If you’re coming to trail running from road running, you’ve probably already realised that trail running prevents a unique set of challenges. Technical terrain, the remoteness of trails, and a foreign outdoor culture can all make it seem like a completely different sport. And that’s because it is. But, despair not – these 16 top tips give you much of what a trail running neophyte needs to know, and everything else is presented in links scattered throughout the article.
Keep your eyes on the trail
Your surroundings might be the stuff of outdoor magazine centrefolds, but don't be tempted to take your eyes off the trail while in mid-flight – the dangers are obvious. But also don’t look straight down at your feet. Rather scan the trail ahead (four or five feet) for obstacles. This way you can plot a course over and around rocks and roots that might otherwise trip you up or slow you down. This is an essential skill for keeping momentum on the trail.
Take quick, short strides
Shortening your stride helps you maintain balance on uneven terrain and makes it easier to vary the length of a single stride when you need to clear awkwardly positioned obstacles. Shorter strides are also more energy efficient since they help prevent you from pounding the ground in a heelstrike – a sure way to waste energy. By moving your feet quickly through a short orbital range of motion, you direct more of your spent energy into moving you forward. See this article on trail running technique for more pointers.
Use your arms for balance
Think of how you would use your arms on a balance beam or a slackline if you’ve ever tried one. You can do the same on technical, balancy sections by keeping your elbows wide or even putting your hands out to improve control. Keeping your stride short will also help maintain control. Boulder fields, dry river beds, and rock strewn trails are good places to practice this technique, but you’d also benefit from doing some balance exercises at home (more on that in the section on strength and balance).
Monitor your pace
Keep an eye on your pace, but not just to monitor your performance. By becoming familiar with your average pace over different types of terrain, you’ll be able to better estimate how much time you need to complete new runs. This is a real help if you want to be home before dark or in time for dinner. On that note, it’s a good idea to always pack a headlamp on late afternoon runs. Garmin’s Forerunners sports watches are popular with runners, but you don’t need to spend a few hundred dollars or euros on a new piece of kit just to track your times. Strava’s paid subscription offers many of the same tracking features of a sports watch but at a fraction of the cost of a watch.
Hike the hills
Some steeper and more technical hills should be walked or ‘power hiked’. This is especially true during longer runs or races where it’s important to conserve energy. On sustained inclines, walking is far more efficient than trying to keep up a running cadence, and the conserved energy can be put to better use later when the angle flattens. If it makes you feel like a hiker, tell your ego that most ultra runners walk the uphills and run the downhills and flats. It’s a part of trail running and is completely acceptable.
Consider swapping to a midfoot strike
There’s nothing wrong with using a heel strike if you’re injury-free and haven’t made a habit of bringing your heel down hard. That said, there are benefits to swapping to a midfoot strike. Stability and control are more important in trail running than in road running, and midfoot strike puts your midfoot and toes into contact with the ground at the point of initial impact. This means more contact between your shoe and the ground, and more grip with which to slow yourself down or apply force laterally. Just know that changing your stride requires some transitioning. Most midfoot converts do this when they swap to zero-drop shoes.
Work on balance and strength
Trail running differs from road running in that it requires you to jump over things, sidestep other obstacles, and even balance your way across skinny sections for trail. This agility requires much balance and strength. Balance is a function of proprioception, coordination and core strength – aspects of your fitness that you might not have focussed on before if you are coming from the road. To develop your core, do push-ups, sit-ups, crunches and planks a few times a week, but also don’t neglect to mix in some lunges, pistol squats and calf raises to develop the strength you’ll need to have in reserve when you have to jump up or over obstacles.
Eat and rest well for proper recovery
Training without adequate rest and refueling will diminish the returns of your investment. To get the most from the time and effort you’ve put in, give your body what it needs to recover properly. That’s at least eight hours sleep a night, rest days where they’re needed, and a healthy diet that meets your energy requirements. Starving yourself to lose weight will not help you run better. It will make you feel tired and increase the risk of injury. Aim to consume as many calories as you burn.
