Trail Running Is Easier Than You Think

Trail running is a great alternative to road running. In addition to the benefit of spending time in a natural (rather than suburban or urban) environment, running on trails is a unique physical and mental challenge. It’s a full-body workout that requires your full attention. There’s also a camaraderie among people that use the trail (for hiking as well as running) that simply doesn’t exist on the road.

Before I discuss the differences in more detail, let’s define what a trail is. A trail is not paved. Nor is it a road of any kind. A trail could be made of gravel, sand, bare ground, grass, or any combination of surfaces other than pavement. If only hikers, horses, dogs, and bicycles are allowed, that’s definitely a trail for trail running. If it’s paved, or motor vehicles are allowed, that would be a “road.” (For example, most park paths are paved and have a similar surface to road running. Running on those paths is great, but would not be considered “trail runs.”)

There are two main types of trails: multi-use and single-track. Multi-use trails are shared between hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers, as well as dogs and horses (along with their riders). Because these trails are used for a wide array of activities, the trail is usually wide enough for two people (or groups) to pass. Single-track is usually restricted to hiking or biking, because it’s only wide enough for one person. This is an important distinction when you’re looking for a trail, especially if you are planning to run with a dog or other people.

In my opinion, trail running and road running are two unique aspects of a common sport, like the difference between being a competitive high school 50m sprinter and a recreational marathoner. There are some people who say that the only difference between trail and road running is the surface itself. But I disagree, because in my experience (and in the experiences of runners I know) there are three significant aspects to trail running that make it unique from running on roads.

1. Equipment

You don’t always need specific shoes for trails, especially if the trails in your area are grassy or flat. The best example of this are “Rail trails”, which are created from former railroad tracks.  Road shoes are usually fine for this type of trail, especially once you’ve worn them in a little. However, if the trails accessible to you are rocky, sandy, steep, or in any way irregular or treacherous, you should wear trail-specific shoes. When I participated in a Ragnar Trail Relay, I wore road shoes on my shortest leg and regretted it because I could feel every rock underfoot and I stubbed my toe about fifteen times on rocks that hit the top of my shoe. I was terrified the whole time that I would land funny and twist an ankle. Trail shoes tend to have broader soles that provide support on uneven terrain, and more protection on the upper from rocks and pebbles. Trail shoes also offer more stability for your ankles and can be paired with gaiters that go up over your ankle so that you don’t get sand, dirt, or mud all over your legs and feet if it’s dusty or wet. (Because most trail shoes are water resistant and have thick soles that grip the ground, they are great to wear camping or hiking.)

In addition to trail shoes, you may also want to buy a hydration backpack. Most trails are in rural areas where drinking water isn’t available, even at the trailheads (the start and finish). I usually carry twice as much water as I expect to need in my hydration pack, and if I have my dog Sport with me, at least one liter of water for him in a bottle along with a collapsible water bowl to pour it into. I also usually bring snacks for myself (my favorite are Picky Bars) and treats for Sport. You could pack toilet paper, too, if you’re worried about going to the bathroom outdoors. If it’s sunny or warm, bringing an electrolyte drink like Gatorade or Nuun is smart, as is leaving an extra bottle of water in your car for afterward, especially if  you use an insulated container like a S’Well, Yeti, or HydroFlask. And of course, be sure to wear sunscreen.

Another optional piece of equipment is trekking poles. On steep or rocky trails, poles can be invaluable. Poles range in cost from $40 to $200. (I own poles, but have only had to use them a few times. If you hike a lot, or live in an area that’s steep, hilly, or rocky this can be a useful buy.)

When it comes to equipment and supplies, respect the natural environment. Pack lightly, because you should carry out everything you’re bringing in.

2. Safety

“Hi--I’m starting at the Tennessee Valley trailhead in Marin, and taking Sport up on the Miwok Trail. We’re going to do six miles, and I should be back around noon or 1pm. If you don’t hear from me by 4pm, there’s a problem.”

I’m a stickler for safety. I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and I know that the woods can be a dangerous place. It’s easy to get lost, and you might not have a cell signal. There may not be Wi-Fi, but there are snakes, bears, and coyote (depending on where you live) as well as a million other dangers out on a trail. Let me be clear: it’s not likely that you will need someone to follow up on a text like this, but it’s important that you send it every time you go out on a trail by yourself, or even with other people.

Here’s why: if you get hurt or lost, a detailed text can help first responders or park rangers find you. I always include who is with me (canine or human) and make sure to mention the specific trail(s) I’m taking and when I expect to be back. I also plan to finish well before sunset so that if I am in trouble, someone can take action before it gets dark. To be honest, I’ve never had a problem, but establishing this system is helpful. Most trail runners I know who run alone always send texts like this.

A few years ago, I went on a backpacking trip where the leaders expected a handheld GPS to last three days climbing up and down mountains. The GPS lost power on the second day. I was the only person to turn off my cell phone when we walked into the woods, so I was the only person who had any battery left when we got completely lost. Half the group expected to be car camping, so we were out of water. The leaders didn’t bring a compass, because they had the GPS. It was a very dangerous situation, but luckily my dad taught me and my brother how to tell direction by where the sun is in the sky. Based on a rough map of the area, I was able to navigate us to a rustic camp where we could spend the night.

The next day, when other hikers arrived at our camp, I explained the situation and asked them to lead us back to the car. The leaders of our trip were embarrassed, but I was furious. By depending on electronic technology and being otherwise unprepared, these guys had put everyone’s safety in question.

So: bring your phone. And, it bears reiterating, bring water--way more than you think you’ll need. Bring extra snacks. It’s no big deal to unpack what’s extra, but you will regret it immediately if you get lost and don’t have food or water. And you will get lost. In 2015, my girlfriends and I got totally lost hiking down a mountain in Wyoming. Lucky for us, we had plenty of water and ended up running into someone who helped us get back to where we had parked. We intended to hike 5 or 6 miles and ended up hiking 13!

It’s easy to get lost, even at the start. Finding trailheads can sometimes be confusing because the maps are tiny online, or there’s multiple places to park. I’ve definitely wandered back and forth through a parking lot looking for a trailhead, or chosen to do a different trail or loop after I arrived because I couldn’t find the trail I had picked beforehand. Trail signs are often randomly placed or non-existent. When you’re not sure where you’re going, it’s wise to do an out-and-back instead of a loop. (Or take every right fork on the way out and every left fork on the way back, etc.).

And, last but not least, don’t wear headphones. Trail running is a unique opportunity to be out in nature, but the natural environment has hazards that developed areas do not. You want to be able to hear other runners and hikers but especially horses, mountain bikers, and wildlife out on the trail. Give wildlife tons of room. You’re in their home and not the other way around.

3. Your Approach to the Run Itself

It’s totally different to road running. That’s why I think runners transitioning to trails should give up the idea of sticking to a particular pace, especially at first. Even experienced trail runners don’t keep the same pace on trail as they do on roads. Most trail runners I know don’t even run the whole way, especially if they are just starting to run on trails. Instead, they walk up the inclines, do a casual run/jog on the flats, and run down the declines.  Often, I end up hiking large portions of my trail runs. At the Ragnar Trail Relay I participated in, I hiked two of my three “runs.” That’s totally okay, because in my opinion, it’s the distance that matters, not the pace. (Similarly, you can and should count a trail “run” that’s mostly hiking or walking as part of your weekly “running” mileage during a training cycle.) The purpose of being out on the trails is enjoying the environment and being challenged by a slightly different workout, so embrace that and let go of any focus on pacing or splits.

I hope this blog has helped you feel more confident about getting out in nature. Enjoy the trails!