Why run on a boring old road when you could run in the bush? There’s beautiful scenery, birds, and that triumphant post-run feeling of knowing you survived more challenging conditions. Trail running is a little different than running on roads, but with a bit of preparation, it can be a great change-up.
Lifehacker’s Running Week is presented by our regular Vitals column, offering health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.
Here’s what you need to know about making the switch.
You’ll Go Shoe Shopping All Over Again
You found your perfect running shoes, and thought you had that job finished. For trails, though, you may want to start over and find shoes designed for trails.
Some road shoes have a trail version, so that’s a good place to start if you have shoes you love. Some road shoes, as a pleasant surprise, may work just fine on the trails. (I do both my road running and trail running in the Nike Free.) Here’s what you’ll need to keep in mind:
- Grip. If the soles of your road shoes are flat, smooth, and inflexible, they’re a liability on the trails. Find shoes that can keep their grip on wet and irregular surfaces.
- Mud and water. Especially in swampy areas or in the spring, you may run into muddy terrain and puddles — and you may need to cross streams without the help of a bridge or stepping stones. Water-resistant shoes help a little, but if you’re going to run through a lot of creeks, what you really want is a mesh shoe that will dry out easily.
- Cushioning. If your trails are rocky, you may want plenty of rubber between your feet and the road. On the other hand, some runners love minimalist trail shoes. If that idea appeals to you, try a medium-soled shoe until you have a better sense of the trails in your area (how rocky are they really?) and always ease into minimalist running if you’re new to it.
The basic rules of choosing trail shoes are the same as for road shoes: comfort is more important than whether a shoe is the “right” one for your foot type (the rules about picking the “right” shoes turned out to be mostly bogus), and when you find something you like, stick with it. To help you get started, check out these tips on choosing trail shoes, and keep an eye out for reviews and yearly shoe guides like this one.
Don’t Sweat Your Pace
If you keep track of your pace as you run (or analyse the numbers afterward), you’re in for a paradigm shift. On the roads, you can gauge how hard you’re working by how fast you’re running, and you can plan how long a run will take because you know how long it is and what your usual pace is. On the trails, though, all bets are off.
You may be shocked and disappointed on your first trail run. That’s normal. Hills are tough (and you never make up as much speed on downhills as you lost on the uphill). Not only that, but the challenge of keeping your footing around rocks, roots, or slippery terrain slows you down too. You’re also working your muscles harder, in many cases, to dodge obstacles and constantly adjust your footing. A five-mile trail run is almost guaranteed to feel harder, and take longer, than five miles on the roads.
Here’s how to deal with this new reality:
- Stop caring about your pace. I know, old habits die hard. But try leaving your watch at home just this once, or turn off the pace alerts on your running app. Accept that pace means very little on the trails, and judge runs by how you feel.
- Train with a heart rate monitor if you really want to gauge effort by the numbers. If your pace is slow but your heart is pumping, you know you’re working hard.
- Walk sometimes. Running without walk breaks is a reasonable goal on the roads, but often impossible on hilly trails. If you talk to people who do long distance trail races, they will admit to mixing running and hiking, especially on rough terrain or to pace themselves when they know they have hours left to go. Practice hiking quickly, especially up hills or over uneven ground; it’s often faster and more efficient than a slow jog.
If you want to see numbers go down, time yourself on the same stretch of trail every month or so, or just focus on how your road numbers are improving due to the work you’ve put in on the trails.
When you take to the trails — especially if you’re heading out for multi-hour hikes — you’re taking on some risks.
First, you might get lost. Yes, even when it feels like you’re very close to roads and populated areas. Badly labelled trails and confusing switchbacks once had me looking at my GPS, seeing that I was in a small triangle of woods between three major roads — but from the terrain around me, I could see there was no clear path to any of the roads. I’d have to follow the trail, but trails don’t show up on Google Maps. Meanwhile, the sun was going down and my phone’s battery was dying.
Always make sure to bring, on any long trail run or hike:
- A flashlight, even if you think you’ll be home before dark (famous last words)
- A portable charger for your phone
- Trail maps, if possible
- More food and water than you think you’ll need
- A space blanket or other emergency gear if you’re caught in bad weather or have to spend the night
Those are my essentials, but refer to hiking safety checklists for more complete information. Obviously you won’t carry all this gear on a quick three-miler in your local park, but if you plan to be out for a longer time or in unfamiliar territory, you’re probably carrying a small backpack anyway.
On that night I was lost, I texted my coordinates to my husband (this was before Google offered commute sharing, which I now use). He grabbed the trail guide I’d left with him, compared it to the terrain and satellite views on Google Maps, and called back before the phone died to tell me the quickest way to the road. That’s the other half of trail safety, besides bringing personal gear: Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back, and leave them enough information that they could help you navigate, or send someone out to look for you.
To reduce the chances of getting lost in the first place:
- Hike or run new trails with somebody who knows the area. In many areas, hikers and runners may have facebook pages or other groups you can get in contact with. Joining group runs can be a great way to learn trails safely.
- Follow tips like these for staying on badly-marked trails, and consider turning back before you get irrevocably lost, when you still have time and light to go back the way you came.
Injuries are the other big risk. It’s rare to trip and fall on the road, but if you run trails regularly you’ll eventually take a spill or two. If it’s more involved than skinned knees, consider how you’ll get back home. What if you roll your ankle and you’re two miles from your car?
The communication lines you set up in case you get lost will help here, too: use your phone, tell someone where you’re going, and so on. It’s safest to run with a friend if your trail isn’t well-travelled and if you don’t know whether you’ll have reception. Also consider carrying identification, either in a wallet or a custom tag or bracelet like a Road ID.
Despite the minor dangers, trail running is fun and addictive. You can’t beat the scenery, especially if your trails take you up peaks and ridges with a great view. If you like wildlife, trails are a great place to be; I’ve never seen a towhee, northern flicker, or scarlet tanager anywhere except on a trail run.
After enough time running trails, you’ll be a beast on hills, and wonder why your road-running friends are all huffing and puffing when the going gets steep. You’ll have stronger ankle and lower-leg muscles, and quicker footwork (great if you play a sport where that’s an asset). Next time you go camping, you’ll be able to see scenery faster than the average hiker. Happy running!