Last fall, I ran my first trail half marathon. It was probably one of the roughest courses I’ve ever run, but since then I’ve fallen in love with the beauty of trail running. I’ve been wanting to add more trail runs into my race schedule ever since, so it was perfect timing when Dan Chabert from runnerclick.com offered to write a guest post on the subject. Thanks to Dan for the great insight below. And make sure to check out runnerclick.com and gearweare.com/ for more great articles like this one.
Trail Running for the First Time
We runners have it made. There are very little complicating factors to our sport. As long as you’re interested in running, put a pair of shoes on your feet (and that’s up for debate), and propel yourself forward (generally speaking), it’s safe to say that you can wear the “runner” label with pride. It’s also critical that you have somewhere safe that you can run – roads, trails, or a treadmill, it doesn’t really matter – but other than those few aforementioned aspects, that’s all we need to run. It’s pretty liberating how straightforward running is, isn’t it?
For a lot of runners, when they begin, they restrict themselves to only being road runners – meaning that more often than not, they run on pavement – because that’s the only thing they know. A lot of runners, both the newbies and the veterans, don’t realize that there’s an entire world of trail running available at their disposal, and trail running, while still being part of the running sport, can be an entirely different activity to master. Trails can bring some elements of uncertainty and “danger” that you don’t usually get from road running – typically due to the changing and (perhaps) technical terrain – but it can also bring you untold amounts of joy that you simply don’t get, or don’t get as easily, from roads running.
Aside from the obvious physiological strengthening that you’ll get from running trails – since trail running works different muscle groups than does road running – I think that you’ll also experience some good-for-the-soul vibes when you’re running through Nature’s playgrounds, as silly and hippy-dippy as that may sound. You’ll get stronger and faster on both trails and roads by running trails; you’ll likely find that you’re more “centered” by running trails; and hell, who doesn’t appreciate a change of scenery every once in a while? This is a no-brainer, gang!
Here’s the thing: a lot of us might feel like we can’t be trail runners because we live in a part of the country that’s flat, without the beastly hills and mountain ranges that we see our friends running each weekend from their Instagram feeds. Not so! I challenge you to look at a map – seriously – because chances are high that you’ll probably find some big swaths of green in your vicinity – the big green patches indicating woods, parks, or forest preserves. Before you know it, you’ll have come upon some new-to-you trail running opportunities that were there all along. It’s amazing what we can find when we break away from our norms and actually look for new opportunities.
Just in case I haven’t made my pleas as apparent as possible: consider incorporating trails in your training routine. Trails are good for helping you prevent physical and mental burnout, which are both so unfortunately common in our sport, and I bet that running around in the woods near you will leave you a happier, more “zen,” and stronger version of yourself.
Here are some of my suggestions to get you started on the wonderful path toward trail running:
Do some research to see what’s near you. Like I said earlier, check out a map to see what trail systems, parks, forest preserves, or woods are near you. If there’s nothing in your immediate surroundings, maybe there is something just a little further away, someplace that you can reserve for weekend runs or special occasion runs. The big green blocks of land on the map are usually tell-tale signs, but also look near bodies of water, like rivers, lakes, and ponds, since these places oftentimes also have adjacent or adjoining trails to run.
Connect with experienced trail runners near you. Our good friend, the Internet, can help you find local-to-you trail running groups that’ll be really helpful as you figure out how to foray into this new type of running. It may be outside your comfort zone, but consider joining a trail running group’s meetup so you can meet people who are more experienced than you in running trails. At least initially, it’ll be really important for you to run with more experienced trail runners because you’ll have many opportunities to ask them questions and because, practically speaking, they’ll likely help ensure that you don’t get lost somewhere (not that I’m speaking from experience…). Eventually, you’ll be able to return the favor to new trail runners later down the line.
Hold off on buying trail running-specific gear. Running is versatile and really accessible, and we don’t really require that much gear to be able to run (and to run well). That said, runners are known for liking their “stuff.” When you’re beginning to incorporate trail running into your repertoire, I’d suggest holding off on immediately buying trail running-specific gear, simply because you may find that the stuff you have already works just fine. It’s possible that you’ll want to have trail-specific shoes, socks, or a larger hydration pack, but you might not. Give yourself the opportunity for trial and error, at least initially, so you don’t needlessly spend your money. Plus, the money you save on gear can be used toward trail races, which leads us to our next point…
Go for it! Race trails! If you’re not burning through all your money on gear, that means you have more disposable income to spend on races, right? When you’re incorporating trail running into your fitness routine, you may find that you’re becoming more interested in running some trail races instead of road races for a change, and that’s great! Like road races, trail races feature short and long options, from 5k all the way to 100 miles+, so it’s just a matter of picking the right distance for you. Your trail running buddies from your local running group can be especially helpful in this regard because they can give you local race recommendations (and suggestions on how to properly train for local trail races). You’ll soon be able to add an additional category of PRs to your name, too, since trail PRs and road PRs are categorically different.
We runners are creatures of habit, and while that’s not always a bad thing, it’s also not always a good thing, either. If you’re beginning to feel like you’re mentally or physically burnt-out, or that you need a change of scenery, or some fun new challenges, trail running might be your ticket. Running trails will help you become a stronger athlete, both mentally and physically, and I think the fitness you gain from the trails is easily transferable to road racing. Probably more than anything, though, trail running may help bring back that loving feeling to your running and help you find some joy that you may be missing in your current running situation.
Writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Dan is an entrepreneur, husband and ultramarathon distance runner. He spends most of his time on runnerclick.com and he has been featured on runnerblogs all over the world.