Trail Running 101
By: Matthew Frazier
1. Find a trail. By far the best way to start trail running is to find a local group of trail junkies and run with them. They’ll know the best trails in your area and help you get started. Be sure to distinguish between non-technical and technical trails. Non-technical trails are paved, gravel, or dirt roads that are generally easy to negotiate. Technical trails are narrow, dirt or rocky paths offering every variety of challenge that most people associate with trail running.
2. Slow down and take short, quick strides. You can expect to run about 20 percent slower on trails for a given level of exertion than you would on roads. You’ll find steeper hills, more side-to-side movement, and lots of obstacles to deal with. Trail running is most fun when you forget about pace and do what feels good. Shorten your stride so that your weight is over your feet most of the time; this allows you to react quickly and maintain balance. You’ll find that trail running works your core and stabilizer muscles more than road running, so it may help to focus on keeping your core engaged.
3. Don’t be afraid to walk the hills. The surest way to identify a road runner on the trails is to look for the guy who runs past everybody on the uphills, only to be passed again on the downhills. Trail runners know that it’s usually more efficient to walk up the steep hills and conserve energy to make up time on the way down.
4. Scan the ground five to ten feet in front of you as you run. When you’re running trails, you need to pay extra attention to where you step. But you certainly don’t want to be staring straight down at your feet the whole time. Continuously scan the ground a few yards ahead of you while you’re running. As you notice an approaching obstacle, shift your attention to your feet to do whatever is necessary to clear the obstacle. And don’t be lazy—pick up your feet just a little higher than you think is necessary to avoid a root or rock. Too many falls happen due to simple complacency.
5. Keep a distance of ten feet from other runners. If you’re going to pay attention the ground in front of you, it helps if you can actually see it. If that’s not enough reason to keep your distance, trail runners are required to change speeds all the time, rarely with warning. Nobody likes getting rear-ended.
6. Watch out for slippery roots and rocks. If you can step over a fallen tree, root, or large rock, rather than on it, do it. Lots of them are more slippery than they look. And when crossing streams, it’s often safer to walk directly through the water than to try to tiptoe across wet rocks. (You’ll avoid being called names, too.) It’s trail running; you’re supposed to get muddy and wet!
7. Be safe. It’s not called “the wild” for nothing. You know, the common-sense stuff. Whenever possible, run with a friend. Bring a map if you’re running a new trail for the first time. Have a first aid kit in the car, and carry extra food with you for emergencies. Bring along a cell phone if you’re running alone. And know the area you’re running—how to deal with the wildlife, when and where hunting takes place, when the sun goes down, and anything else that might pose a danger.