Trail Running 101

Early Sunday morning I ran my favorite trail – Manassas Battlefield – with a group of friends. I don’t know what it is about trail running, but whereas road running has the tendency to wring me out, trail running fills me up. There is nothing I like more than running through the trees, feeling the crunch of leaves or – depending on the season - rustle of grass under my feet , inhaling the scents of nature (unless there are skunks or dead animals, in which case I hold my breath!), and hearing the water run through the streams.

I’ve been running trails for many years and find them a very comfortable place to run, but I know there are many people who find trails intimidating, perhaps even scary. A few weeks ago a friend asked if I’d write a post on how to run trails. My first reaction was, “write about trails? Sure! I love trails!” And then I thought, maybe I don’t have all the answers, because I don’t really know what the questions are. So I asked people to tell me what they want to know. Below are the requests I received, and my answers.

How to run over trail stuff without getting an injury!

In my humble opinion, you’re a whole lot more likely to get injured running on a man-made surface (asphalt, concrete, track) than on a trail. That being said, I realize the fear is that you’ll trip over something. It probably is true that there are more serious injuries on the trail, such as broken bones, than on the road. First of all, you have to let go of that fear because otherwise you’re much more likely to fall because you’re not relaxed, and running relaxed is important on the trails. After I broke my ankle on a cross-country course my first few runs back on the trail were terrible because I was being overcautious and I was so afraid. Once I relaxed, I was fine.

Here’s the key: look where you’re going. That doesn’t mean stare at the ground under your feet. Look out and ahead, and you’ll spot any obstacles way before they become an issue. Another important modification is shorten your stride. I find that I naturally do this on the trail, but if you’re used to taking big long strides, you’ll want to shorten them on the trail. Doing this makes you more nimble and able to place your feet exactly where you want to. Remember, you’re not running in a straight line so your feet will need to land in different directions.

Here’s another request:

The subtle differences from the road. What you wish you knew on your first trail race / run

I don’t think there really are subtle differences. I think the differences are quite glaring. You know how road biking is so completely different from mountain biking? I don’t think the difference between road running and trail running is as big as that, but it’s still significant. Let’s talk first about pacing. So most of us run on roads with a Garmin that tells us our exact pace and we refer to it often. On the trail, your pace fluctuates so much because of the changes in terrain that looking at your pace is kinda pointless. Now I’ll admit that I wear a Garmin on the trail, but it’s really only to measure distance and total time. I really don’t worry much about the pace but go by perceived effort instead. My trail training runs are all based on time, not pace. Even in racing on trails, I don’t worry about pace. Besides, looking down at a Garmin and away from the trail can be hazardous! In addition, you cannot run the pace on the trail that you do on the road. You will be slower. So going by perceived effort is a much better idea.

My first trail race, besides high school cross country, was in France. I wish I had known how hard it would be. My shoelace came untied halfway through so I wish I’d tied them tighter. I always tie my trail shoes tight and tuck in the laces so they don’t pick up a ton of crap. I find out as much about the course as possible – hills, streams, mud – much as you would for a road race, but with more variables.

Another question:

Do I need trail shoes?

This is hard to answer. Yes and no. I wear trail shoes – Brooks Cascadia. I look for a shoe that is light and has a nubby sole for traction. Trail shoes have a rock plate on the front that protects your piggies when (not if) you stub your foot on a rock or root. (Did I mention trail running isn’t for sissies?) That being said, you can get away with a road shoe most of the time. Unless it’s muddy. In mud, you want a trail shoe. During one particularly muddy Backyard Burn race a few years ago, I kept finding myself behind people who were sliding back down the mudslide of a hill they were trying to climb. All the sliders were wearing road shoes. It’s also nice to have a pair of shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. My trail shoes get pretty mud encrusted. I usually just bang off the mud unless they’re really bad, then I hose them off.

Finally, a concern:

I’m worried about getting lost.

So am I. In fact, I have a reputation for getting lost. On Sunday I made a wrong turn…I realized and corrected myself, but I wouldn’t really have been lost as there are signs at the Battlefield. And you can always run a trail that’s an out and back, such as Bull Run. Mind you, I even managed to get lost there…not once, but twice…

If I could give a final piece of advice it would be: try it. Just go out and give it a try. You never know, you may find you love it as much as I do. 🙂

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