My short trail race last weekend was a success and I loved it. Being new to running on trails, I thought I’d share some lessons learned, and please add any others I haven’t discovered yet!
1. Bring your own water.
This 7–mile race had only one water stop passed mile 5. And, of course, there won’t be any water stops if you just run a trail. Both of my normal routes have water fountains, so I rarely run with a bottle and I don’t have a carrier of any kind. But if I hadn’t run with my own water, I would have really struggled, and I’m glad I dealt with the annoyance of holding it the whole race.
Better yet, use a hydration pack.
2. A trail run is not a nature hike.
On the road or my normal wide gravel trail, I can look around, greet other people, look through the trees and generally take in my surroundings. When on a hike, I can do the same thing.
Not so when running the trail. You’re dealing with uneven ground, roots rocks, divots, drop-offs plus slippery leaves that obscure all of those obstacles. Trail running requires continuous scanning a few steps in front of you and it is certainly not running straight and even like the road. More like, quick step, step, hop, shuffle, step, pivot, long stride, hop, pick your way over the rocks, oh now through water, step, jog-climb up a steep hill, step. The mental work to pay careful attention to the ground is completely different.
3. Your road pace means little on the trail.
Besides the uneven terrain to slow down your pace, hills don’t work the same. Runners love the downhill; it’s time to get some wind in your face and hopefully make up the pace from coming up the hill. Au contraire. You don’t get to fly down hills on the trail. In fact, the downhill is almost harder than uphill. It’s easy to let momentum pull you faster and cause you to trip.
My pace on this 7–mile run was close to two minutes slower than my 13.1 half marathon pace. The expectations are completely different on the trail.
4. You will trip.
I tripped and caught myself at least 5 times. I full–out fell once. Fortunately it was mostly just dirt ground on that section, so I only came up with minor scrapes on my shin.
You will also roll your ankles. That’s just part of running over rocks and such. The key is to stay light on your feet so you can ease through any twists or rolls. Without being careful, I imagine it’s pretty easy to sprain the ankles.
Strong ankles, experience on trail terrain (which I don’t have yet) and supportive shoes make a big difference here.
P.S. I did this run in my Merrell minimal shoes and felt great. The Vibram soles have great grip and flexibility. If (when!) I get into more serious trail running, I’ll want to invest in some Merrell trail shoes, which have thicker soles while maintaining the zero–drop profile.
5. You will get dirty.
You’re going through dust, dirt, mud, water, grass, rocks… even if you don’t fall, you’ll be dirty coming out. Also, think about running in leggings or compression socks – something over your ankles and calves. I was a little worried about poison ivy in some areas.
6. Tired = slow down. Water break = slow down. Locating trail markers = slow down.
You now that feeling when your legs are lead and don’t seem to go where your mind tells them to? On the street this isn’t a big deal; the only thing you have to trip on is an imaginary speed bump (come on, we all know it happens). On the trail, a misstep could mean a serious fall or injury real fast. When you hit that “come on, feet, do what I tell you!” moment, it’s time to slow down. Walk a few yards, shake out the legs, check your breath, have a drink, then speed up again.
Taking a drink likely requires looking up from the ground. Make sure you’re on fairly even ground, slow down and take a quick drink.
Same deal with markers. My race was marked with pink ribbon on trees. Normal hiking trails are marked with paint on trees or signs. Each of these require looking around to spot them, so slow down – or fully stop if you need to look around a lot.
It’s really easy to miss the markers when running, so please take time to find them. Jon was running with a group who missed markers and took a mile detour before getting back on the race route. ESPECIALLY if you run a trail alone, be careful not to get lost.
7. Run with a friend.
Straightforward here. There is a greater chance of injury or getting lost on a trail run, so try not to run alone. At the very least let someone know the trail you’re on, have your phone with you and even try an app that let’s someone track where you are.Enjoy the rugged outdoors, but be smart too.
So did I love it?
Yes! I mean, come on. Trail running gets you to places like this:
I have plenty to learn. It’s a completely different running experience and so nice to do something new. I’ve said for a while that I think I’ll find my real running love on the trail. If you’re getting bored with your road running habit, challenge yourself on new terrain!