
The slowing down discussed above means you’re more likely to need some water and food along the way. And because not every trail has a water fountain every few miles, you’ll have to carry your fluids and nutrition with you. Sometimes, a small hip belt or a hand-held bottle is enough: half a liter and an energy gel will suffice. Sometimes, the requirements are higher and a running pack might be needed to carry everything.
Even if your usual marathon is a three-hour affair, you might spend five hours doing a trail marathon. This is a long time to be out there without any sustenance! Carrying enough fluids and nutrition is crucial to successfully (and safely!) complete such a marathon. Taking in food and water is one of the more important trail running basics. Test it out on your longer runs and find what works for you—sometimes, it’s not gels but licorice and salted mashed potatoes that give you the best boost for the trails!
5. Sun & Snow
When trail running, you’ll often be more at the mercy of the elements. Trail running, besides many other great things, also helps you get more attuned to the natural cycles. However, this comes with what might look like a bit of a downside at first, especially when the sun is trying to scorch your skin off or when you’re getting pelted by sideways rain. But as the old saying goes; there’s no bad weather, only bad clothes! Make sure you’re going out there equipped properly (sun shirts, sunscreen, and sunglasses vs. thermal base layers, rain jackets, and gloves) to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. (Type 2 Fun is still fun!)
6. Someone to Run With
Last on this short list, this point isn’t any less important than the others; quite the opposite! Trail running can offer the most beautiful solitude, but it’s also an inherently social affair. (The greatest friendships of my life have been formed out there!) Whether you run with the wind, your favorite songs, your favorite person, or a group of people, trail running will never leave you alone. The trail communities are some of the most supportive and caring ones out there and just like you can bet the trail will always be there for you when you need it the most, you can be sure those friendships forged out there will stay strong for years to come. For some, community is the most important of trail running basics!