So what does the average road runner have to gain from venturing out into the wilderness?
Two things. First, reduced risk of injury: The soft, ever-varying surface of the trail lessens the likelihood of an overuse injury, strengthens core muscles, and ultimately makes for more comfortable long runs than asphalt. Second, a rush that road running just can’t give you. It should come as no surprise that soaking in the essence of the forest results in a quantifiably-greater endorphin release than does breathing in roadside fumes.
Trail running has done more than make me a stronger, happier runner: It has made me a runner, period. For seven years before finding the courage and initiative to learn a new type of running, I ran strictly on roads. I relished the day-to-day routine of my training. But I refused to call myself a runner until I could truly enjoy the act of running for its own sake.
It took trail running to make me feel like a runner. Don’t wait as long as I did to try it. Here’s what you need to know to hit the trails safely and discover this wildly soothing side of running.
At its best, trail running is a more minimalistic endeavor than road running. While iPods, GPS devices, and heart rate monitors have become musts for many runners, technology tends to take away from experience of trail running. Even a watch is dispensable.
Still, there are certain necessities for trail running, some of which require different considerations from running on roads.
And don’t forget a towel and a change of clothes, socks, and shoes for afterward. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be wet and dirty by the end of the run.
1. Find a trail.
By far the best way to start trail running is to find a local group of trail runners and run with them. They’ll know the best trails in your area and help you get started.
If you can’t find a group, the American Trail Running Association’s website offers a free directory of U.S. and international trails.
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 or pepper spray 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.