Carry enough water
Dehydration is a leading cause of underperformance in runners. Without enough water, an athlete will digest nutrients slowly, experience fatigue, and overheat faster. Most runners need somewhere around a litre of water every hour, depending on heat, humidity and level of exertion. But water by itself is not enough. You also have to replace lost electrolytes, and it’s important to add rehydration salts to create a hypotonic mix if you’re not using a sports drink which already has added sugars and salts. If your strategy is to refill at natural water sources, carry extra rehydration salt tablets.
Try running with poles
Trekking poles are not just for helping with balance. Runners with adequate upper body fitness can also use them to affect some upward motion on inclines. In this way sticks can help spread the load and lessen the impact on your knees and hips. With a pair of sticks in your hands, you can think of your arms as a second pair of legs. But choose your trekking poles carefully if you decide to get a pair. Sticks that are too heavy or the wrong length will be more of a burden than a benefit. See my article on trekking poles for further advice on how to choose and use these important pieces of kit.
Carry a blister kit
Blisters can stop you in your tracks if left untreated. A blister kit can help you prevent these insidious little nasties from becoming show stoppers. With a little anti-chafe lube or blister patch, you can stop most hot spots from becoming blisters, but if one does develop, a full blister kit (with blade or needle) will allow you to drain and dress a blister before you get going again. See my article on preventing and treating blisters for a more full account of this essential trail-side first aid.
Stay motivated by changing things up
Things can get a little stale if you run the same trails with the same crowd week after week. To add a little variety to your running, try exploring new trails or running with different people. Or you can freshen things up by trying different types of running. If you’ve never tried night running or fastpacking, maybe this is a good time to broaden your horizons. By joining a trail running club, you can meet runners who can introduce you to the world of running beyond your current experience.
Know the rules of the trail
The rules on shared trails can vary from area to area, but generally it’s accepted that horse riders have right of way, then pedestrians, and then cyclists. Besides yielding to horse riders, it’s considered good practice to give a rider an audible heads up if they don’t see you approaching. When you come across other runners, the norm is for downhill runners to give way to uphill runners since it’s harder to get going uphill once you’ve stopped. But remember that this is a social contract based on the agreement of many, and the ‘right’ in ‘right of way’ is not something you can take for granted. Be courteous at all times.
If possible, always run with a friend and take a cell phone or satellite messenger with you. If you have nobody to run with, you should at least let someone know where you’re going and what time you should be expected back by. This is a good idea even if you’re running with others, especially if you’re heading out onto remote trails or those that don’t see a lot of traffic. Lastly, know how to respond if you come across dangerous wildlife. In North America, large carnivores like bears and cougars can pose a threat to runners, and knowing how to deal with predators can make the difference between a good story and injury.
Leave your troubles at the trailhead
Running is an activity which requires very little thought. This freedom can give your mind a break from cognitively-intensive tasks like driving, typing an email, or chairing a meeting. The problem is that your brain is unlikely to change gears just because you’re giving it less to do. Left to its own devices, your brain will fill your consciousness with thoughts that don’t need to be examined right there and then. Everyone needs a break from the stresses of daily life, and mindfulness means focussing on the present and putting aside nagging concerns until later. To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and how they can be employed while running, see my article on mindful running.
Leave No Trace
It’s been said that you should leave behind nothing but footprints, but even footprints can do damage if you step in the wrong place. To avoid making a bigger impact than you need to, stay on marked trails and run through puddles and over obstacles rather than around them. By stepping around obstacles, you will only widen a trail and contribute to erosion. So do mother nature a solid, and get your feet dirty. Lastly – and this should go without saying – don’t leave litter behind, not orange peels, not microtrash, and definitely not toilet paper. If using trekking poles, also know how they can damage the trail and how you can mitigate that risk.